Digital Government, Smart Nation: Pursuing Singapore’s Tech Imperative
Contributed by Ng Chee Khern
The Smart Nation initiative, first announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in 2014, aims to make Singapore “an outstanding city in the world… for people to live, work and play in, where the human spirit flourishes”.
Building a Smart Nation is a whole-of-nation effort which comprises three pillars: Digital Government, Digital Economy, and Digital Society.
The first pillar, led by the Smart Nation and Digital Government Group (SNDGG), involves agencies across the public service. The Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) leads work for the other two pillars. This commentary will focus specifically on Digital Government.
Digital Government: Where are we today?
When it comes to Digital Government, Singapore is fortunate to be building on strong previous efforts.
Our digitalisation journey began with the National Computerisation Programme for the public sector in the 1980s. By the 2000s, we had shifted to providing government services online, first as websites and then as phone applications. Since the 2010s, we have been focusing on making our services more integrated, and experimenting with different approaches to being citizen-centric.
Today, most transactions between citizens and the Government can be done online, and integrated apps that reduce the time taken to fulfil inter-agency requests have been growing in numbers.
However, such efforts have been sporadic or agency-led. A central, coordinating entity can accelerate the process, which was why SNDGG was formed in May 2017. Soon after our formation, we launched five Strategic National Projects: National Digital Identity, E-payments, Moments of Life, Smart Nation Sensor Platform and Smart Urban Mobility. Most of these are digital platforms, upon which more use cases can be explored over time.
In these two years, we have gone further than just having more projects and systems. We have put in place policies and strategies, processes and organisational structures; we have also recruited and groomed talent to exploit digital technologies and sustain the momentum in the longer term.
Policies and Strategies: New way of working and thinking
SNDGG has been working with Ministries to develop comprehensive plans for digitalisation and achieve targets set out in the Digital Government Blueprint for the delivery of government digital services.
The first round of plans, completed in June 2018, was useful in identifying “no-regrets” digital initiatives with high impact. Some of the initiatives, such as the Ministry of Home Affairs’ digitisation of death registration and the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources’ automated meter reading infrastructure, will significantly improve service delivery and how agencies operate.
From 2020, Ministries will include digitalisation planning in their strategic planning cycle, so the plans are linked to and support the Ministries’ missions. Integrating with the strategic planning cycle also means resourcing, data requirements and capability development will be simultaneously considered.
Processes and Organisational Structures: Starting from the top
Policies and strategies, however well laid, can only have a chance of success if processes and structures are designed to facilitate the harnessing of technology.
Agencies are now beginning to see technology not just as an expense, but also as an investment in new strategic capability: that it is about how technology can help agencies reach topline growth (faster time-to-market for services, improved service delivery) in achieving mission objectives.
But even if agencies are to treat technology as a strategic capability, conventional approaches to resourcing do not allow projects to be started quickly.
The traditional funding cycle takes place only once a year, and if the project proposal is supported, there is still the process of calling for, evaluating and awarding of tenders. For in-sourced projects, time is needed to hire developers. It can often take longer to obtain the resources than to build a prototype.
SNDGG has worked with the Ministry of Finance (MOF) to revise this resourcing approach, to facilitate the Government’s exploitation of technology.
MOF has now implemented a new resourcing framework to enable more agile digitalisation, allowing for nimble initiation of pilots and proof-of-concepts before scaling. About 40 projects – including a computer vision-powered drowning detection system and speech-to-text software - have received funding through this framework.
To digitalise effectively, we must also improve the process of integrating policy/operations with technology for technology to be effectively applied to achieve agencies’ missions. To improve ops-tech integration, we have revised organisational structures with the appointment of a Chief Digital Strategy Officer (CDSO) at the Deputy Secretary-level in every Ministry, who will oversee delivery of their Ministry’s digital government blueprint targets and digitalisation plans.
The CDSO is supported by the Ministry’s Chief Information Officer, to encourage management-level conversations on how technology can support business needs.
Another process change is giving more space to tech-push and whitespace projects to spur innovation.
Tech-push makes use of an available technology to innovate a product, leading to the discovery of previously untapped market opportunities and user benefits. Tech-push differs from the traditional approach of market-pull where market demand or requirements drives product development. The iPhone is an example of a tech-push innovation. Nobody knew they needed the iPhone but after it was introduced, nobody can do without a smart phone.
Tech-push goes beyond ops-tech integration and gives engineers freer rein to innovate. We have seen the value of tech-push: in fact, many of the Government Technology Agency’s (GovTech) products and platforms – such as Parking.sg and Moments of Life - were developed this way.
To structurally enable tech-push and white space innovation, SNDGG is starting a new digital experimentation and implementation unit. The unit will operate in a sandbox environment, where officers not only get to develop new products, but also test future directions for ICT (infocommunications technology) policies, and try out new organisational approaches to building and running tech organisations—including in traditionally non-ICT areas such as HR (human resources) and procurement.
We expect this unit to model itself on how a modern tech organisation should look like, and to have its practices adopted by the rest of government where relevant.
People: Building up our community
Beyond policies and processes, people is also another key factor. We want to hire specialists or peak technical talent, and engineers with experience managing big technology projects. We need to partner the private sector better, and reach out to citizens to make sure the design of our digital products and services are informed by actual experiences and user research.
To attract tech talent, GovTech’s HR scheme has been revised to match the attractive salaries tech talent would otherwise command in the private sector. We are stepping up recruitment of overseas Singaporeans who have worked in technology companies. We have a Smart Nation Fellowship programme that allows overseas Singaporeans working in the private sector to do a three- to six-month stint with us, creating digital or engineering solutions that impact people’s lives.
Simultaneously, we have to improve the management of tech talent within the public service. We have developed a common HR scheme for digital technologists, for them to take on Information and Communications Technology and Smart Systems (ICT&SS) roles across different agencies to enhance their exposure and contribution. The scheme allows them to pursue leadership opportunities, either becoming a specialist or assuming a leadership role in an ICT&SS agency.
Finally, becoming an effective digital government demands that we engage our citizens. MCI has programmes to raise the digital readiness of the public, and SNDGG co-creates with the public by involving them in user research for digital products, and to test beta applications.
Through the Smart Nation Co-Creating with People Everywhere (SCOPE) initiative, we partner with and leverage outreach events by the People’s Association and the National Trades Union Congress to garner public feedback on products under development. We believe that this increases citizens’ ownership towards these products, and makes them more inclined to use the products once they launch.
Ng Chee Khern is Permanent Secretary for Smart Nation and Digital Government in the Prime Minister’s Office.
This article is adapted from a longer essay in the July 2019 issue of Ethos, a publication of the Civil Service College.https://www.tech.gov.sg/media/technews/digital-government-smart-nation-pursuing singapore-tech-imperative