The Fountain of Youth: Reviving Trust in Public Service

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Author: Sharmishta Sivaramakrishnan

In 2020, our greatest predicted global risks were forecasted to be environmental degradation, health vulnerabilities like chronic diseases, breaches in cybersecurity, and increased political and economic polarization. From the Australian bushfires to the COVID-19 pandemic and the onset of a global recession, the threats we face in emerging and developed markets are more pronounced than ever.

Adding fuel to the fire, in December 2019, Australians reached a historic low in their trust in government. Meanwhile, Edelman’s Trust Barometer in the same year reported that in Singapore and China, while trust in government had increased, 76 percent of respondents felt change was more reliable coming from the private, not public, sector.

Dealing with a decade of new and exacerbated challenges will require re-instilling trust in our younger citizens.  It will implore us to welcome the birth of new leadership styles, inspired by more youthful generations’ preferences while learning from the legacy of incumbent governance processes.

So, how do we do this?

There is a lot of rhetoric out there about inspiring young people to run for public office, to invest in their countries through civic engagement, and to show up and vote during their elections. Despite these encouraging and important messages, we need to recognize the inherent innovation potential of the public sector and, mainly, how governments must evolve how they engage and involve young people. Considering young people an asset to more robust policymaking, governments can tailor and benefit from the ability of young citizens to be effective, public communicators.  The jargon of the public sector, coupled with often intricate, internal processes can make it difficult for the everyday citizen to decipher its true motivations. Investing in digital platforms that encourage more frequent communication between public servants and young people can result in a more open, timely, and constructive conversation.

In 2019, Singapore launched its SG Youth Action Plan. Moreover, Singapore’s Ministry of Community, Culture, and Youth (MCCY) recognized the willingness of young people to participate in online channels. It announced the launch of a new digital platform to conduct polls and cultivate interactive government-citizen discussions more often. In the words of Senior Minister Sim Ann, ‘the rise of digital technology and social media have accelerated changes in how youth produce and consume goods, services, and information, as well as how they relate to one another and derive meaning and identity.’ Forging online fora where young people can comment on, and challenge government decisions will provide a new way for youth to contribute direct insights on what they and fellow citizens would like to see. Replicating such digital platforms in other countries will encourage more open communication channels and infuse more transparency and trust in decisions affecting a country.

National governments in countries like ASEAN must also continue hiring younger civil servants to maintain high levels of trust between the citizenry and government. To make a government career more exciting and appealing for a young person, there needs to be a real push to incentivize them to join their civil service following their studies or academic training. At the same time, one must not forget the importance of pulling into experienced professionals in their late twenties or early thirties to think about transitioning into the government. To do so, governments need to think about how they promote meaningful success stories of interesting, creative, and open government initiatives. Coupling stronger storytelling with opportunities for immersion in government agencies will provide young people with a more realistic and insightful picture of what a civil service career entails. Minimizing the weight of government jargon and removing perceptions around vertical career progression as a mandate is crucial. Placing young people as secondees from the private sector or fostering the idea that a government job does not need to be something they are ‘sentenced to’ until the end of their careers will normalize the conversation around transitioning into public service as they seek to grow their skills and career experiences. In Norway, a new pension policy was rolled out last year to ensure that young people did not feel a transition from the private to the public sector or vice-versa would result in a loss in their pensions. In Indonesia, as a way to build solidarity among young Indonesian public servants, the Aparatur Muda platform was established. Led by young government officials in Indonesia, the platform provides a way for officials from different ministries to interact, share experiences, and develop skills. Moreover, it ensures that young people who choose to enter public service will be joined by a peer network that offers support, passion, and empathy.

For those who may not intend for a career in public service but are keen to participate in public life, youth parliaments and advisory councils offer a different means of engagement. In countries like Singapore, Cambodia, Malaysia, national youth councils serve as meaningful spaces for local youth alliances and networks. They concretize the means through which young leaders’ ideas are not only heard but also integrated into tangible programming and policies on a national level.

We must trace back to how our existing public service structures are evolving to fit a world where issues erupt with increasing frequency and fervor. In ASEAN, challenges to regional stability, economic prosperity, and, most importantly, citizen trust will only be met if we can bring in fresh perspectives to complement and evolve decades’ worth of tried-and-tested processes. This can only be accomplished by igniting our young leaders, encouraging them to speak up and sharing their future visions.

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author’s own.

Sharmishta Sivaramakrishnan works for the World Economic Forum and has served as a Youth Ambassador for World Summit Award since 2016. Sharmishta holds an undergraduate degree from The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and a Master’s degree from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. Sharmishta is a Singaporean citizen raised across the Middle East, Europe, South and Southeast Asia. Passionate about global governance, she is committed to strengthening the evolution of public leadership through cross-sectoral cooperation, activating youth engagement and innovating how intergovernmental agendas such as the Sustainable Development Goals can succeed.

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