Exciting times ahead when govt tech agency boots up

For the first time in 35 years since national computerisation began in 1981, a new agency has been formed, dedicated to driving the development and adoption of digital technologies in the Government.

Called the Government Technology Organisation (GTO), it has an exciting role, namely to marry digital government efforts with Singapore's smart nation initiatives. It will identify the latest technologies to build pilots and prototypes in response to people's needs.

The GTO's mandate is to innovate and create new digital public sector services that impact people, while that of its sister agency, the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA), is to focus on strengthening industry and regulatory efforts.

The formation of these two new agencies was announced on Jan 18. The IMDA is the result of a merger between the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) and the Media Development Authority. IDA's government technology unit will be moved to the GTO, which will have a staff strength of about 1,800.

Both agencies will be established from the second half of this year.

Speaking in Parliament yesterday, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said Singapore has been a pioneer in many areas of government service delivery, such as the Next Generation Nationwide Broadband Network and the computerisation of the civil service in the 1980s.

The best use of technology is where it is "invisible", yet people find the solutions compelling and useful. The GTO goal should be to find and engineer cutting-edge technologies into these "invisible" solutions.

Speaking during the debate on the President's Address, he said that "as technology changes and matures, the new GTO will help the Government to understand and use technology boldly to deliver better public services".

So far, the IMDA has received the lion's share of publicity.

However, the GTO is no less significant as its formation shows clearly the Government's desire to use digital technologies boldly to transform the public sector, so that it can offer new services that are more relevant and timely.

The GTO team will thus be able to "play" with cutting-edge technologies and identify those that can be paired with citizen issues to engineer unique solutions - a thrilling prospect.

After the GTO team gets its hand wet building pilot programmes and prototypes from brand new technologies, the industry can then take these pilots and prototypes to commercialise and turn them into services for people to use.

This is akin to being able to play with never-seen-before, cool, gleaming gadgets and then develop apps for them.

That ties in with the smart nation initiatives and hence, another of GTO's priorities is to ensure that all smart nation solutions are based on a single standard so that they can be used across the board and on all devices. That is like the Windows operating system, which provides a standard for other software so that they can all work on a PC. The GTO would build and test new solutions on this platform and ensure that they all work.

GTO's major challenge will be convincing people that new digital innovations will benefit them.

It can, for example, develop a robot to translate Hokkien to English to help foreign nurses care for the elderly. But it would have to ensure that the robots do not frighten patients, and convince nurses, doctors and patients that the translation is accurate.

The best use of technology is where it is "invisible", yet people find the solutions compelling and useful. The GTO goal should be to find and engineer cutting-edge technologies into these invisible solutions.

The agency starts with two key advantages. Singapore has a digital identity via SingPass for every adult, and a deep experience in providing government technology with over 35 years of public sector computerisation.

A digital identity is crucial for digital transactions with the Government. It will come in useful in the near future when new public sector services need a digital identity as one authentication method.

The deep understanding of the use of government technology allows it to introduce new innovations. One it should consider is to make government tender specifications more open, so that they stop being a barrier to cutting-edge technologies.

That is an innovation that will help taxpayers get better value for their money.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2016, with the headline 'Exciting times ahead when govt tech agency boots up'. Print Edition | Subscribe