As Agile as GovTech
Superheroes were everywhere at the Agile Singapore Conference.
At Hotel Fort Canning, one could not escape the official t-shirts —four designs inspired by Batman, Iron Man, Wolverine, and the Avengers, representing the four pillars of Agility.
And the audience heard about the almost superhuman background of how a brand new Government agency came about.
Much like the Avengers or the Justice League, the origin story of the Government Technology Agency (GovTech) of Singapore brings together a group of people with the right abilities to solve real-world problems with technology.
GovTech is heralding a new era for the Singapore Government as a new organisation that embraces the Agile movement, a set of principles originally used in software development and now being adapted as a new way of working for organisations all over the world.
“The ability to morph and keep adapting to situations is important; because of that, we can pivot very quickly,” said Mr Chan Cheow Hoe, the Deputy Chief Executive Officer of GovTech and also the Government’s Chief Information Officer, at the Conference launch on 6 October 2016.
An Agile journey
The journey towards GovTech included creating a skunkworks team.
“In the beginning, I found that nobody in the government can code,” Mr Chan said, explaining how among 1,000 staff, he only managed to find seven individuals he could pull together to form a coding team for cutting-edge projects.
These seven were regularly carrying out skunkworks projects, which refer to projects developed by small groups with the intent of pushing the envelope of innovation.
They became the pioneering members of the Government Digital Services (GDS) unit of GovTech.
“I told them, ‘You are the new future’,” Mr Chan recalled.
The GDS team’s homebase slash lab is known as Hive, housed within the Sandcrawler building in Fusionopolis.
But Mr Chan shared that the team almost had to comb the desert for another location.
“The Sandcrawler management said that we only have creative guys like Lucasfilm and Industrial Light & Magic leasing with us. We spent quite a bit of time convincing them not to worry, that the Government can be cool like them,” he said with a laugh.
The argument worked, and today, there are about 120 highly committed and inspired people keeping the buzz high at the Hive.
Trust in the agency’s abilities was another issue to contend with in those early days.
“Initially, there was some doubt within the Government. A senior leader once came to up to me and said, ‘What these guys can do, can be done by a polytechnic student. What’s the big deal?’” Mr Chan shared.
“But the group proved that it could deliver some really outstanding stuff over the period of just a year and a half.”
GovTech’s portfolio is a vast and varied one that includes many tasks: supporting many fellow Government agencies on the ICT front , procuring ICT equipment for the Government, developing digital Government services like the Business Grants Portal, and also apps like the lifesaving myResponder — co-developed with the Singapore Civil Defence Force, the app crowdsources for CPR-trained volunteers and responders when someone has a suspected heart attack.
According to Mr Chan, the organisation stands out in that it was able to create not just the technology, but also the process and most importantly, the culture.
“Then, there is the Agile part of it, which is getting more and more interesting,” he said.
“To me, this is an experiment not just in technology, but also in organisational development and management.”
Culture of Collaboration
His desire to learn more about agility in organisations took him to the United States, where he learned about Holacracy, a self-management system that replaces the management hierarchy a new peer-to-peer ‘operating system’.
In traditional companies, each person has exactly one job; managers’ decisions always trumps others; and organisations are mandated from the top.
But in Agile companies, job roles are dynamic and defined around the work or project; authority is distributed among team members; and organisational structure is constantly updated, with each team being self-organising as well.
This new way of working allows companies to become more transparent, accountable, and agile.
GovTech’s approach is evident from its three main values, which are now emblazoned in bright colours on official GovTech t-shirts: Agile, Bold and Collaborative.
“Being Agile is about being able to pivot; being flexible about doing things. It’s also about being bold and having the courage to experiment,” Mr Chan explained.
“And most importantly, no one person can make it happen. The collaborative culture is imbued into our organisation, and many of our people join us for that.”
In addition, GovTech offers an “overlapping service of capabilities”.
The GDS team is a microcosm of that.
“We started off with a small group of software engineers, but soon the team realised that user experience (UX) is important. So we started a UX group. Then, we said that data is very important, so we started a data science group,” Mr Chan said.
Groups for both application infrastructure and Internet of Things (IoT) soon followed.
At the end of the day, GovTech strives to be more than just a government agency for technology and digital services; it is an example of how organisations can succeed with a different mindset.
“It’s about what impact you have on citizens if you are serious about solving problems,” Mr Chan remarked.
“The empowerment is there—we have taken out a lot of bureaucracy. Many people question whether Agile will work in government and I can tell you, it does.”
“We have made it happen.”