Singapore’s startup-like approach to government is making life better for its citizens

In 2017, convenience is too easy, too straightforward, too… convenient. Thanks to services such as Amazon Prime Now, Netflix and Quiqup, 99% of the time something you want can be yours within the next few minutes to the hour – occasionally within the next few days. Such convenience has rewired our brains and shifted our expectations for what we believe is acceptable service.

It’s a culture that private businesses have managed to tap into with great success. The trouble is, the same can’t be said for governments – the very institutions that should be able to morph themselves to fit with the ever-changing nature of their citizens’ interests.

Many see the government – on both local and national levels – as an amorphous mass. Attempts to make themselves more approachable have met with limited success. The UK government invested a lot of money in the GOV.UK website restructure, saving £70 million in the process, but its impact has been rather minimal.

Singapore, on the other hand, has taken inspiration from the private sector when it comes to innovating its workflow. Instead of bankrolling huge internal teams or outsourcing development in return for bloated, unfriendly services, Singapore’s government technology agency – GovTech – has looked to startups for inspiration. GovTech’s “The Hive” is an incubator, of sorts, where tech talent can be fostered in the pursuit of building technologies that benefit both its citizens and the government agencies that need to use them.

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GovTech has helped the Singaporean government reinvent itself as a place for the top tech talent in the nation as they work towards building a nation based on data and facts, rather than ideological leanings.

Hive minded

The beating heart of this new methodology can be found in a space known as The Hive. Launched in October 2015 and located on the eighth and ninth floors of a typically snazzy Singaporean skyscraper, The Hive looks more like an office straight from the Google or Facebook design book than an office of government.

Beside the foosball and ping-pong tables, free drinks fridge and barista coffee machine, the first thing you notice about The Hive is its open and collaborative creative spaces. It’s a place focused on creativity and problem solving, a place that wants to make a difference, rather than simply to make money. You can feel this drive emanating from everyone working away in that space, and it seems to permeate GovTech’s own relationship with other government agencies.

Everything on show seems to be something that genuinely benefits society as a whole, with one app sparking memories of D4SC only built by the government rather than a group of disgruntled citizens.

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“This app was designed with a specific purpose,” explains Chan Cheow Hoe, government CIO and deputy chief of GovTech, as I’m shown OneService – an app designed to help citizens easily log complaints to the government. OneService was born out of a clear need for transparency in how the government deals with citizen complaints, alongside making it more approachable in the first place.

Citizens don’t know how to get in touch with their own government

“In Singapore, a place with a population of five million people, the police receive 1.2 million calls a year [for non-police issues]!” says Cheow Hoe, showcasing just how widespread the problem is in the first place. “Sixty-five per cent of all calls to the police have nothing to do with police work, but it’s convenient as citizens don’t know how to get in touch with their own government.”

Another issue that Singapore faces, and one that’s not exclusive to the nation, is its ageing population. With that in mind, GovTech built the myResponder app. Now, anyone who’s installed the app can report a case of cardiac arrest if they witness one. Anyone who’s registered as a volunteer and is within 400 metres of the incident will be notified and can be first-on-scene ahead of the ambulance.

“The [ideal] arrival time for an ambulance is around ten minutes [in cardiac arrest cases],” Cheow Hoe explains. “Initially [the government] put more ambulance response centres across the island to reduce response times but, as in any city with traffic jams, [reaching someone] in ten minutes is almost impossible.”

From this, myResponder was born. “We thought ‘what if we could blanket the whole country with volunteers?’” Now, thanks to Singapore’s country-wide SingPass identification system, trained medical professionals can sign up to become volunteers on myResponder to help whenever they’re nearby. Even those without training can download the app to help report cases, sharing their exact location with GPS when they get in touch with the ambulance services – saving drivers from woefully ambiguous directions like “I’m in a park next to a big tree.”

“Now we have 15,000 people running around Singapore who can help a person before paramedics or an ambulance arrive on the scene. It’s awesome because many lives have been saved, all because of a very simple app.”

Building the dream

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This incredible level of progress didn’t just come out of nowhere. In fact, Cheow Hoe faced quite the challenge convincing people that his way of thinking about public-sector tech development was the correct one.

“When I came here I was really quite shocked,” explains Cheow Hoe. “Almost everything we did or were doing was outsourced and done by a vendor.”

That mentality quickly shifted, however. In one project, Cheow Hoe and his team proved that an in-house team was capable of doing what a private company can do in two years with $5 million, with just $500,000 and four months. “That’s how we got attention – people started believing it was possible because there were real, tangible results.”

“The government can support a couple of hundred people, and a couple of hundred people should be able to yield better software and a greater focus on user experience than teams of a thousand people,” he adds.

What makes Cheow Hoe’s methodology so effective is that the teams we see at The Hive are so focused on one task. Turnover on each task is relatively short, too, meaning employees are always working on something different and expanding their skills. GovTech does still work with vendors on bigger projects, but supplements a team with its own developers to help share knowledge and get a project finished faster.

When a citizen has a problem, they don’t care how the government is organised

With this model, overhead costs are now lower than ever, allowing GovTech to focus on building apps that greatly benefit citizens’ lives, rather than simply to build systems for the government. Interestingly, Cheow Hoe and his teams understand something that doesn’t really seem apparent in our own government model – people don’t care about who’s who in the government.

“When a citizen has a problem, they don’t care how the government is organised. It could be 100 agencies, 500 agencies, it doesn’t matter for all they care. It’s up to us to make it as simple as possible [for them].”

That ethos permeates everything I see in development at The Hive, showing that this new approach to government-driven in-house development works. Each team runs like a startup, tapping into a central team of UI and UX testers, alongside a rich resource of data analysis and government APIs, to quickly put together a programme at a low cost.

“In the past we would be building everything from scratch, but now we’re in a place of APIs and microservices,” Cheow Hoe explains. “Once you make one API, you can use it a million times over and it really doesn’t matter.”

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Understanding the future

Building programmes quickly and easily is a boon for GovTech and the Singaporean government as a whole. Not only does it save money, but it opens the door to experimentation since these projects aren’t designed to recoup their costs. Singapore’s unique situation also allows it to flourish at low-cost government-led technologies in a way that few other nations can. Just one look at Estonia’s ePassport and governmental structure shows just how well a smaller nation can do when it comes to modernising its systems. It’s something the UK can only dream about.

Thanks to that extra flexibility, GovTech’s initiatives at The Hive are wide-reaching. “Ask Jamie” is a virtual assistant with natural language processing designed to handle citizen queries across all government websites; MyInfo is a web platform that draws upon the information stored in a citizen’s SingPass to autofill forms on services such as banking, utilities and more; and the Business Grants Portal is a web-based tool that lets entrepreneurs and small-business owners register and apply for business grants without the need for reams of paperwork. Everything being developed here is designed to bring some sort of benefit to society and the government knows none of its services will be flooded with tens of millions of people at a time.

GovTech isn’t just building apps, though: it’s creating tools and crunching data to aid the future of Singapore. Its team of dedicated data scientists are working to spot future trends and develop apps and services around those long before the public begin to ask for them. One example can be seen in how OneService complaints tend to be recurring issues. By crunching the data, the government can act before a tree branch or blocked drain becomes an issue again.

“The data-analytics team is trying to correlate cases to figure out what the lifecycle [of an issue] is, because many of these cases have a lifecycle and our ability to visualise this will be very important [going forward].”

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Being able to then act upon this data analysis and build new apps and services, along with helping to streamline other aspects of government, shouldn’t be too much of a problem for GovTech’s team.

One of our greatest strengths here is that we’re a very diverse bunch of people

“One of our greatest strengths here is that we’re a very diverse bunch of people,” explains Cheow Hoe, when asked how they manage to act upon new trends quickly and effectively.“From the hardcore developer to the hardcore statistician, to the social scientists and psychologists. There’s even a bunch of digital designers, and a group that came over from Ubisoft too!”

“We feel the best products are developed from this diversity, it’s really not a typical work environment.”

That much is evident, especially as I spot a swing hanging from the ceiling of the coffee area as we leave in a Star Wars-inspired lift. Whatever it is they’re pumping into the air here, it seems to be working wonders.

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