8 insights from Singapore’s Government Chief Information Officer
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Curious about Singapore’s approach to digital governance? At the ‘Digital Government for Transformation Towards Sustainable and Resilient Societies—the Singapore Experience’ course which ran from 2-6 April 2018, Government Chief Information Officer Mr Chan Cheow Hoe shared how the Singapore government thinks about using digital technologies to create value for citizens. TechNews brings you eight key insights from the session.
1. Build capability
Creating applications for digital government requires three ingredients—people, process and technology. Arguably, people are the most important ingredient as they amplify the outputs of the other two elements.
Mr Chan explained that GovTech has an in-house cadre of experts with the technical competency to build digital applications. This means that the government does not need to outsource every project to external vendors.
“We found a small group of people and started building our own applications. We were able to deliver things very quickly, with good quality and at a much lower cost than anybody could have expected,” he said.
2. Think outside the box
The approach to a problem is more important than the solution. Mr Chan gave the example of the Singapore Civil Defence Force, which wanted to improve the arrival times of ambulances to sites of emergency, especially in the event that someone suffers a heart attack.
One solution would have been to increase the size of the force and ambulance fleet, but that would entail substantial costs. Instead, the developers at GovTech came up with the myResponder mobile app.
“Paramedics, doctors, nurses or anybody who is trained in CPR can subscribe to the myResponder app. Whenever a heart attack happens and you’re within a 400-metre radius of the victim, you will get a notification on your phone to go and render help,” said Mr Chan, adding that the network of lifesavers on the mobile app is now 26,000 strong.
“The app didn’t cost a lot to develop, but it changes the way you use technology to save people.”
3. Leverage small data for big impact
While big data has its benefits, Mr Chan noted that “small datasets, used properly, can be very effective too.” When trains on the Circle Line experienced repeated signalling faults in November 2016, transport authorities and operators were left scratching their heads as they tried to pinpoint the problem.
Three data analysts from GovTech who had been affected by the train breakdowns volunteered their expertise. Applying data visualisation techniques to a relatively small dataset of train IDs, locations and arrival and departure timings, they managed to identify a rogue train that was interfering with the signalling of other trains, leading to the breakdowns. The rogue train was taken off the rails, and all returned to normal.
4. Reduce redundancy
More is not necessarily better in the digital realm. Government websites were a case in point, said Mr Chan. “We had more than 2,400 websites!”
The number itself was not the problem. Rather, what mattered was the cybersecurity risk that each redundant website posed. “How do you manage 2,400 websites with hundreds of different builds? You can’t even patch them fast enough,” Mr Chan added.
The straw that broke the camel’s back came when Singapore experienced a major cyberattack by hacktivist group Anonymous in 2013. The lesson learnt was that streamlining online operations also helps in keeping them secure, and a whittling down of the number of websites ensued.
5. Grow beyond apps
After websites, apps looked like the next big thing in digital governance. However, Mr Chan emphasised that GovTech is “moving away from creating apps and shifting towards the creation of microservices instead.”
Microservices refer to a software architecture consisting of modular units, each performing an independent function, but also interfacing with one another as parts of a coherent whole—like Lego bricks that click together to form a larger structure. This grants the government greater flexibility in the development and delivery of digital services.
6. Adopt a citizen’s point of view
“When citizens look at the government, what they see is one government, not hundreds of ministries and departments,” said Mr Chan. Acknowledging this point of view led to a reimagining of the way government services were being provided, he added.
Although government agencies tended to work in silos in the past, digital technology is now being used to increase connectivity and inter-operability between agencies. This means that a more unified front is presented to citizens, who are less likely to knock on the wrong door when seeking government services.
7. Don’t wait, anticipate
Another paradigm shift in the provision of government services lies with anticipatory engagement. Instead of waiting for citizens to approach the government, Mr Chan thinks that specific “triggers” can be used to “push” the relevant services to citizens in a timely fashion.
He cited the example of the Moments of Life app, which will be launched in June 2018. When a couple registers the birth of a child, the app will direct them to apply for a baby bonus (if they are eligible) and inform them of the vaccines their child needs to get.
“So it’s not about just putting everything on one website, but rather anticipating and understanding what your citizens need,” Mr Chan said.
8. Encourage co-creation
The government cannot solve all its citizens’ problems on its own. Very often, it partners with small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to build applications and services. Mr Chan highlighted how GovTech is engaging with SMEs to co-create value for citizens through its InnoLeap programme, which he compares to a “speed dating service”.
Essentially, InnoLeap brings government agency representatives and technology solutions providers together to brainstorm and potentially collaborate on projects. For instance, the Singapore Police Force may present the use cases for facial recognition technology, and SMEs can explore how their solutions match those use cases.
In addition to InnoLeap, an eCitizen Ideas! portal has been set up to crowdsource innovative solutions, and hackathons co-organised with tertiary institutions further encourage community participation in building a Smart Nation.