Public service is no private sector

Forum, Straits Times Sep 02, 2012

Managing editor Han Fook Kwang was too generous in assuming that hardcore mathematical analyses by civil servants led to the conclusions that $2,200 bikes and $600 chairs were good buys (“The trouble with $2,200 bikes and $600 chairs”; last Sunday).

I suspect the reason was simpler. More than two decades of strong economic growth, budget expansions, opulent new buildings and generous salary enhancements have created a generation of public service leaders whose spending instincts are markedly different from those of their predecessors.

There is a tendency to benchmark facilities against the best available in the private sector. If Shell can have it, why not us? If Baker & McKenzie uses those, surely we are not inferior to them? After all, we are, or are striving to be, world class.

This is not helped, or shall I say helped, by a new generation of leaders who are sympathetic to such sentiment and are prepared to defend it politically.

Well, the public service is no private sector because it uses the people’s, not shareholders’, money.

As Mr Han noted, quite apart from the ability to offer rigorous quantitative justifications, one of the hallmarks of a good public service leader must be a deep understanding of the context in which the service operates.

Cheng Shoong Tat