Singapore government is looking to China as a benchmark for digital disruption, a senior govtech leader has said.

“I think we should seriously start to look at Chinese companies. It is the Chinese companies that are really embracing technology and building intelligent systems. If you ask me, government is really looking to some of these digital disruptors,” said Kok Ping Soon, Chief Executive of Singapore’s Government Technology Agency (GovTech) during a panel discussion at the IDC Futurescapes 2019 event last Friday.

“Increasingly, we are realising that our competitor reference is not government, it’s the private companies,” he continued, adding that his agency is still “far from being a digital organisation”.

For governments to innovate, they need to be “absolutely, singularly focused on the user”, Kok went on to say. Singapore is using design thinking and behavioural insights to do this, in what Kok described as “a very disciplined approach to tackle problems”.

One major way that the government is doing this is with Moments of Life, which clusters related services onto one platform to support citizens at various key stages of their lives. This year, the government launched a trial of the app, targeting families with young children. It allows new parents to register births and access other related services through a single app.

GovTech is changing how it develops services in a bid to be more user-centric. Firstly, Kok said, the agency is looking to hire product owners over project managers. “Project managers manage project timelines”, whereas product owners will have a more holistic view of projects and whether they address users’ needs. They will “close the gap” between operations and policy, he explained. “We are starting to retrain our project owners to be product owners,” Kok remarked.

This way, design thinking is a key part of how services are developed from the beginning. At the same time, it is “absolutely important” to marry design thinking with agile methodologies, so that agencies can iterate rapidly, according to Kok.

“We need to start ‘codifying’ the whole design thinking principles,” said Kok. “The job to be done should be expressed not in terms of a product attribute that you sell, but of the experience and the value that you generate for that user.”

Next, the agency hopes to develop “playbooks” for “the rules of play for agile”, so that they can be used throughout whole-of-government, he said.

Finally, the agency wants to create a “startup culture” in government, and “continue to do things afresh” by running innovation challenges, for starters. “It’s not easy because the government is traditional, as you think about it, quite clunky – but we try to do that on a more regular basis,” Kok said.

His focus for the year ahead is “digital inclusion”, pointing out that it is just as important to drive adoption and engagement among Singaporeans as it is to build innovative services.

GovTech wants to ensure that more local businesses are digitally enabled too. Kok added that digital inclusion does not only mean ensuring that members across all levels of society can access services, but also “inclusion in terms of companies”. “How can we help the rest of the companies, 200,000 SMEs, for them to also be in the digital business,” he explained.