Former US President Abraham Lincoln once said: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.” It was a statement made in 1863, but its essence still rings true today as governments endeavour to continue serving citizens to the best of their abilities.

But what does that look like in the digital age? The proliferation of tech around the globe has, on one hand, brought about an unprecedented degree of convenience and opened numerous doors for citizen engagement. On the other, it has created a digital divide, further exacerbating inequalities in societies and breeding distrust as misinformation spreads.

At GovInsider’s Festival of Innovation 2022, government leaders and technologists gathered to discuss how they can best bridge the gap while ensuring continued trust among citizens.

Citizen-centric tech

In the Baltic nation Estonia, tech is now an integral part of daily life. “We reached a point where almost anything and everything you need or want to do with the government, you can do online,” said former Government CIO of Estonia Siim Sikkut at a panel entitled “Citizen-centricity at the heart of digital transformation”. This includes government services such as healthcare, business registration, education and citizen engagement.

But it is only when governments focus on being user- and citizen-centric from day one that they will have a chance of maximising the traction of their digitalisation initiatives, Sikkut said. He said one way governments could do that was by introducing legislation to give governments “a kick in the butt”.

Estonia, for instance, has introduced a rule of “once only”, which mandates that citizens should have to submit their information to the government only once in order to access all government services.

Placing a focus on citizens can also help government agencies to address and overcome any resistance citizens may have towards their services. Governments can do this by better understanding the needs of their citizens, where their challenges lie, and what their social norms are, said Mohamed Hardi, Chief Information Officer at Singapore’s National Heritage Board.

It’s about having the public sector meet people “where they are”, rather than having the people meet them, said Cherie Tseng, Editor at social enterprise The Birthday Collective, who was moderating a panel named “Democracy 2.0: The future of public engagement”.

Inclusion amid digitalisation

When governments shift their services online, some may be left behind. For instance, one key demographic that may struggle with tech is the elderly.

“Those above 60 years old often need support and help when it comes to government digital services,” said Ng Seng Ping, Regional Vice President of ASEAN Public Sector at cloud-based software supplier Salesforce. Ng was quoting research from a Trust Imperative report by Salesforce and Boston Consulting Group.

Addressing the needs of the elderly is particularly important in countries such as Singapore, whose population is ageing even as society digitalises rapidly. The Central Provident Fund Board (CPF) – the body that runs the nation’s compulsory savings and pension plan – in particular, needs to cater to this demographic. It is doing so by reimagining its relationship with senior citizens.

“We no longer want to just have a government-to-citizen relationship – we aspire to be a trusted friend to our elderly citizens,” said Wong Yan Jun, the CPF’s Chief Information Officer.

To do so, trust needs to take centre stage as a currency of public service. Wong said three key elements were required to promote trust: care, competence and communication.

First, governments need to demonstrate care by putting themselves in the position of citizens to understand their circumstances and concerns. Next, they need to create competent solutions to address their problems through communication. And finally, they need to be able to communicate these solutions to the citizens to demonstrate their genuine desire to help.

“We no longer want to just have a government-to-citizen relationship – we aspire to be a trusted friend
to our elderly citizens”

Wong Yan Jun, Chief Information Officer, CPF

One way the CPF puts these three principles into practice is by personalising the design of its websites to cater to senior citizens. For instance, it recognised that elderly people may suffer from deteriorating vision. To address that, it chose a sans serif typeface and ensured a strong colour contrast between website backgrounds and type for an easier viewing experience.

The West African nation Ghana is making a conscious effort to create tech that’s simple to use so that even those who are less digitally-savvy can access digital services. This means reducing the number of steps it takes to access a government portal and providing numerous language options to cater to the country’s diverse collection of tribal and ethnic groups.

Trust us, we’re the government

One hurdle many government agencies face when digitalising their services is a growing distrust of technology, Wong said.

He attributes such mistrust to three key notions: the perception that technology abuses, breaks and cheats. In order to build trust in their digital services, governments will therefore need to address these perceptions.

First, citizens are unsure about what government agencies may use their data for. Wong gave the example of cookies on websites. Government sites often require people to accept the use of cookies before they can use the site, but many may be wary about what their data is being captured and used for.

One way governments can address this is by creating a two-way street of communication with people. Ghana, for instance, required local authorities to organise platforms through which people could engage with government officials at town hall-style meetings.

The country also implemented a grievance redress mechanism to close the feedback loop with its citizens. Through this mechanism, citizens obtain clear confirmation that their concerns have been heard, and they receive feedback on how those concerns will be addressed.

Second, tech needs to work well for citizens to trust it. Every time technology breaks and citizens are inconvenienced as a result, their trust in digital services is undermined. “There’s nothing more frustrating than using an app and trying to access a service online, and it doesn’t work,” said Lily Fati Soale, Director of Finance and General Administration at Ghana’s Ministry of Chieftaincy and Religious Affairs.

Fundamentally, governments need to ensure that as they digitalise, their network infrastructure is able to support the digital services they offer adequately. Governments should also ensure that tech can be relied upon when citizens need it.

One way they can encourage resilient digital services is through legislation. For instance, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) – the country’s central bank – mandates that digital banking services resolve any issues within four hours of a disruption. Additionally, any unscheduled downtime exceeding four hours within a 12-month period is subject to supervisory action, said Tharman Shanmugaratnam, a Senior Minister and the Minister in charge of MAS in parliament.

Shanmugaratnam said the MAS “takes seriously” all IT incidents that affect the availability of digital banking services.

Finally, there is a growing concern that technology is associated with cheating and misdeeds, fuelled by a rise in the number of scams and the spread of misinformation. This has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has ushered in a spike in ransomware incidents, scams and phishing activities, according to the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore.

The Indonesian province of West Java has taken a proactive approach to addressing misinformation by creating a single source of verified truth for all government information. It created an app named Sapawarga, through which people can find the latest updates and information on public services in the province, said Dyana Chusnulitta Jatnika, Tribe Lead of Citizen Engagement and Services at Jabar Digital Services.

Security is another key consideration for governments when going digital, as highlighted by Leonard Tan, Regional Sales Director of low-code app management platform OutSystems. To build trust, people must be offered peace of mind that their data is not being leaked, Tan said.

Digitalisation offers enormous potential for governments to engage more effectively with citizens and create more personalised services as a result. But such initiatives must be anchored in an understanding that no one is left behind, and that the citizen-government relationship is not plagued by a perpetual distrust of technology.

To watch these panels or other panels at the Festival of Innovation, register here.