Earlier this month, in a parliamentary response to a question from MP Wong Shu Qi, the Malaysian Prime Minister’s office announced on Twitter that more than 200 smartphone apps had been developed by the government to digitalise public services. So many in fact, that it was necessary to create another app to catalogue and aggregate them all.

Last week, Dr Ong Kian Ming, the former Deputy Minister of International Trade and Industry, tweeted a series of insights about these apps. Among other things, he noted that 97 of them had been downloaded less than 1,000 times. This included an app designed to help citizens locate the closest public toilet, branded “the most redundant thing ever” on Twitter by users.

Amidst this ensuing debate about public expenditure, the revelations highlight a familiar problem in the field of digital government: that of longevity and sustainability. In particular, they speak to the difficulties of measuring success by the quality – rather than the quantity – of solutions.

Some of these apps were also developed for niche or one-time functions. MyVisitor KLN is an app designed specifically for visitors to register their arrival at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs office in Putrajaya. It is rated just 1.0 out of 5 on the App Store, the lowest possible score. According to one review, registering through the app is not even a requirement of visiting the ministry.

One of the key indicators of success in digital government is how solutions remain effective over time. Distinct from products simply enduring, “building upon rather than building over” has become a focus for successful digital government projects, from global government-facing tech initiative GovStack to Estonia’s X-Road.

The announcement of 200 smartphone apps is at the other extreme, with development teams seemingly focused on the introduction of novel digital government components as a measure of success in and of itself.

The presence of so many apparently redundant apps, scarcely updated and rarely downloaded, has raised concerns amongst Malaysians about data security and efficacy of government spending.

‘Thank you for your suggestion’: Creating a feedback loop between citizen and government

One of the simpler apps developed by the Malaysian Government, STAPS, was created to provide data on the country’s maritime tides. A user can select their region from the interface, and the app will give them a daily tide forecast.

Downloaded fewer than 100 times, the app has just two reviews. The first, posted in May 2022, simply states “the app doesn’t work”. The second, posted in July 2022, conveys its writer’s frustration in block capitals, “I CAN’T EVEN SELECT MY REGION”. The app was last updated in January. If the developers have seen the reviews, they have yet to acknowledge them either by a response or an update.

The problem with the app is not so much an inherent lack of usefulness. Malaysia, after all, has more than  20,000 islands. Instead, it suffers from a lack of focus on longevity. This app was released and then apparently left to function without being updated or constantly evaluated.

This pattern is not limited to the more esoteric of the Malaysian government’s offerings. One of the most popular apps – by number of downloads – is a higher education app called UPUPocket, which has 323 ratings and 0 developer responses. The app is rated just 2.3 out of 5.

Where government design teams have responded to user reviews, it has often been to good effect. Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store both provide built-in opportunities for users to give direct feedback to app designers. However, of the 96 apps developed by the Malaysian Government currently available to download on the App Store, only 7 of them contain reviews to which developers have publicly responded.

Apart from gathering feedback for improvements to apps, the App Store and Google Play review pages have been used to inform users about upcoming updates to apps, indicate when development problems have been solved, and even explain the developers’ limitations when it comes to adding particular functionalities.

This approach has not been utilised widely enough. Having a strong feedback loop back to the end user is important in any project, especially so in government projects funded by taxpayers’ money.

Eliminating redundancies benchmarking and understanding wider market contexts

A lack of contextual awareness in seeking user feedback has been reflected in an apparent lack of comparison between the performance of apps. Without any benchmarking capacity, it can be difficult to pivot on failing apps, or champion successful ones.

Dr Ong noted the disparities between two government apps on Twitter, reiterating that “just because apps are regularly updated, doesn’t mean they are used often”. The first was MyTeenKafe, an “app (downloaded 5k times) with a high rating of 4.5 & decent user reviews” that was last updated in December 2019. The second was MyPotholes, an app that “only has 50+ downloads and does not have enough ratings to register a score” that was updated as recently as June 2022.

Another problem that the Malaysia government’s apps face is that several have very similar functions. The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Agency (MACC) has released both MACC AR and MACC Outreach to educate the public vis-à-vis corruption. Similarly, AT-IPM CACAO and DMCOCOA have both been developed to support farmers in making decisions about whether and how to use pesticides.

Without a focus on active comparison between projects and the building on the legacy of earlier offerings, spotting patterns across apps becomes difficult. Value adds such as integrated services – which benefit from cost synergies and improve the experiences of app users – cannot be realised.

It is just as important to benchmark against non-government alternatives. One of the most frequently downloaded of the Malaysian Government’s apps is Sistem Janji Temu Klinik KKM, which enables users to book treatment slots in clinics throughout Malaysia.

The app has been downloaded more than 100,000 times, and of the 623 ratings on the App Store, the app averages 1.2 out of 5. “Stupid app. Bad outcome” reads one review, “this app is nothing but a total nuisance” says another.

Around the world, private sector solutions exist to help users book restaurants, service appointments, and healthcare slots. There is little to suggest that this government app could not be integrated with these solutions.

All in all, measuring a country or locality’s digital government preparedness purely by the number of projects can be limiting. A large number of independent projects can risk the creation of silos, undermine interoperability, and diminish an end user’s experience.

Novelty and longevity need not be mutually exclusive. But to work in tandem requires strong contextual awareness and an even stronger commitment to monitoring and evaluation. It is this contextual awareness that Malaysia’s government-designed apps need to improve on moving forward.

Luke Cavanaugh holds a Master’s in Global Affairs from the Schwarzman Scholars programme at Tsinghua University, Beijing and is a graduate of the University of Cambridge. He has recently worked for StateUp, as part of the ITU Team working on GovStack, and sits on the Global Visionaries Board of the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union.