Reconsidering the Singapore Civil Servant’s bonus

Civil servants are getting their lowest bonus since 2009. And they are not happy. 

Of course, they are not happy. Diligent and smart as they are compared to the previous year (or perhaps more), they are getting a pay cut.  

The message comes through, loud and clear. “No matter how hard I work, it would not move the needle. The organization is too big and my work don’t matter”. 

Perhaps (you think that) anyone should just be happy receiving any bonus at all. But after getting an extra cheque for the last 10 years, it’s easy to get used to it. 

So, it’s not hard to extrapolate that and do the bare minimum. Get paid, go home and get on with life. The life of the “iron rice bowl”.

Consider PayPal Fraud Prevention department. It costs a financial institution a lot of money when fraudulent charges are made, because they often have to eat the cost. So this department works to make the number of fraudulent charges go down at the same time keeping expenses low. Which sounds great until you realise that the easiest way to do this is to flag false positives, and provide little or no fallback when a mistake is made. Stories of good (or great) customers being totally shut down, sometimes to the point of bankruptcy, are legion. There may be people at Paypal who care about this, but the security people don’t. That’s because they’re not measuring the right thing.

And this department has no incentive to fix this interaction, because ‘annoying’ is not a metric that the bosses have decided to measure. Someone is busy watching one number, but it’s the wrong one.

As any organization grows and industrializes, it’s tempting to simplify things for the whole. Find a goal, make it a number and incentive it until it gets better. 

Here’s an experiment. Write an alternative bonus scheme that measures the things that people can impact with their individual effort. For recruiting, it could be the percentage of offers accepted. For engineering, it could be the percentage of tickets closed. Present the 2 bonus scheme (old and new) for new hires to choose. Measure the difference in productivity – soon the increase in productivity will pay for itself.

Incentives are superpowers. Unless you’re busy rewarding the wrong things – measuring what’s easy to measure as opposed to what’s important. 

(And if you’re working in the organisation where you care, take this article, gather a group and talk about it. Because real change starts only from the people who care, doing work that matters.) 

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