Singapore’s CIO, Chan Cheow Hoe, picks three applications that define the city-state’s digital transformation.
When Chan Cheow Hoe was appointed government CIO for Singapore in 2014, he accepted a challenge that was nothing short of business model change.
The veteran of Citibank, Barclays, ABN AMRO and CT Corporation set about progressively building a cutting-edge digital capability in a government technology organization that had largely outsourced its technology needs.
The vision: to develop a digital team that would bring government services into the Amazon/Google/Facebook age, while setting the island city-state on a course to becoming the world’s first smart nation (albeit one just over 700 km2 in size and with a population of 5.6 million).
Since then, Hive, the internal innovation hub Chan kick-started as a catalyst for transformation has gone from a team of seven hand-picked developers to more than 300, making it a core unit of the 2,000-strong GovTech Singapore — the agency driving the smart nation and public sector digital transformation. Given that in 2014 95% of IT was outsourced that is a remarkable transition — and the digital services that have been delivered have been equally impressive.
But as Chan, who is also the deputy chief executive of GovTech Singapore, says the journey to a smart nation had to demonstrate its value before it was allowed to scale and expand. And he cites three applications that have been instrumental in achieving that.
“When we first started out with the concept of smart nation we focused on the low hanging fruit. One of the very first applications that had a lot of impact was OneService, which came about from an observation of how hard it is to complain to the government.”
He cites the example of a tree blown down and blocking a road. “The chances are you can’t find the right agency to inform: depending on where the road is, it could be the park service, it could be the national development agency, it could be the transportation authority. So people get upset and if the situation is not rectified they end up calling the police who actually have nothing to do with that kind of issue,” says Chan.
With OneService citizens can photograph and geo-locate such an incident and send the information to a central service where a rules-based engine routes the case to the relevant authority. And when the issue has been resolved, the original sender is informed.
Such an app transforms the experience of interacting with the government. “Citizens feel good about it,” says Chan. “They are being heard, their problems are being addressed quickly and there’s accountability and transparency.”
Like all emergency services, Singapore’s Civil Defence Force is aware of the importance of getting an ambulance to a patient who has had a life-threatening event such as a cardiac arrest or a stroke in as short a time as possible. But one of Chan’s team in Hive came up with an app — MyResponder — that can enhance the chances of survival further by crowdsourcing help from individuals nearby with life-saving skills.
Following an emergency call, volunteers registered with MyResponder are sent a notification on their phone if they are within a 400-metre radius of the incident.
“When we first started, we only had about 130 volunteers,” says Chan. “That was until the first case when a university student saved someone’s life. He was sent a notification, went there, did CPR and saved the person. Today MyResponder has more than 30,000 volunteers around the country — that’s 30,000 people walking around who could potentially help in those precious few minutes before the ambulance arrives.”
He adds: “One key aspect of such an application can have tremendous impact and it can be done really quickly and with low resource commitment, taking away the old notion that government projects cost hundreds of millions of dollars and taking half a decade to complete.”
Moments of Life
Having built a portfolio of around 100 applications over the past four years, the Singapore team is now moving to a new stage with a fundamental rethink of how government provides services to citizens.
Chan outlines the ambition: “Most people engage with government at different points in their lives because they have to rather than because they want to. A life event such as giving birth to a child has happened and they need to come to government to register the birth, to set up vaccinations, to claim some tax credit and so on.”
But accessing such services has been a challenge for individuals, he says, as it forces them to access services from multiple government agencies. The Singapore government team set out to invert that process. “We thought, wouldn’t it be great if a life event triggered the provision of all the services someone needed at one shot,” he says. That idea has became a reality in the Moments of Life app series.
“From cradle to grave, there are different moments of life when you have intense dealings with the government and we wanted to reduce the friction significantly for those. Instead of making you run around 10 agencies, we just package [the services] and deliver them to you based on your needs at that point in time,” says Chan.
Having started with childbirth, Chan’s team is currently working on creating a bundle that helps people with the services they need when they are going through bereavement. Next the plan is to deliver service packages for events such as going to elementary school and university, finding a job, retiring and active aging.
Indeed, Moments of Life has been so well received that the team is planning to create a similar program for businesses, with packaged services for starting a business, growing the enterprise business, taking it international and even closing down the operation.
Chan characterizes the change as the next inflection point in government services: “It’s no more about applications: it’s about giving you relevant services as and when you need them in an anticipatory way.”
• Photography: Jon Enoch