Chan Cheow Hoe, government CIO of Singapore, on how the city-state is moving fast to fulfill its ambition to be the world’s first truly smart nation.
Cities globally are vying to earn the title of the world’s Smartest City. But Singapore has the ambition to go one level higher and become the world’s first smart nation.
For the past four years, the island city-state has been on a remarkable journey that has changed the perceptions of government IT as a (largely outsourced) capability for running departments and agencies to an outwardly facing set of digital services focused on the needs of citizens and businesses. As government CIO, reporting directly to Singapore’s prime minister, Chan Cheow Hoe has led that transformation in digital services and charted the journey to smart nationhood.
While the political will certainly exists in Singapore to achieve that goal, Chan highlights how the expectations for change were as much external as internal.
“The biggest challenge that we face is not about technology. Government needs to reinvent itself. We have to change dramatically the age-old way in which we have interacted with citizens for the last 50 years. And that’s tough because it’s not just about installing new systems or devices — that’s the easy part. The mind-set has to change so people think very differently about what government is to people and how government needs to interact with people. That will dramatically transform the way government needs to be reorganised,” he says.
Like other states, Singapore’s first wave of government digitalization was to put services online — from tax to business registration to paying fines. But, as Chan observes, that was simply taking a previously manual set of bureaucratic processes and automating them.
Consumerization of government IT
But with the rise of consumer mega-tech firms such as Google, Amazon and Facebook, people all over the world started realising that there’s a better way of doing things, he says. “Because people are now so used to dealing with those kinds of services they expect the same thing from the government. Even if the government is not as good as a Google or an Amazon, it needs to be at least close. Citizens are demanding the same level of service that they would get from a tech company and the government cannot hide [from that] any more.”
As a result, the center of gravity for government IT has shifted rapidly with the realization that to be relevant to citizens, digitalization had to be pervasive. “In the past, we had an ‘inside-out’ approach to government IT, whereby every agency created services for citizens to discover and consume. But with digitalization it has become an ‘outside-in’ approach. The focus is not on the government; the focus is on the citizen or the businesses.”
Reskilling and co-creating
That new mindset has also required a dramatic shift in the operating model for IT, says Chan. When he took on the government CIO role in April 2014, after a 23-year career in banking and commercial IT, he was faced with an organization where 95% of all government projects were outsourced.
The upshot was a hollowing out of technology capabilities within the IT organization. “Many people in IT had evolved into contract managers rather than technology project managers and because of that the quality of the projects was bad and they were expensive — and slow.” Major developments would cost tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars and typically take three to five years to complete. “Nobody has the patience to wait for three to five years these days,” he says.
Chan introduced a move to agile delivery, despite cynicism from some colleagues that the approach would not scale. He launched Hive, an internal start-up environment populated by developers, UX designers, geospatial data analytics experts drawn from gaming companies, the likes of Apple and elsewhere. And he brought in a co-sourcing model.
“We realised that we didn’t have the numbers to do large projects, so what we did was work with a partner as a group. If a project requires 40 people, we will put 20 of our team in and the vendor will match that, with developers pairing up in programming teams. When the project finishes we pull our guys out and the vendor continues.”
There are good reasons for Chan’s strategy. The Hive team (which has grown to over 300) is always keen to tackle new digital challenges. Also, by knowing the project first hand (and have access to the source code) the Hive team can intervene at any point. Lastly, and in Chan’s view most importantly, both sides learn from each other. “Our people will gain new industry skills from the vendor and at the same time we can show them how government basically works. The reality is that none of us has all the wisdom in the world. So the partnerships with technology companies big and small, the partnerships with research institutions and universities are critical. It’s the ecosystem that allows us to make this happen.”
Three pillars for a digital city
The new way of building services is informed by and supports some fundamental thinking about what it is to be a smart nation.
“Smart nation is not just about technology, it’s about doing three things right. One, how do you improve the lives of people across the whole country,” says Chan. “That’s important because cities are getting bigger and more complex. So the only way to run a city better, the only way to ensure that services are provided to people as and when they need them, is through digitalization.”
The second pillar for the digitalization of Singapore is around opportunity: creating job and development opportunities for people and opportunities for companies to grow and thrive.
Lastly, digitalization is seen as an enabling force for nurturing and sustaining communities, says Chan. “Communities form today not just because of physical proximity but through digital means. The biggest community you have now is in your phone, in LinkedIn, in Facebook, in Twitter. So we’re trying to use digital to bring people together, to live and work better, and to solve problems together.”
As Chan concludes: “We realised if we don’t implement such concepts, living in a city like Singapore is going to be more difficult, moving forward.”
• Photography: Jon Enoch