Navigating the brave new world of digital disruption

For S'pore, the ideal digital govt delivers citizen-centric products and services that people need

Last month, Singapore topped the inaugural Asian Digital Transformation Index developed by the Economist Intelligence Unit. The index assesses the ability of 11 Asian economies to transform themselves in the face of digital disruption. Over the years, Singapore has consistently ranked well in international indices measuring digital government, one example being the United Nations' eGov Development Index.

If you think the Singapore Government is going to give itself a pat on the back for a job well done, think again. The world we live in is a scary place. Digital disruption is shaking up lives and businesses, cybersecurity threats cast a constant worrying shadow and the battle for tech talent - between public and private sectors - continues unabated.

With so much uncertainty and change, how can the Government maintain its edge as one of the world's leading digital governments? I do not claim to have all the answers, but as the government chief information officer, let me share how the new Government Technology Agency (GovTech) - tasked with driving the public sector's digital transformation - will attempt to navigate this brave new world.

CITIZENS FIRST

In a digital world, the customer is thriving because he gets what he wants, tailored and customised to his needs and expectations.

The Government is a service provider, possibly one of the biggest. Citizens interact with the Government over a multitude of touchpoints. But the Government had never really regarded the citizen as a customer. The Government's approach was supply-driven instead of demand-driven; it was all about government user requirements, as opposed to understanding the user's genuine needs.

With GovTech, we are inverting the paradigm - by moving from an inside-out to an outside-in approach, by shifting from being government-centric to being citizen-centric, by using data-driven insights instead of opinion-driven ones - to design digital products and services based on citizens' needs.

Take the process of giving feedback to government agencies on municipal issues such as littering or choked drains. It used to be difficult and tedious as the average citizen would not know which agency to call. All he wanted was to provide his feedback. He did not care which agency dealt with what issue. That was why the Infocomm Development Authority, GovTech's predecessor, worked with the Municipal Services Office to digitalise the feedback process. The OneService app reduces friction between citizens and public agencies and ensures "no wrong door" with the channelling of feedback.

BUILD SMART AND AGILE

In the past, we spent a fair bit of time and resources integrating public agencies' information technology systems, which were getting old and archaic, by building more and more systems on top of existing ones. Think of piling Jenga blocks one atop another - an irreversible and unwieldy process.

Today, instead of integrating systems, we integrate data. Data is one of the key drivers of digital disruption. At GovTech, we are building "pipes" - via application programming interfaces (APIs) - to connect back-end systems to the front-end user interface on one centralised platform.

OneService was built using such a distributed architecture. There was simply no way we could integrate the systems of 14 public agencies into a single platform within nine months. Using an agile development approach, our multidisciplinary team - which included developers, user experience designers and data scientists - was able to deliver a citizen-centric digital product faster and at a lower cost.

This process of iteration and collaboration will increasingly be the way to go for new government digital services.

GOVERNMENT-AS-A-PLATFORM

Steve Case, co-founder of AOL, wrote in his book The Third Wave about the transformation of the Internet through three waves. The first wave was foundational - the creation of a browser for people to access data. The second wave was structure - key to this was the search engine. Today, the third wave - platforms - is transforming the economy and our way of living.

Platforms are a result of the virtual and physical worlds colliding. Uber, Airbnb and Amazon are examples of platforms. They don't own a single car, property or inventory, but they have disrupted traditional industries and transformed consumer behaviour. Another example is China's WeChat, which has evolved into a pervasive platform encompassing retail, collaborations and social networks, with millions of users - even as it continues getting bigger.

There was a time when apps were all the rage. Today, the Government is not looking to build more and more apps. Instead, we are building platforms where government services can come together and be delivered to users as and when they need it.

For example, GovTech, Singapore Customs and other government agencies are working together on the next-generation National Trade Platform, which will replace the existing TradeNet and TradeXchange in 2018. It will synergise the entire trade and logistics ecosystem - from Government to banks and insurance firms to logistics providers to businesses - and enable the sharing of data and applications for more streamlined processes. This will create value for all parties by minimising friction and improving productivity.

BUILD DIGITAL COMMUNITIES

The Government does not have a premium on talent, nor can it solve all problems. Therefore it is very important for us to build strong digital communities, since one key tenet of smart cities is citizen participation. The Government's open data portal, data.gov.sg, has gone from being just a site for storing static datasets, to one where users can use data visualisations to tell stories and use APIs to create useful apps for the community. We are constantly enhancing data.gov.sg to make the datasets more accessible for public use in various ways.

Using technology to crowdsource life-saving was an experiment in building meaningful digital communities. GovTech worked with the Singapore Civil Defence Force to develop myResponder, which alerts users to medical emergency cases nearby. The app has since enlisted more than 10,000 volunteers to respond to emergency cases within 400m.

It is often easy to be enamoured of new and fancy technologies. To me, an effective digital government will be one that always puts its citizens at the centre and treats them, first and foremost, as customers. For GovTech and the public sector, our ideal digital government is one that delivers citizen-centric digital products and services that meet the diverse needs of our 5.6 million customers.

This mantra will be our guiding light in the brave new world of digital disruption.

• The writer is the Government Chief Information Officer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 27, 2016, with the headline 'Navigating the brave new world of digital disruption'. Print Edition | Subscribe