Will Singapore’s approach to include citizens in policymaking be really inclusive?

TL;DR – Not another Our Singapore Conversation.

Imagine being a normal citizen. One day, while you are going around, minding your own business, the government suddenly asks you to debate policy options in our war against diabetes. For 75 Singaporeans, that’s a distinct possibility.

According to GovInsider, the Ministry of Health (MOH) and the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) are running a “Citizens’ Jury” (CJ).


 

Over four Saturdays, 75 citizens will be presented with expert views and data on the diabetes situation in Singapore. At the end, these 75 citizens will write their recommendations in a report. MOH must respond to these recommendations. According to MOH, recommendations that are feasible will be piloted.

This process was pioneered in South Australia, which set aside budget that citizens could spend on solutions. Here’s a look at the topics that South Australia’s CJs have tackled so far.

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The first use of this process in Singapore was by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) to look at options for the government to support people having stronger relationships.

We think that this is a good idea. It shows that the government is doing its best to listen to a wider range of perspectives. It’s a good move towards collaborative governance, where the government becomes a bottom up facilitator, coordinator, information sharer and co-creator of policy rather than just top down policy or service provider and regulator Hopefully, these will translate to better policies.

That said, while we think that this is a good idea, we are concerned about its implementation. Two things stand out.

1. How will the 75 citizens be chosen?

In other countries which have used similar processes, the citizens were randomly chosen. In Singapore, the government is asking anyone with an interest to apply online. What happens if more than 75 citizens apply? Then how will the government choose? MOH’s website states that are the criteria to be selected:

Broadly, MOH and IPS will be recruiting 75 participants who exhibit keen interest to join the War on Diabetes. For the CJ to be effective, we require a diverse representation of persons with and without diabetes among the selected participants.

How will MOH ensure a “diverse representation of persons”? Random ballot from amongst those selected? This lack of transparency on how the 75 citizens are selected has led to some people being sceptical about the process. Some wonder whether the 75 citizens will end up being the 75 citizens the government approves, i.e. those who are pro-government. Will we end up with just grassroots leaders being involved?

We hope that in time to come, MOH will explain how they choose the 75 citizens to take part in this process.

2. Will this lead to any tangible outcomes?

There has been many different series of focus group discussions and dialogue sessions.

One of the most memorable in recent times has got to be Our Singapore Conversation (OSC). At the end of the OSC, what tangible outcomes were there? Were there any changes in policies? Did the views expressed in those engagement sessions under OSC result in major changes in ideology? That doesn’t seem to be the case. Will this be any different?

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And some may say that the SGfuture engagement series was the Government’s latest similar effort. But how many of us truly feel like our voices were heard, and that we were a part of that process that led to whatever changes there might have been to policies?

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Also, we wonder if the government will put its money where its mouth is. In South Australia, where this process was pioneered, set aside budget that citizens who took part could spend on solutions. We checked the FAQs on MOH, and no, MOH didn’t reveal whether there will be any budget for the Citizens Jury to allocate.

We hope this is not just a PR stunt. We hope that this is not a case of the Government having already made up its mind regarding the preferred policies and that this is just for show.

Cautiously hopeful

All in all, we think that this is a good move in the right direction. There are various key features of this process that are improvements from focus group discussions (FGD).  FGD participants aren’t usually expected to deliberate and come to a consensus about what solutions to recommend. And the organisers of the FGD aren’t obliged to respond to any feedback or suggestions provided by FGD participants.

In contrast, participants of this Citizen Jury will be given more information and time, which would allow them to take ownership of their ideas and write their own report. We also like that MOH MUST respond to the recommendations by the Citizen Jury, and that there could be tangible outcomes arising from the process.

If the government could be more transparent about how it selects who gets to be on the Citizen Jury, and showcase the policy recommendations and solutions from the Citizen Jury that are to be prototyped and piloted, then it would go some way in reducing scepticism about the entire process. That would then provide Singaporeans greater confidence that our government is truly interested in engaging us in the policymaking process.

But there is no denying that this is a good start. And the Government can only do so much, as in it can provide citizens with a platform to discuss and engage, but it is up to us to come forward and be a part of the conversation.

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Author: Jake Koh

Recovering sushi addict, I'm a man of mystery and power, whose power is exceeded only by his mystery.


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