Behind the Veil of Power
“Ten different government departments concerted their efforts over ten years to achieve this. It was not just removing the muck from the rivers. The source of pollution had to be removed permanently. First, the vision of what was possible with modern engineering was crucial. Second, we had to have the courage to implement unpopular measures and the tenacity to pursue permanent solutions… To the official, who planned the operations with thoroughness and care, and to those who implemented them with tenacity and fairness, I say “Well done.””
Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
Overview of Policy Implementation in Singapore
Singapore is a republic with a parliamentary system of government based on the Westminster System, modelled after that of United Kingdom system. This implies of Singapore as a unitary state emphasizing on political integration, centralized authority, a command operating code implemented through bureaucracy and the power of the centre to revoke decentralized power. The policies are debated in the parliament and enforced by the civil service via the 13 Ministries and 67 Statutory Boards. Similar to the British Civil Service system, the Singapore Civil Service is the permanent bureaucracy that supports the Government Ministers responsible to the Parliament in administering the policies.
To see how policies are implemented in Singapore, we will use the example of the Active Aging policies implemented by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MYCS). With reference to the diagram, the Ministry can be grouped into two spheres, Policy Planning and Policy Implementation. Policy formulation is centred at the politically appointed Ministers while policy implementation is headed by the Permanent Secretaries and other civil servants. Typically, the politician provides a broad based and general policy, like improving the employability of older workers, and civil servants implement along these lines. The implementation process is overseen by the Permanent Secretary and Deputy Secretary who will assign the task a coordinating director based to one of the 15 functions. For the example of Active Aging policies, it will be handled by the Family Development Division (FDD) and more specifically, the Family Education Department (FED). Depending on the relative importance of the policies, the FED will be allocated a certain amount of financial budget and constrained by the broad based policy guidelines.
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Implementation is a process of interactions between the setting of goals and actions geared to achieve them. Implementation can be broadly categorized into Top-down approach and Bottom-up approach. Top-down models see implementations as concern with the degree to which the actions of implementing officials and target groups coincide with the goals embodied in an authoritative decision. On the other hand, Bottom-up models lay great stress on the fact that “street-level” implementers have discretion in how they apply policies. The following table (adapted from various sources) shows the contrast between the Top-down approach and Bottom-up approach to implementation.
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In the context of policy implementation in Singapore, the Top-down approach seems to be the more appropriate fit, especially during the 1980s and 1970s. However, in recent years, the civil service has been down-sizing and mandated a fiscal budget reduction of 2% each year (with the exception of Ministry of Defence), lead to further constraints in resources. With the limited number of civil servants and manpower, it is difficult to cater to the broad scope and demands from the public in terms of implementation and functions. As such, alternative methods to implementation, such as outsourcing of some of the Ministries’ functions, are frequently used within the bureaucracy. Increasing, implementation of policies is carried out by external non-governmental organizations and service deliverers. Thus, the Bottom-up approach seems to be realistic for some policies. To compare the approaches, we will use similar policies within the same Ministry, so that we could evaluate its relative merits and shortcomings.
How to Achieve “The Singaporean Efficiency”?
In knowing the different perspectives of the Top-Down and Bottom-up Approaches, how does the Singapore Civil Service achieved such “Singaporean Efficiency”? As seen from the two perspectives, the ideal implementation (be it whether the policy is “right” of “wrong”) is when civil servants implement according to the guidelines with minimal deviation from the instruction given by their Permanent Secretaries. As such, very often the top-down approach provides better control over the implementation than being left in the hands of the front line civil servants (Bottom-up Approach eg: Teachers, Policemen..) to interpret the “law” or instructions.
One the core method is to self-select the civil servants according to their risk behaviour. Ideally, the civil servants should not be risk-taking people that would question too much over the “rightness” and “wrongness” of the policy but implement it with minimal deviation from the policy guidelines. As such, if you look at the entry requirements of all civil services you will find a common characteristic. Compared to the private sector, the civil service is much more “paper qualification” dependent. People who enter the civil service have already a very risk-averse attitude that they are promised of a certain level of the “iron rice bowl” and level of promotion based on the fixed criteria. If the civil servant doesn’t make too risky of decisions, or question his authority that much, he is quite certain on his career path of progression. Based on the incentive schemes and wage pay structure, the input of civil servants is basically self-selecting. Thus in some sense, middle and lower levels of civil servants tends to be the less risk taking individuals that would follow commands and instructions. Thinking and questioning are pretty much left to the top-level chain of commands (your scholars and political elites).
Relative Merits and Shortcomings
The shortcomings and problems of both approaches as been well-delve into, but the research on the merits of both Top-down and Bottom-up approaches are much lacking. Intuitively, the shortcoming of one approach is the merit of another and from this standpoint we can compare the two approaches relatively.
To describe the merits and shortcomings of both models, we can use the Education Policies as an example. Ever since the 1980s, Singapore has adopted the “streaming” system to group and segment the students based on their academic results. At the age of 10, the students are streamed into three different streams based on their (Primary School Leaving Examination) PSLE results. The best students were grouped into EM1, earmarked for scholarship programmes and access to better teaching facilities and schools. The bulk of the average students will fall into EM2, while academically weak students where transferred to the bottom stream, EM3. I think the details, most people are fairly knowledgeable of it.
Contrast to the streaming policy is the “Teach Less Learn More” policy launched in 2004. This is a deliberatively vague and broad policy by the Ministry of Education. The concept of this policy is to have multiple paths for students to excel and allow the schools and teachers to have the flexibility and autonomy to teach outside the prescribed syllabuses. The details and further information for both policies are stated below:
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The streaming policy, enforced by the Ministry of Education, resembles the Top-down approach while the “Teach Less Learn More”, policy is a Bottom-up implementation approach. From this we could see and compare the relative merits of both perspectives.
Merit 1: Control and Coordination
The Bottom-up “Teach Less Learn More” policy relies heavily on the implementation by the “service-deliverers” and “street-level bureaucrats” such as the teachers. The professionals (teachers) have a key role in ensuring the performance of a policy, which implies that policy formulation process maybe skewed by policy implementation which is dominated by professionals. Each teacher has their own perception in developing methods of teaching or “implementing government policies” and will result in outcomes which are quite different to those intended or desired by policy-makers.
On the other hand, the Top-down “Streaming” policy provides the Ministry of Education (MOE) with better control and coordination of the implementation. This reduces the variation of teachings and allows MOE to have the ability to correct or fine-tune the policy implementation, if needed. The distinction between policy formulation and policy implement allows for easer identification of problems if the policy is not effective in solving the problem. Thus the Top-down approach allows for more control and corrective action, if needed, compared to the Bottom-up approach.
Another important aspect in relations to education policies implementation approach is the relative ease of changing approaches. For the Top-down approach to change to Bottom-up approach is often easier compared to the opposite. In giving autonomy and flexibility to the schools and “street-level bureaucrats”, it will difficult to retrieve the control if there is a need to implement a Top-down approach. Such change to centralize power may encounter resistance by the street-level bureaucrats and may result in future policy failure or loss of control.
Merit 2: Individual Biasness vs Responsiveness to Needs
As one of the political scientist expressed, “A public officer has discretion wherever the effective limits on his power leave him free to make a choice among possible courses of action or inaction”. In both modes of implementation, those at the front line of policy delivery have varying bands of discretion over how they choose to exercise the rules which they are employed to apply. However for the case on the education policies in Singapore, the “streaming” system minimizes the limits of individual biasness as well as the responsiveness to needs. The “Teach Less Learn More” policy, on the other hand, creates more room for individual biasness as well as to provide better responsiveness to the needs to individual students. Depending on the formulation of the policy and problem definition, there might be a need to balance or trade-off between having individual biasness or better responsiveness to needs of voters (or subjects where the policy is imposed on).
The street-level bureaucrats who are close to the problems and clients are likely to know what works in local environments and for particular groups. This would provide better responsiveness and adaptability to the local needs.
Merit 3: Efficient Use of Resources
The Top-down “Streaming” approach allows for better projection and efficient use of resources compared to the Bottom-up approach. The resources, including financial and manpower allocation, can be pre-planned in most top-down models but would be difficult and less accurate for bottom-up approaches.
For the “Streaming” policy, schools are allocated the funds based on population and the estimation of the cost for students in each of the streams. Under this policy, schools that perform better are relocated more resources to develop their facilities. In contrast, the “Teach Less Learn More” policy has too many variables for the allocation of funds and resources. As such, they are distributed based on vague projections, resulting in some schools being under-funded while others have inefficient usage of the resources.
Merit 4: Flexibility and Innovations
One of the main merits of the Bottom-up approach is the flexibility it allows compared to the top-down approach. The “Teach Less Learn More” model allows teachers the flexibility of teaching as well as for students to learn at their own pace and the modules that they are interested in. In such environment, innovation and creativity are likely to thrive better than the rigid hierarchical structure.
Inherently, each human (students in this example) is different and special in their own ways. By having a single tracked policy to cater to multitude of personalities and characters would sometimes be ineffective or inefficient. For the example of education policies, some degree of flexibility can be conducive for innovation and learning.
Merit 5: Democracy vs Implementation of “Unpopular” Policies
Implementation is a policy/action continuum in which an interactive and negative process is taking place over time between those seeking to put policy into effect and those upon whom actions depends. Occasionally, “unpopular” measures are implemented for the good of the society. One such example in Singapore is the Electronic Road Pricing (ERP).
Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) is an electronic system of road pricing based on a pay-as-you-use principle. It is designed to be a fair system as motorists are charged when they use the road during peak hours. When it was implemented in 1999, there was much criticism from the general public due to rise in cost of owning a car. However, the fact is that the ERP proves to be an effective policy to ease the heavy traffic conditions during peak hours as well as a vital source for government revenues. Should this be left to the street-level bureaucrats to implement, the implementation might not be possible due to the self-interest of each bureaucrat. Prior to the electronic gantry to detect the vehicles passing through, traffic officers were place at the junctions to manually record the carplate numbers of cars which did not purchase entry passes to the roads. Very often, the officer will not be able to record all carplate numbers that did not purchase the entry passes due to the volume of entry. This is an ambiguous process that allows for much room for error and individual judgement.
This highlights two merits of the top-down approach: enable to implementation of difficult and unpopular policies, and more consistent interpretation of the law.
In reality, implementation is a process which is structured by conflicts, bargaining, negotiation and deal making. All implementation processes involved a certain degree to top-down and bottom-up approach. While it is impossible and unrealistic to assume one form of approach is better than the other we can observe the various merits and shortcomings of each perspective to better see how policies succeed or fail. And for Singapore to achieve such “Blind Efficiency” (as one Permanent Secretary calls it), it may not be an absolute boon or bane for politics in Singapore. With over 20,000 civil servants in Singapore (hardly constitutes a Single-Member Constituency (SMC)), they are the backbone and unsung players of the politics in Singapore.
By the way, sorry for this lengthy article! And note that all sources are available via public domains and nothing here that the "Official Secrecy Act" will be interested in. :P