Building a “digital to the core” public service for Singapore

Last November, the Republic scored another accolade, winning the Smart City 2018 award, at the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona.

A key pillar of Singapore’s Smart Nation vision is the public sector’s digital transformation. The Digital Government Blueprint (DGB) released in June 2018 sets out an ambitious goal of transforming Singapore’s public sector into one that is both “digital to the ” and “serves with heart”.

The DGB with a list of 14 targets to be achieved by 2023 challenges our government agencies to provide easy-to-use, seamless, secure and relevant digital services to citizens and , and to build a digitally-enabled workplace with a digitally- confident workforce for the public sector.

“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 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 primarily to serve people. That means automating our processes where possible, so we can a personal touch. It is about using high- to offer high-touch in a way that enriches the interaction between the Government and citizens.

To realise the DGB, I believe government agencies need to do three things differently. That is, build our digital services differently, organise ourselves differently, and to live as an organisation differently.

Today, most government ICT systems are designed and built as monolithic systems in silos to meet each agency’s own requirements. They typically have requirements that are carefully scoped out before they are outsourced to a few large vendors.

These legacy systems had helped Singapore to be one of the earliest to computerise its public sector and digitise government services before the millennium. However, such legacy systems limit economies of scale, interoperability and agility in this data-fuelled, digitally-converged age.

To be digital to the core, the Government Technology Agency (GovTech) has built a new digital backbone the Singapore Government Technology Stack (SGTS) that allows agencies 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. As part of the government’s greater move to leverage commercial cloud first announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in October 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. These micro-services include SingPass, CorpPass and MyInfo.

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The SGTS will help government agencies develop digital services that provide citizens with a more seamless, consistent and connected experience; power policymaking with data insights; and speed up design and roll-out of digital applications.

Organising around citizen’s needs

Let me now address the point about organising government agencies differently to design and develop services.

Currently, citizens have to out which is the right government agency to approach for a specific transaction. This is not citizen-centric when there are more than 90 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”.

Take for example the Moments of Life (Families) app. Developed around the needs of a parent with a new-born child, the app seeks to simplify three things that new parents need to do: Register their child’s birth online and apply for baby bonus in a single form; search for and indicate interest in pre-school facilities in their neighbourhood; and finally, view their child’s medical appointments and immunisation records.

Developing the app entailed integrations with more than 20 APIs across a dozen different cross-agency systems. Since it was launched in June 2018, 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.

As the implementing agency of the DGB, GovTech will need to live and operate as a “digital native”.

We now have five capability centres comprising a multi-disciplinary team of more than 400 data scientists, software developers, UX designers, product managers, hardware engineers, infrastructure specialists and cybersecurity specialists.

They work with another 1,200 ICT professionals who are forward deployed to government agencies – to build and deliver digital services. GovTech now has a full suite of end-to-end digital capabilities and solutions to support our agencies in their digitalisation initiatives.

Within the public service, we will also need to invest in building “soft” capabilities and to promote a culture that is agile, bold and collaborative. Our leaders must embrace the mantra of “think big, start small and act fast”.

Their leadership style cannot be driven by command and control, but must be based on collaboration and trust. This is critical given the 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 have the vision to be a leading digital government. 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 digitally native public service.

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