My interviewee once joined a government agency straight out from university, excited at the prospects of being able to help shape the future of Singapore. He left the organisation a couple of years later, feeling jaded but also thankful for the things he has learnt and contributed to. Following that, he swung to the other extreme to do sales in a fast-paced private MNC environment. Having been on both sides now, he'd like to share his candid thoughts about working in the government.
Note that his experience may differ from others in the public sector, and the culture differs between various government bodies too. This article hence seeks not meant to be a factual generalisation but rather a personal observation based on his limited time there. For ease of reading, it will henceforth be written in the first-person.
"Not for me now; maybe at retirement”
"Will you consider work in the government sector?"
This is the question I posed to 3 fellow Singaporeans recently, all of whom replied with a similar answer, “Not now, but perhaps later when I want a slower pace of life, or if I’m about to retire”. For many Singaporeans, a government job seems to have a strong stereotype of being slow-paced and bureaucratic. But a government position is typically well respected in most countries worldwide; you’d think that this will hold true especially in Singapore which has, undeniably, one of the most efficient government organisation in the world. Why then are so many locals dissing at the suggestion of a government job? Being there, I do agree that there's some parts that can be better, but to be fair, it's not all bad.
To set the record straight, allow me to share the 10 things I love and hate about a government job.
5 things I hate about a government job
1. Budget papers and long procurement processes
We have to start the list with the dreaded budget paper of course! To carry out any projects that require spending anywhere above $3000, you will have to write an official budget paper to justify the expenditure to get it approved. A moderate budget requires at least 2 to 3 levels of approval, and the process is dragged if one of the signatories is away. It’s common to have budget papers thrown back for better justification or re-wording (sometimes it’s down to grammatical errors!). It sometimes makes you feel like you’re submitting your communications 101 homework.
Once budget is approved, you’ll still need to launch a public invitation-to-quote on Gebiz*, and evaluate which vendor is the best. The entire whole process takes anywhere between 3 weeks to 3 months, which is a long time (it could take longer with tender processes if much bigger budgets are needed). The entire process is painfully slow and frustrating, and you'd constantly wonder why you’re wasting so much time and effort on the procurement process rather than implementing the project.
*Gebiz is Singapore’s government electronic procurement system.
2. Endless meetings (and minutes to write)
There’s a huge number of meetings that government officers are pulled into; there will always be multiple agendas related to your organisation's industry that requires an inter-departmental or whole-of-government approach, but there’s only so few officers. Within my first few months in the job, I was already ‘arrowed’ to participate in various task force and inter-governmental discussions. Many a times, I was questioning why I’m part of the discussion, and it’s common to see some officers typing away on their emails instead of participating in discussions.
Then there's minutes. Most meetings, both internal and external, require someone to document minutes or notes. There is typically a standard template to adhere to, and you may need to have to have your minutes vetted or approved. Writing minutes in this way, in my personal opinion, is a chore and a waste of time. While it’s important to note down key discussion points and next steps, a more efficient way is to send everyone a simple summary email with follow-up items.
3. Hierarchical… and some bosses still expect to be served
While the hierarchical structures are slowly giving way to modern, open-office concept, it may take another full generation to fully change this. There’re many stories of officers being told not to skip the chain of command, or being blamed for approaching another department head directly. I personally had been stopped by the Personal Assistant of my director when I wanted to knock on his door for a quick chat. I didn’t expect to have to schedule a time through the Personal Assistant to meet my own boss..
4. Urgency please?
The most common stereotype of working in government seems to be that things move slowly. It takes forever to start something (remember the budget papers and internal approval processes?), and it takes even longer to get everyone on board to implement a project quickly. Everyone has their own projects on priority, and your project seems to always be on the backburner. It takes numerous discussions for all stakeholders to agree on something, which would already have taken weeks if not months. If you’re a young officer eager to make your mark and shape the future of Singapore, I’m afraid you’ll have to be extremely patient as your enthusiasm is most likely to wear off before any actual work gets done due to the many layers of approvals required.
A side note to this is the way remuneration works in the government: one is sometimes "punished" for doing fast and effective work by receiving more work. On the other hand, if you do what's expected well enough, you will enjoy a long stable career. Nothing fanciful, but it works. Maybe that explains the lack of urgency. To be fair, this is a common problem in many organisations, but in the government it's especially prevalent, since hires and fires don't happen as rapidly, and profits aren't the only bottom line.
Maybe another explanation for the lack of urgency, is…
5. Strategy overdo
Strategy is a big word thrown out often too many times in the government, though the frequency varies among various organisations. While the job of the government is to develop strategic policies, it becomes frustrating when projects are always stuck at the strategy phase, or when long-term strategies change, ironically, every year. I’ve seen how strategic plans are revised multiple times a year to the point where employees roll their eyes when they hear the big word. It is especially frustrating when your personal performance indicators and projects are part of an approved strategy and is now on hold because management is re-looking into the strategy. With this in place, any form of urgency gets squelched for practicality: let's go slow and see if they change their mind, again.
5 things I love about a government job
Its not all gloom and doom though, and here are the 5 things I loved about my time in the government.
6. Strategic thinking skills
Ironically, getting involved in strategy work also means that you get to develop your strategic thinking skills. Since any projects or policies you implement will involve taxpayers' money, you have to make sure that it’s sustainable, fits into the bigger Singapore growth roadmap and pays off in the long run. While it can be frustrating at times, it did force me to think strategically all the time, and over time, it developed me to be more strategic, and think in a big-picture manner. Even the dreaded exercise of writing budget papers trained me to be focused in my thoughts, giving them clarity.
7. Leaving a legacy and making an impact on society
The impact you make in a government body benefits the society you live in. You'd feel good knowing that you’ve contributed back to society in a big way, having satisfied the inner desire to make a difference to the community. You’re not just working towards the bottomline of a company, but sacrificing your time and efforts for the greater good. There’s not many other workplaces where you can say the same thing, and it is deeply fulfilling and meaningful.
If you are in the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB), you will be opening industries and attracting MNCs that will employ thousands of people. If you are part of the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), you will be helping to build a futuristic smart nation. If you are in the National Environment Agency (NEA), you will be creating a sustainable environment for us and our children. And these are just three of the many agencies around. I once established a strategic partnership (during my days in the government sector) that brought revenue contribution to local businesses, and I felt proud knowing that it had contributed to the economy of the country, akin to leaving an important legacy behind.
8. Involved in latest events and community news
Being the champion of an industry (eg. Tourism Board for tourism) also means that you get the first chance to experience new stuff. If you like to be seen as the hipster who’s been to the River Safari first or launch of the National Gallery, then being part of the government is for you.
9. Family-oriented, good benefits, and lunch culture
The public sector is a family oriented environment in general, with generous benefits and family-oriented policies. Leave entitlements in particular trump many private sector companies, which is why it is the pro-baby workplace as most people know it as. It is also not uncommon for employees to take no-pay-leave for sabbaticals, or exam leaves for studies. And on the compensation side, there’s always the sweet 13th month bonus every year and the occasional mid year bonuses.
There's typically a strong local (food) culture as well (you can trust Singaporeans to love their food!). I always look forward to lunching together in groups, sometimes even travelling out far for the best food. There’s typically no strict lunch hours, and there’ll always be celebratory meals for new joiners or birthday colleagues.
10. Gain global outlook and CEO exposure
Depending on your role and employer, public officers do enjoy quite a bit of opportunities to travel overseas for work. These could be market study trips, meetings or representing Singapore in overseas conferences and seminars. You’ll be exposed to international best practices, different cultures and they all help you develop a global outlook.
As a young, inexperienced employee in many other companies, you may not get a chance to interface with senior leaders in other organisations. However, because you represent the government of Singapore, senior business leaders are willing to meet you for various reasons such as gaining tax concessions for locating regional HQs here or to obtain government grants for their businesses. With the government’s trust in the abilities of its young officers, you could use the experience to develop into a well-rounded professional. For example, EDB is especially known for exposing young officers to senior management leaders of MNCs.
When people ask me what’s the difference between my previous government role and the current private sector role, I have lots of mixed feelings. When I was in my prior role, I was feeling worn-out (and sometimes cynical) by the long drawn processes. I wanted to go faster and do more, but I felt hampered by bureaucracy. But it wasn't all bad. In retrospect, I realised that the training and exposure I had helped me develop very useful skills that will carry me far. And I do sometimes miss the noble mission that every government officer is set on – the mission to create a better home for us all.
Every sector has it’s good and bad side. I sure have grumbles about working in the government sector, as with many others I believe. But I do admit too that it can be a great place for professionals to develop into an all-rounder and do meaningful work for their country at the same time.
Look beyond the stereotypes associated with a government job, and you may perhaps find your dream job in this sector.