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EXCLUSIVE – Talks on Smart Nation, citizen-centricity, whole-of-government approach at the Singapore OpenGov Leadership Forum 2017

EXCLUSIVE - Talks on Smart Nation

Speakers at the Singapore OpenGov Leadership Forum held on May 18, 2017

The 3rd Annual Singapore OpenGov Leadership Forum held on May 18, 2017 saw sharing and learning of experiences and insights among nearly 200 delegates from Singapore’s public sector and international speakers from Australia, Estonia, Japan and the US.

The Forum was kicked off by OpenGov Asia Editor-in-chief, Mohit Sagar. He talked about the insanity of doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. He exhorted the audience to re-think how we think. He defined digital transformation as ‘the realignment of, or new investment in technology, business models, and processes to drive new value for citizens and employees to effectively compete in an ever-changing digital economy’.

But organisations continue to operate with a familiar legacy perspective of customers, processes, metrics, business models, and technology. To disrupt this, ICT executives should start small, pilot fast, iterate and scale up. Pockets of experimentation can be created within organisations, snapping them out of inertia. As the initiatives gradually become bolder, and results are seen, change agents seek support for new resources and technology. The next step is the formation of dedicated digital transformation teams to guide strategy and operations based on business and customer-centric goals. Finally, digital transformation becomes a way of business.

Striking a balance and getting the little things right

Senior Minister of State for the Ministry of Communications and Information and Ministry of Education, Dr. Janil Puthucheary (above) delivered a keynote address on building capabilities and platforms for a Smart Nation.

He expressed scepticism regarding the breathless predictions of our lives changing beyond recognition and the imminent singularity. However, technological disruption is very much real. He said that technology provides an opportunity to rethink the fundamentals, to think what is the role of government in this time, and how should the public sector can be transformed. The Singapore government has delivered for 52 years, not with reliance on a single big idea or technology but by getting the little things right and making the system work.

To ensure that the system continues to work in today’s disruptive world, it is critical to get the balance right. It includes the balance between regulation and avoiding constricting the space for innovation. It is also about the balance between the roles of the private and public sector. The private sector is great at taking risks and innovating, and there are certain areas which are best left to it.

         But when the public good is not being served or a solution or platform is a critical enabler for the ecosystem, then the government might need to step in. The government might need to develop open platforms, on which private enterprises can layer their own models and operating systems and build products and services. For this, the public sector has to have in-house engineering expertise.

In Singapore, that is provided by the Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GovTech), which works with not just the Smart Nation and Digital Government Group but ministries and agencies across government. At other times, the government might have to play the role of a lead commissioning agent, working with the private sector to seed ideas and lead demand.

Even within the government, there needs to be a balance between central planning and execution and innovation within the various ministries, agencies and statutory bodies.

In addition, a whole-of-government cross-cutting approach is going to be crucial to achieve whole-of-society, whole-of-nation outcomes. “No one can be left behind. We must not accept that it is alright for some to succeed, for some to fall behind,” Dr. Puthucheary noted. The Smart Nation journey has to be inclusive from the point of view of every single citizen, every single government agency and every single company.

‘Integrate with the ecosystem to achieve true citizen centricity’

Mr. Kwok Quek Sin (above), Director, Product Management at the Government Digital Services team in GovTech started his presentation, bringing up PM Lee Hsien Loong’s admonishment that Singapore is not moving fast enough in its Smart Nation journey for all the pushing.

The expectations are high not just from the country’s leaders but also from the man on the street, which serves to underline the importance of the work being done by GovTech.

The Smart Nation and Digital Government Office was formed, bringing together staff from the Digital Government Directorate of the Ministry of Finance (MOF), the Government Technology Policy department in the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI), and the Smart Nation Programme Office (SNPO) in the PMO. Mr. Kwok said that smart nation (Rallying the country to use technology and data to solve its problems and address existential challenges) and digital government (enhancing public services delivery through the use of technology, data and design) strategies are two sides of the same coin.

He shared his views on what would the areas of focus for GovTech, both as a service provider as well as an ecosystem enabler. He listed 6 areas, cautioning that it was not a comprehensive list.

Digital Government will take on a more data-driven approach to improving user experience. Performance and conversion metrics are being tracked within services and also across services. Digital services will aggregate towards personalized, context aware and anticipatory services. It is no longer about having many services, but rather about aggregating digital services across agencies in a citizen-centric fashion, rather than an agency or function centric manner.

Mr. Kwok said that micro-services, APIs and digital signatures will reduce need for government touch points for businesses. Corporates will be able to make regulatory submissions, for things like taxes, permits etc. directly from their own systems using authenticated or digitally signed APIs.

Mr. Kwok went on to say that true citizen-centricity cannot be achieved by just looking within government. He said, “We need digital government as part of the larger ecosystem.” In the future, people might be able to register their business while opening a bank account and apply for grants to supplement the loans obtained from the bank. The touchpoints for government services need not be government.

There’s an increasing move to focus on strategic digital platforms at the national level with open standards to enable the private sector to innovate. Many people expect the government to deal with problems the markets do not or cannot deal with. It could be that the financial investment required is too large for a single private enterprise or a trusted neutral party might be required. In these instances, the government can provide platforms which the industry can then leverage on.

In Singapore, two such digital platforms are being explored, for digital identity and data exchanges.

         Mr. Kwok explained that with a national digital identity there is the question of whether the creation of one will lead to demand or whether supply should follow demand. It should not be a case, where the national ID remains largely a physical card with minimal digital use cases. That would defeat the purpose. Private sector commitment and involvement would be crucial for the success of this programme. 

Earlier there was concern that usability of electronic ID cards could be hampered by the need for card readers. Without usability, there would be low citizen adoption and hence, few use cases.  But now technology has evolved to a stage where usability and security enabled through a mobile device could promote widespread adoption of digital identity. The next few months could see more announcements from the Singapore government on this.

Complementing the digital identity platform, would be the government personal data repository, known as MyInfo. MyInfo is being extended to the private sector for consent-based eKYC services, starting with a pilot project with 4 banks. This is an example of secure and consent-based data exchange to promote greater collaboration, drive productivity and stimulate the digital economy.

Work is ongoing to bring onboard more private sector companies, and extending it more use cases, such as home loan applications, insurance and credit cards and possibly use cases for the non financial sector as well.

International speakers

Mr. Mehis Sihvart (above), Director of the Centre of Registers and Information Systems (RIK) in Estonia presented the Estonian case-study for Efficient e-governance in practice. RIK has developed and administers over 70 different systems and is the central ICT procurement body for the Estonian government.

He talked about the five pillars of e-government in Estonia, namely ID-card / Mobile ID / Smart ID for secure authentication and electronic signature; X-Road providing secure and decentralized data exchange; the principle of asking for info/ data only once; citizen ownership of data; and the state portal, eesti.ee.

         Mr. Sihvart also outlined the Estonian Information Society strategy 2020. It is about ensuring interoperability (agreement signed with Finland in March 2017 which he discussed in his interview with OpenGov); having no legacy systems, mandating upgrades after 13 years; setting up data embassies to back-up the entire digital government ensuring it continues to operate if the main systems go down and expanding e-residency services.


This was followed by a presentation by Mr. Daniel Rothman (above), Chief Technology Officer, Department of IT, City of Boston on ‘Municipal networks and how they advance collaboration with the public and private sectors’. Mr. Rothman talked about the history of the Boston Fiber Optic Network (BoNET), which provides service for City offices and public safety. It started in 2008, connecting 130 city buildings with a 2GB backbone and a 1 GB edge. Currently, 180 city buildings are connected through a 1GB edge and a 10GB backbone, with multiple state agencies. There are plans to connect 330 buildings going forward, with a 100GB backbone and 1-10GB edge.

Using the example of how the City of Boston is using BoNET as a tool for collaboration with other municipal governments, Mr. Rothman spoke about sharing resources and building coalitions instead of being territorial and protective of resources.

Mr. Jag Rewal (above), Director, Whole of Victoria Government Technology Procurement Group talked about how ICT procurement is evolving in response to technology developments. He highlighted four major trends: Utility based computing as in pay as you go services; Transfer of priorities from buying Infrastructure to managing service providers – Cloud Services (IaaS, SaaS, PaaS); Transition of Capital costs to Operating expenses and agile Methodologies with no fixed price, scope or deadline. Then Mr. Rewal posed the question if agile procurement is a viable option or a myth. “Agile” environments are in direct contrast with Government procurement processes which focus on certainty and total cost of ownership and value for money considerations. The problem could be addressed through the use of panel arrangements and framework contracts that have pre-qualified rates (and terms), enabling a degree of agility within current procurement processes. Mr. Rewal said that there needs to be a greater emphasis on managing risk rather than cost.

There were presentations by Mr. Makoto Shibata (below-left), Head of Global Innovation Team – Digital Innovation Division at the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ (BTMU), Japan and Mr. Peter Buckmaster (below-right), Director of Digital Services at the NSW Department of Education.

Mr. Shibata spoke about the expanding FinTech landscape in Japan and the potential of Blockchain technology for transforming the financial services sector. He presented case studies of innovation within the Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, while Mr. Buckmaster talked about the development of a Global Experience Language through co-design.

Recognition of Excellence Awards

In conjunction with the event, OpenGov recognised fourteen Singapore government agencies for their contributions towards making Singapore a Smarter, Safer and more Sustainable nation! These agencies were recognised for innovative and disruptive use of technology in the public sector through optimisation of government processes, delivering citizen-centric services and pushing the boundaries.

We will be publishing details on the winning agencies and representative projects which were taken into consideration soon.


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