Promoting Policy Learning and Critical Thinking

One major challenge in ‘solutioning’ is the dearth of thinking. My time in government has taught me that policy makers want clean-cut, ‘elegant’ solutions, never mind that the real world is messy with diverse opinions and actions.

The anecdote from former Head of Civil Service, Mr. Lim Siong Guan is refreshing (my emphasis added):

Once as the Director of Logistics, I learnt a very important lesson from Dr Goh about leadership when we were considering tenders for three-ton trucks. I had prepared a recommendation on why we should buy Truck Model A, taking into account the initial cost, expected life, cost of maintenance and so on. Instead, Dr Goh believed we should buy Truck Model B because he felt the manufacturer was more likely to deliver reliable maintenance support over the long term. So I rewrote the submission to recommend Truck Model B. He sent for me he did not want me to rewrite my submission to fit his recommendation. Instead, he wrote to the Minister for Finance, who chaired the Tenders Committee, a separate note which accompanied my original submission, explaining why he was recommending Truck Model B for the minister’s approval even though MINDEF staff was recommending Truck Model A.

The lesson is this: The job of the staff is to analyze and come up with the best answer within the parameters of the analysis. The job of the leader is, if you disagree with the analysis for whatever reason, never to tell your staff to re-do the analysis. You are undermining their work and telling them to write what they do not believe. This undermines their sense of self-worth and the values of honesty and integrity. Worst of all, you are going to encourage staff to be the type who start by asking, “What do you want me to do?” This is how you lose imagination, you lose initiative, and you lose people who can be innovative. You lose their brains.”

Mr. Lim Siong Guan, former Head of Civil Service, Singapore

(From Goh Keng Swee A Public Career Remembered, edited by Barry Desker and Kwa Chong Guan. World Scientific 2011)

Personally, I think we can do more to promote genuine policy learning. The model of the American courts where dissenting opinions or minority reports are written together with the majority opinion provide for different perspectives. A veteran civil servant shared that in the old days, policy papers were incredible learning opportunities as the physical papers would be passed up the hierarchy and everyone involved could see how the thinking differed and the policy shaped. These also provided a valuable institutional heritage to return to when time for review, unlike today’s process where only the final paper is retained as the permanent record, sometimes with the minutes of the approving meeting. In an era where civil servants rotate frequently and institutional memory lost, this becomes all the more important.



  1. Jason Yap · · Reply

    Two considerations to add:
    1. For some or many officers, to have the boss disagree with their recommendations in the way described could be a rather public humiliation. It should not be, but in our world of perfect scores, folks want to be right every time. Gotta fix the culture also, that the good effort is up there with the A*.
    2. The above is about the final presentation of a paper. Much can be done to shape the thinking of the juniors in the process of writing. Not that they would write what the bosses want (and yes, seen a whole lot of that in my time) but to learn to see what they bosses do and they can’t yet. All the better if they can learn to think better before the final paper, rather than only after.

  2. Chris Cheng · · Reply

    which truck was bought?

  3. Truck B I think. The important thing is not to stifle staff thinking and imagination. Mr Lim also said if I recall correctly, that if a committee of 10 say the same thing, 9 are redundant. Agree with Jason that it can be difficult culturally in a hierarchical setting to show ‘weakness; guess leaders must have lots of self-confidence and self-esteem to encourage followers to offer differing views and be mature enough to distinguish the issue from the individual.

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