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Locking in the COVID-19 Digitalisation Gains

The following has been adapted from a speech by GovTech chief executive Kok Ping Soon to an audience of CIOs at a STACK-X event on 25 March 2021

Lessons from COVID

The past year has been marked by discontinuities and disruption in all aspects of our lives – work, home, school and social.  In many ways, it has been a period of profound learning, adjustment and adaptation.  Though the pandemic has been disruptive, it has also underscored the potential and value of digital technology in nearly every segment of society.  More than anything else, digital technology has played a critical role in our fight against COVID-19.

For example, Singapore health authorities reduced the time taken by more than 50% to identify and quarantine a close contact, from 4 days to less than 1.5 days. This was achieved through the development and use of TraceTogether and SafeEntry, applications that GovTech developed to support manual contact tracing.  The Gov.sg WhatsApp channel delivers regular updates to 1.2 million subscribers in their preferred language to keep them informed of the situation.  And of course, technology has allowed us to keep in touch with loved ones and to conduct business, via virtual meetings.

However, it has not been an easy year for CIOs.  On one hand, with demand shrinking, CIOs faced pressures to cut costs and stop new projects.  At the same time, they need to rapidly scale up technology enablers to support remote working and new digital business models in order to survive. At the height of COVID-19 last year, many of us would have received an image on WhatsApp asking people who led the digital transformation of their company.  COVID-19 may have forced CIOs to be reactive initially, but a year on I hope many will have shifted from a survival defensive mode to an opportunity-seeking offensive mode.

Locking in Gains

Such a shift is necessary because COVID-19 has helped reduce years’ worth of effort needed to drive digital transformation.  A McKinsey study last year said that we have leapt five years forward in consumer and business digital adoption in just a matter of eight weeks.  CIOs should lock in these gains and resist the temptation to revert to old ways of doing things.  Doing so requires three pivots that CIOs must spearhead in their organisations.

Digital First

Firstly, be Digital First by shifting more physical business processes to digital delivery. Having experienced the convenience and understood the possibilities offered by digital technology, consumers and businesses will demand increasingly high-quality digital options.

Do more to make digital services easy to use and seamless. Avoid the temptation of applying a ‘digital lipstick’ on a legacy process. For example, many restaurants have stopped giving out menus for dine-in service to minimise contact.  You are asked to scan a QR code for the menu which, as it turns out, is nothing more than a PDF copy of the old menu.  You still need to get a server to take your order.  This is digitisation and not digitalisation. 

At GovTech, we are striving to digitalise all government services.  Today, 95% of government transactions can be completed digitally from end-to-end – paperless, cashless and presence-less.  Registering your newborn and getting the baby bonus is now fully digital.  Getting a license to set up a business is also fully digital.  Booking an appointment for your COVID-19 vaccination is done digitally.  And when you are done, a digital copy of your vaccination certificate is in your HealthHub account.

Our Digital Platforms are open to support the private sector’s digitalisation efforts. SingPass, which is Singapore’s national digital identity platform, now provides seamless and secure access to over 1,400 digital services by 340 public and even private sector organisations such as Prudential (an insurance company) and OCBC (a bank).  With SingPass’ MyInfo function, businesses can offer “one-click” registration and perform e-Know Your Customer (e-KYC). With its Login function, businesses can authenticate their users with high assurance, without the need to operate their own systems.  And with Digital Signing, users can now electronically sign contracts and legal documents, allowing transactions to be completed in a presence-less environment.

Cloud First

Secondly, CIOs should lock in the use of cloud and microservice-based architecture in developing their applications. A cloud-first strategy has been instrumental in our ability to quickly roll out COVID-19 digital solutions.  Postmaster, the backend platform for the Gov.sg WhatsApp channel, was built using Twilio’s SMS platform. Our COVID-19 chatbot uses Google’s Dialogue Flow. The TraceTogether App is built on Google’s Firebase mobile platform.  And the series of GoWhere websites and SafeEntry were built on AWS to enable reusability and scalability.

We are not just developing new applications on the cloud but migrating 70% of Government ICT systems onto the Commercial Cloud.  To support this migration, we have been developing the SG Tech Stack. Instead of having to develop a new application from scratch, agencies can now access a global ecosystem of ready-made applications to add advanced features to their digital services. Application testing and deployment can now be automated and done in real-time, increasing the cadence of delivery.

Cloud has become the foundation that enables organisations to transform, differentiate and gain a competitive advantage.  The adoption of a cloud-first strategy will enhance organisations’ digital transformations; a reluctance to do so will mean an increased risk of being left behind.

Digital Transformation

Third, CIOs should lock in the centrality of Digital in their organisation’s business strategy.  According to Gartner, organisations that seized the COVID-19 opportunity and increased funding for digital innovation are 2.7 times more likely to be a top performer, rather than a trailing one.  CIOs and engineering teams are now uniquely positioned to influence not just how business is done, but what should be done.  They should take advantage of this window of opportunity and digitalise their end-to-end business processes.

GovTech is reshaping the roles and responsibilities of CIOs in the Government. Our CIOs are now in the front seat when it comes to driving their agencies’ Transformation Plans. In the past, CIOs were primarily order-takers at the end of a value chain and were judged based on their ability to maintain cost-efficient and reliable infrastructure because IT was considered a cost centre.  Now, CIOs are expected to demonstrate how IT can be leveraged to deliver transformational growth because it is accepted as a value-driver.  This will require CIOs to develop new skills.  It is not good enough for CIOs to simply keep abreast of the latest technologies.  They need to hone their communication skills, develop relationships with other business leaders, and understand how IT can best serve their organisations’ needs and goals.

Risks

But while I encourage CIOs to take an offensive stance by being digital-first, cloud-first and locking in the centrality of Digital in their organisations, three defensive plays should not be forgotten.  Not paying attention to these risks will set us back in the digitalisation agenda.

The first is cybersecurity.  The SolarWinds cyber-attack, which affected 18,000 organisations, including US government agencies and Fortune 500 companies, is a reminder that cyber threats are real, trans-border and constantly evolving.  To derive the benefits of digitalisation, we must be ever-vigilant against cyber risks. We need continuous and sustained efforts to strengthen our cybersecurity posture.

The second is data security and privacy.  With greater digitalisation, the volume and value of data will grow in tandem.  Data can yield valuable insights that improve business efficiencies.  It can enhance products and services for consumers.  But as more data is collected, the risk of data breaches also increases.  If data is not used responsibly, trust can be eroded, even undermined.  We must accord due protection to personal data and privacy by strengthening the accountability of organisations for the personal data we handle.

The third is third-party risks.  The rapid pace of technology development and the skills gap mean many organisations will need to seek outside help.  However, this can lead to reliability and security issues.  Organisations need to have better governance and take a more intelligent risk-based approach.  Develop standardised processes and proactive decision-making using analytics, instead of sliding into a “firefighting” mode and only tackling issues when they arise.

Conclusion

There has never been a better time for those of us in the ICT industry.  COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of digital tools, increased the appetite of organisations for digitalisation, and demonstrated new ways of working together.  The impetus for digital transformation has never been stronger, and the tangible benefits that can be derived are clear for all to see.   Let us seize this opportunity to lock in the digitalisation gains while watching out for the risks. There’s certainly a lot of work ahead for all of us, but the digitalisation momentum borne out of the pandemic will carry us through.

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