Thursday, June 07, 2007

Thinking Aloud: Public Service Employees are not paid to think or say otherwise?

[Update: I've no idea why some people, after reading this post, think I'm a rebel or anti-establishment. I guess they gave up reading before they reached the part "So, was I being a rebel?"]

Just thinking aloud about some loosely connected issues:

These seemingly unrelated statements got me thinking about the role of a public service employee:
  1. A friend said to me, "Wow, you are very anti-establishment". It was in response to the post where I shouldn't have blogged about (or so the title went).
  2. I also shared the same post with folks in Gahmen Bloggers (GB). One of the GBers suggested I start a blog called "RebellingLibrarian".
  3. Another GBer wrote, as part of the discussion, that unlike the academics, public servants aren't academics so we're not paid to think or say otherwise (to policies, I presume).
  4. As part of an interview for an upcoming article (the magazine shall remain unnamed), I was asked how a public service employee was to tell if what he/she blogs about is sensitive information.

What can I blog, or not blog about?

In my reply to item 4, I said the public service employee should first check the IM and the OSA. In the absence of blogging guidelines for public service employees, I follow these personal rules:
  • Is it my job or business to share this information publicly?
  • Should it be made public by my organisation's Corporate Communications department first, before I talk about it?
  • If Corp Comms isn't going to make this public, can I still do it? See point 1.
  • How much do I understand the organisation's culture?
  • How much trust do my co-workers and bosses have of me?
Sometimes the answer is a clear Yes or No. Sometimes it's a judgment call. Ultimately, I have to exercise a choice -- blog it, or don't.

If I choose to blog about it, I make sure I'm prepared to stand by what I post, and be answerable to readers, my co-workers, and bosses.

Should public service employees simply just do what their superiors tell them to do?
Let me use an extreme analogy -- say you're a mere private in the army. Your Commanding Officer asks you to summarily execute a Prisoner Of War. You know it's against the Geneva Convention. So do you do it? You're not paid to think or do otherwise, right?

Wrong. The soldier who carries the order is as guilty as the commander. This has precedents in various war tribunals.

The analogy, as I wrote, was on the extreme. Singapore public service employees aren't likely to face such ethical dilemmas. But even if ethics isn't involved, the point is whether we should simply be obedient employees and carry out what we're asked to do without question. Or raise issues to our bosses, knowing that it might put you in a tight spot (or worse, branded as a "troublemaker").

I'm not talking about cases where clear ethical issues are involved (e.g. corruption). Those has to be acted upon.

I'm referring to fairly normal situations, where the employee may have a differing view that's contrary to those of their bosses.

I'm reminded of this book "The Little Red Dot: Reflections by Singapore's Diplomats":
NLB Call No.: 327.5957 LIT (Singapore Collection)
ISBN: 981-256-414-4
Check NLB Catalogue for item availabilty

One ex-diplomat (can't remember who) observed that in the early days of Singapore's Foreign Service (now the Ministry of Foreign Affairs), the culture was that a lower-ranked officer had no hesitation in telling a more senior officer that a policy or statement might be wrong. The author then remarked that the culture seemed to have changed over time, where the subordinate tended to defer to their superiors*.
[* BTW, what's with the term "superior"? What does that make the other person? An "inferior"? Bleh.]

The point, I felt, was that as public sector employees, while we may report to and carry out the instructions of senior officers, it doesn't mean we're just cogs in a machine.

We are paid to think and say otherwise!
This much is clear to me. What's important is how we say it.

Disagreeing with one's bosses doesn't mean you have to do it in a confrontational way. Do it respectfully. In the end, the conclusion (or decision) may still be the same, but personally, I'd sleep better knowing I've at least done my job.

So, was I being a rebel?
Back to the point of whether I should've blogged about it. At the end of my post, I explained why I did it:
All I really wanted to do was to share, in my usual rambling way, that such a discussion forum is being organised by a government agency, for government employees from various agencies.

So no, I'm no activist. I'm a pretty risk-adverse kind of guy. Fire and brimstone makes me choke. However, I realised it still took some small measure of courage (or stupidity, depending on how you see it) to blog about it.

After all, the MC of the policy forum said not to blog about it. The event had absolutely nothing to do with my work as a librarian. By blogging about it, all I did was to draw unnecessary attention to myself.

I told myself the policy forum wasn't a secret meeting. A policy forum isn't the same as say, a confidential cabinet meeting.

But someone could easily have spotted the post, email it to some high-level public service officer. My bosses could be informed. They might say, "This fella's a bit of a maverick. Better keep close tabs on him." As a wildcard, my chances for career advancement would be affected.

Those thoughts went through my mind.

So why did I still do it?
I still don't know. Maybe I had something to prove. Only, I'm not quite sure what it was.

Perhaps there really is an anti-establishment streak in me. If you tell me not to do it, I'm wet-wired to think and do otherwise.

Or perhaps I wanted to prove to the public-at-large that public service employees can think for themselves. That not everyone thinks along the lines of "Ours is not to question why; Ours is to do and die".

Maybe I was trying to show other public service employees that we should be confident, and transparent, enough to say that such a closed meeting was held. As explained, this isn't a confidential cabinet meeting.

Maybe in the end, all I've proved is that I'm making far too much out of a simple post!

Exercise your choice. And be prepared for the consequences.
I thought it fitting, to end my long-drawn post, with this quote from one of the Gahmen Bloggers. It was made in response about being a rebel and all that. I'm quoting it here with permission: "Shiok to be rebellious. Not cool when it comes down on you."

Spot on! I'll use it when teaching the kids about blogging.

Only, I'll add that whether one chooses to "rebel", better do it with a cause that we believe in. As in many things in life, what is "right" or "wrong" sometimes isn't easy to tell. But whatever it is, if we choose to exercise the choice to be different -- in deeds, opinions, or speech -- just be prepared for the consequences.


  1. oh boy oh boy-- very intellectual
    a bit too wordy for a poorly educated young man like myself.

    can we have some pictures?

    good job, bro!
    and thanks for the email =)
    appreciate it greatly.

  2. Hi Semi-Charmed, I'm not called *Rambling* Librarian for nothing, LOL

  3. Anonymous11:27 am

    Why do you think you're a rebel just because you have a different view of things? Nah, I don't think you're a rebel. A pain sometimes but definitely not a rebel. :)

  4. Hey Jamie, I said I WASN'T a rebel. But a pain -- yes, definitely. Gonna give you more pain... gonna shoot off more emails about the NLB blog!!!


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