• Opinion
  • November 14, 2018
  • 9 minutes
  • 1

Can a government go digital native? Singapore says yes

Opinion: With GovTech Singapore, we're taking digital government to a new level

This piece was written by Kok Ping Soon, Chief Executive, Government Technology Agency of Singapore. For more like this, see our digital government newsfeed.


Singapore’s Government Technology Agency (GovTech), formed in 2016, drives the implementation of our Digital Government Blueprint (DGB). This blueprint sets out the ambitious goal of transforming Singapore’s public sector into one that is both “digital to the core” and “serves with heart”.

Digital to the core means going beyond producing glossy new websites or shiny new apps. It is about re-thinking and re-engineering the way the government serves our citizens. It is not about turning existing paper forms into online web forms, but asking whether that form is even necessary in the first place.

Serve with heart is a reminder that even as we pursue digitisation, the public service exists to serve people. That means automating our processes where possible, so we can offer a personal touch where and when it matters. It is about using high-tech to offer high-touch in a way that enriches the interaction between government and citizen.

It is about using high-tech to offer high-touch in a way that enriches interaction

The DGB — with a list of 14 KPIs to be achieved by 2023 — challenges government agencies to provide easy-to-use, seamless, secure and relevant digital services to citizens and businesses, and to build a digitally-empowered and confident public sector workforce.

Implementation will require us to do three things differently: build digital services differently, organise ourselves differently and live as an organisation differently.

Building for scale

Today, most government ICT systems are designed and built as monolithic systems in silos to meet agencies’ own requirements. They are typically outsourced to a few large vendors and done via a waterfall method with requirements that are carefully scoped out before companies are invited to tender.

These legacy systems had helped Singapore to edge ahead in computerising our public service and digitising government services before the millennium, but they limit economies of scale, interoperability and agility in this data-fuelled, digitally-converged age.

We have built a new digital backbone

To be digital to the core, we have built a new digital backbone — the Singapore Government Technology Stack (SGTS) — that allows us to build for scale. The SGTS comprises three layers.

At the base is a suite of hosting infrastructure, comprising on-premises and private cloud hosting platforms for classified systems and commercial cloud for restricted systems. We are dramatically increasing the use of commercial cloud; new unclassified systems will be required to be hosted on commercial cloud by default.

The second layer is a suite of middleware — common software modules used in app development. For example, the API Exchange or APEX is a centralised gateway to enable applications to talk to one another through application programming interfaces (APIs); WOGAA (Whole of Government Application Analytics) is an application analytics module for agencies to monitor the performance of their websites and digital services in real-time, conveniently and cost-effectively.

The third layer is a library of commonly-used micro-services that agencies can consume and share easily for interoperability between applications — including the national digital identity.
Overall, the stack will help government agencies to give citizens a more seamless, consistent and connected experience when they use digital services; to power policymaking with insights from data; and to speed up design and rollout of digital applications.

Organising around citizens’ needs

The second thing we need to do is organise ourselves differently within the government to design and develop services.

Currently, citizens themselves have to work out which is the right government agency to approach for a specific transaction. This is not citizen-centric: we have more than 60 government agencies and close to 200 government digital services.

To serve citizens with heart, we need to move towards a new “service journey” paradigm, where agencies deliver services not by the conveniences of how they are organised but around the “jobs to be done”.

We are building the next generation of digital services through a service journey approach

An early example of how we are building the next generation of digital services through a service journey approach is the Moments of Life (Families) app. Developed around the needs of a parent with a new-born child, the app seeks to simplify three jobs to be done.

The first is to help parents register their child’s birth online and apply for baby bonus in a single form; secondly, help them search for and indicate interest in pre-school facilities in their neighbourhood; and finally, allow them to view their child’s medical appointments and immunisation records all in the same app.

Developing the app entailed integrations with 26 APIs across 13 different cross-agency systems. Since it was launched, the app has received over 13,000 downloads and hundreds of parents have benefited from streamlined processes.
We have identified more service journeys that will transform how citizens and businesses transact with the government. This new paradigm will see government services for citizens wrapped around their varying needs at particular moments in life.

Live as digital native

GovTech will also need to live and operate as a “digital native”.

We have set up GovTech Hive — a multi-disciplinary team of more than 400 data scientists, developers, UX designers, product managers and cybersecurity specialists in five capability centres.

They work with another 1,200 ICT professionals, forward deployed to government agencies to build and deliver digital services. We now have a full-suite of end-to-end digital capabilities and solutions to support our agencies and implement Singapore’s strategic national projects.

We will also need to invest in building “soft” capabilities. We need a new leadership model that engenders a culture that is agile, bold and collaborative. We need leaders who embrace the mantra of “think big, start small and act fast”.

And, we need a new style of leadership that abhors command and control and is based on collaboration and trust. This is critical given fast pace of technology changes, where no one in the organisation can profess to have full knowledge and where “good” may not be well-defined.

We are starting to live as a digital native with deep engineering capabilities and a new leadership model

We have the vision. We are re-engineering our digital infrastructure to build for scale. We are re-organising our government around citizens’ needs. We are starting to live as a digital native organisation with deep engineering capabilities and a new leadership model.

The next five years will be exciting for the Singapore Government’s digital transformation. The time to act fast is now. — Kok Ping Soon

(Picture credit: Unsplash/Larry Teo)

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