Build it yourself, establish a skills pipeline and pay public servants market rates. That’s how Singapore built world leading digital capabilities within government, according to one of its architects, Chan Cheow Hoe.

Chan, the Chief Digital Technology Officer of Singapore’s Government Technology Agency says developing digital capabilities and services in government is fast becoming non-negotiable but requires a paradigm shift.

Singapore has consistently ranked amongst the top of global rankings on digital government over the last five years, utilising a strong developer community, cloud technologies and a platform approach, according to Chan, who has led digital at GovTech for more than six years.

Build it yourself

Speaking at Gartner’s 2020 APAC IT Symposium, Chan argued for internal capability building with a sense of urgency rather than outsourcing to global consultancy giants, as is common in many countries, including Australia.

“Most governments in the world today outsource probably about 95 [to] 98 per cent of all their technology to the industry,” Chan said. “When you outsource everything you lose capabilities. Most IT project managers over time become contract managers.”

Chan Cheow Hoe says governments need to build internal digital capabilities. Image: psd.gov.sg/

Building capabilities for digital government starts well before workers enter the public service, according to Chan, with technology and coding training as young as primary school and internships from high school.

Those skills feed a Singapore digital government “pipeline”, including scholarships and programs where graduates are trained at GovTech before even setting foot in agencies. Five GovTech capabilities centres for engineering, AI, IoT, cybersecurity and infrastructure help incubate the talent and produce new technology solutions.

GovTech also runs annual conferences designed to keep the community engaged and public servants connected to the wider ecosystem.

Chan says, ultimately though, governments need to pay technologists a fair rate or they’ll be snapped up elsewhere.

“Careers are very important. Unlike other countries, Singapore is lucky in the sense that we pay our technologists very much in line with the market. Maybe about [the] median of the market. Of course, it can’t be [salary] like Facebook and Google. 

“The reality is that if you can’t fulfil the hygiene factors, you won’t be able to attract top talent.”

GovTech also funds innovation projects, allowing people to develop brand new solutions in short periods, typically a few months at a time. Chan says Govtech also has programs to bring in top talent from around the world to assist on programs and mentor workers.

Platform approach

Singapore’s GovTech has developed two major programs emblematic of the future of digital government, according to Chan.

The first is a licensing platform, which handles applications, approval, notifications and payments for various licenses across multiple government agencies. It is now used for more than 60 types of licenses, everything from pet licenses, to fire safety licenses.

Chan says, “If these functions are similar across [agencies] why can’t we build a platform, whereby different licenses can be onboarded on top of it? Which is what we did.”

The second is a platform for managing government grants. It also works across agencies, standardising the functionality for various grant programs.

Chan says both solutions are used across different government agencies and can connect to back end legacy systems. “This is very useful and very important. Mainly because it does promote reusability, it lowers the costs, improves time to market and the quality, actually, well, is tremendously better than just building your own funnel platforms.”

Chan argues technology has moved from a support role in government to a fundamental part of it. Image: Smart Nation Singapore.

Chan argues governments everywhere have little option but to adopt similar platform strategies for their services.

“This is something that government has to do or get left behind, and I’m glad that we’ve done a lot of that [platforming].”

Chan says it requires a monumental shift from the longtime, risk averse approach to government technology, including the removal of “antiquated” policies and unnecessary red tape, many of which were designed “BC” (before cloud).

“For the longest time, security people in government are trained that when you can touch a firewall, you can touch the switches, you can walk into a data centre [so] it must be better than something that you can’t see.

“This is one of the biggest paradigm shifts that people have to go through.”

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