As coronavirus stalks the globe, it’s striking that some nations are coping much better than others. We’re seeing several examples of success in fighting Covid-19, from South Korea’s effective testing bureaucracy to Singapore’s capacity to identify and isolate both the infected and their contacts.

Singapore has something to teach the world about the importance of a well-functioning, high-capacity, creative, and trusted government in times of crisis. The coronavirus could have easily overwhelmed the wealthy island city-state, but even as it received infected travelers directly from Wuhan, Singapore effectively tracked and isolated cases—limiting the early total to just 226, with zero deaths. In effect, Singapore quickly instituted the panoply of measures that other countries, including the U.S., appear to have discovered slowly. As its Ministry of Health website demonstrates, the country tested Wuhan arrivals, instituted travel bans, tracked the infected, and, finally, located all their contacts. In addition, Singapore canceled all sporting events and other public gatherings. The public-health response was based on studying and learning from less successful experiences with the SARS and H1N1 outbreaks in 2002 and 2009.

Singapore’s success owes at least something to its governmental approach. The city-state pays its cabinet ministers and civil servants high salaries, inspiring them to build careers in public service. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong earns more than $2 million a year—the highest among world leaders—while cabinet ministers earn more than $1 million. As Lee puts it: “ministers should also be paid properly in order that Singapore can have honest, competent leadership over the long term.”

Singapore’s high government salaries—competitive with those in the private sector—help retain talent, ensure efficiency, and prevent corruption. As Amelia Lester noted in Politico Magazine, Singapore “ranks first in the World Bank’s most recent Government Effectiveness index; the Corruption Perceptions Index gives it an 85 out of 100, whereas the United States is at only 71; and Singapore comes in second, just after the United States, in the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index.”

The contrast with the U.S. is reflected in the numbers. Singapore’s Permanent Secretary of Health earns nearly $900,000 annually. By comparison, the head of the Centers for Disease Control takes home $209,000—cut from $375,000 after congressional criticism. Considering the immense national and international responsibilities of this job, the pay is poor compared with that of comparable positions in the private sector. The CEO of Massachusetts General Hospital, for example, earns $3.6 million, while the head of Long Island’s North Shore University Hospital earns more than $10 million.  Robert Redfield, the current CDC chief, had to take a pay cut when he left his position at the University of Maryland.

One can only wonder why we implicitly discourage the most talented and experienced executives from accepting—and retaining—government positions. In a 2003 report, the National Commission on the Public Service—chaired by the late Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker—recommended higher government salaries, saying that “far too many talented public servants are abandoning the middle levels of government, and too many of the best recruits are rethinking their commitment, either because they are fed up with the constraints of outmoded personnel systems and unmet expectations for advancement or simply lured away by the substantial difference between public and private sector salaries in many areas.”

For decades, lower government salaries have led talented university graduates to avoid public service. At Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, only 33 percent of the class of 2018 took positions in government, including governments abroad, at a school that serves many international students. By contrast, 40 percent of graduates chose the private sector and 25 percent pursued nonprofits. This outcome was hardly the school’s goal when it was founded.

The challenge lies not only in attracting talent to government but also in putting it to its highest and best use. Max Stier, who heads the Washington-based Partnership for Public Service—broadly dedicated to addressing this problem—observes that “we need a government that doesn’t turn talent off once it arrives.” This means attracting and retaining people who would dedicate careers to public service, like Anthony Fauci, the long-serving director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and now a familiar and reassuring face to Americans. When it comes to salaries, Stier observes that “we have a system more concerned about internal equity than any relationship to the market.”

Economist Tyler Cowen, a believer in relatively small government, has lately written about the importance of “state-capacity libertarianism”—the idea that government quality, not size, is linked to prosperity and freedom. The government’s optimal size is certainly worth debating—but core governmental functions clearly demand effectiveness. As the coronavirus pandemic reminds us, government needs top talent when confronting unprecedented crises.

Photo by Ore Huiying/Getty Images


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