Recently I said that I would change the focus of my blog. I had planned to make it more practical and useful for the average Singaporean, taking into consideration the prevailing social trends, government policies etc in this country.

Well, here goes. Today we look at HR policies in the civil service. There are certain things you ought to know, before you decide to join or not to join the civil service.

First, let us look at a statement made by PSD in 2007:

“To be promoted, a civil servant has to show potential to handle a bigger job. A person with a high potential can expect to progress more quickly, provided he is also a consistently good performer.

An officer who does not show the potential to take on greater responsibilities will not be promoted, even if he has many years of service. Promotion is based on merit and not automatic, according to his years of service.

It is not unusual to have officers doing higher-level jobs while still in a lower grade. This is to stretch and test them. They will be promoted to the grade commensurate with the job size only when they are able to handle the higher job competently.

In short, the appraisal system ensures that officers receive salaries that are commensurate with their contributions, abilities and potential.”

This letter is well-written. It is a very careful, very deliberate gloss, over actual reality. Nothing that the letter says is actually untrue. Yet the overall picture that the letter does paint is quite misleading.

To understand how the system works, you first have to understand that performance and potential mean two completely different things in the civil service. They lead to very different, very distinct consequences in the official appraisal system.

For example, a civil servant may be judged to have very high potential, even though his performance is very poor. Alternatively, his performance may be judged to be utterly outstanding, and yet his potential may be judged to be extremely low.

Performance is linked to your annual bonuses and increments. Whereas potential is linked to your promotions. So Ms Ong Toon Hui is correct to say that those who perform well in their jobs will get bigger bonuses.

What Ms Ong isn’t telling you is that those who perform well in their jobs may never get promoted. That’s because promotions depend on your potential, and potential has nothing to do with performance.

Okay, then. How is a person’s potential assessed or measured? It is measured by your CEP score. “CEP” stands for Current Estimated Potential. Theoretically, CEP measures the level of certain inherent, long-term qualities in each employee.

What this means is that once you have been assigned your CEP score, the civil service is probably not going to change that score (at least for the next seven or eight years, if ever). After all, CEP is a measure of certain inherent, long-term qualities in you – which cannot change.

Now, the civil service will assign you a CEP score, on your first day of work. Actually, that is untrue – your CEP score is assigned to you, even before you start work. Thus you can see that in terms of actual work, nothing that you actually do (whether it is utterly brilliant, or utterly dumb) can actually affect your CEP score.

The civil service generally does not tell individual employees what their CEP score is. (If such disclosures were made, no doubt some people would resign in double quick time. Then who would be left to do the donkey work?)

CEP scores depend largely on your educational qualifications (one or two ministries will also consider other things – for example, the Defence Ministry would consider your OCS performance) . There is a pecking order. PSC Scholars automatically get an extremely high CEP score, even before they start work. Non-scholars with a basic degree, no honours, go to the bottom of the pecking order.

I hope that by now, the implications are becomng clear.

If you do badly in school, and then you join the civil service, you will have a low CEP score. Even if you subsequently produce the most utterly outstanding performance year after year after year, you will still get promoted very slowly, if at all.

That’s because your potential has been assessed to be low, and CEP is a measure of your inherent, long-term qualities which can’t change.

In contrast, suppose a PSC scholar performs quite badly year after year after year. He will not get good bonuses, because bonuses are linked to performance. However, since his CEP score is high, he will still get promoted year after year after year. That’s because CEP is a measure of his inherent, long-term qualities which can’t change.

Thus how much career success you can achieve in the civil service, by the age of 45 or 50, has already been determined. It was determined when you were 22 or 24 years, at the time you first joined the civil service, on your very first day at work. Sorry, before your first day at work.

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