“In the old days, you would vote a candidate into public office, and hope he or she did their job well. That is no longer enough” (Getting Community Engagement Right, Chirag Agarwal).
Few will disagree with the proposition that community engagement, when done effectively, could reduce groupthink within the public sector, increase policy engagement and discussions among citizens, and improve government legitimacy (TODAY, Oct. 21). Already the government touts its plethora of endeavours in recent years, such as Our Singapore Conversation and the SGfuture as indications of its willingness to listen to Singaporeans, and on the other hand Singaporeans are banding in civil society groups and through online platforms to get perspectives across. Yet the next question – which I think is tougher to answer – is how effective engagement can be achieved.
On the part of the government, it has to understand that useful feedback can come from any and all channels, not just government-sanctioned ones such as the REACH website or events it has organised. Time and effort are needed to sieve through misinformation – especially on the Internet – yet its agencies must be sensitive to informal and spontaneous engagement, to be comfortable with the growing heterogeneity of backgrounds and perspectives. And besides giving Singaporeans a greater stake, by involving them early on in the policymaking process instead of just seeking affirmation for policies which are about to be made, they should understand how their contributions may influence decisions.
For citizens, community engagement should be inclusive, in the sense of getting a more diverse group of participants in these exercises. While it may be true that “better-educated and informed citizens … want to be involved in the governing process”, they too have a responsibility to reach out to and to articulate the concerns of those who may not necessarily have the bandwidth to attend such exercises. That also means reaching out to the less-privileged and the disenfranchised – through volunteerism or community action, for instance – so that viewpoints are not disproportionately represented.
And such outreach does not need to be directed by the government, or facilitated through the formal channels. Self-directed undertakings are healthy signs of an active citizenry, and should be embraced by more.
A version of this article was published in TODAY.