There is a Malay proverb that goes: “Sedikit-sedikit, lama-lama jadi bukit”. It means that over time, your efforts will accumulate, bit by bit, into a proverbial ‘mountain’.
This philosophy is starting to underpin Singapore Government’s digital services. The government continues to adapt its services using agile methodology, and is redesigning them to achieve broader objectives. Services are not built for departments; they cut across agencies to tackle big societal challenges.
A key challenge is in public health. Singapore is starting to grapple with the recent wave of ‘lifestyle diseases’, noted Zee Yoong Kang, CEO of the Health Promotion Board, at a recent event organised by GovInsider and NCS. In terms of diabetes, the country is “off the charts”, he continued.
So how can government tackle these big issues using digital technology? And how can officials learn from other countries, and from the best in the private sector, to ensure that Singapore is at the cutting edge?
Zee joined Keith Leong, Vice President of Global Sales & Customer Group at NCS; Alexander Lau, Principal Design Lead with the Public Service Division of Singapore; and Taavi Rõivas, Prime Minister of Estonia from 2014-2016, to debate these topics in detail.
Step by step to better health
Zee believes that the best way to get people to manage the “tsunami” of chronic conditions is to encourage them to “move that huge boulder called ‘Lifestyle’”.
That first step begins with HealthHub, a platform launched over the last year to support citizens in adopting healthier behaviours. Through HealthHub, HPB is using technology to nudge people into making the right decisions.
These nudges are personalised to suit their respective profiles – the first phase of the app offers support for diabetics and new mothers, for example. “At the appropriate time, the app pushes through bite-sized information that you need to allow you to be a bit more knowledgeable to self-manage your journey to health,” he said.
But these nudges go beyond the smartphone screen, and into the very environment that citizens live, work and play in. HPB is also working with landlords, employers and the F&B industry – “the people who actually control your environment” – to introduce exercise programmes and health screenings at the workplace, and healthier food initiatives in restaurants, Zee explained.
“The whole idea is to change the nature of the environmental influences, so that people get nudged into behaving very differently,” he continued.
“The whole idea is to change the nature of the environmental influences, so that people get nudged into behaving very differently.”
Support for every milestone
Looking beyond healthcare, the same idea can apply to any significant milestone in a citizen’s life, from beginning to end – graduation, marriage, starting a family, and even death. This is where government agencies can work towards creating seamless digital services that support citizens at these crucial times.
Singapore, for example, recently revealed plans to ‘push’ services to people at key events during their lives, anticipating which services they need before they need them. The government hopes to cluster such services, currently delivered by different agencies, onto a single platform.
Imagine the possibilities: “When a baby is born, there is automatic registration of his digital identity in a digital platform, and his personalised schedule of vaccination and health checks are input,” said Leong.
When that child reaches university age, he can log in to a learning analytics dashboard to foresee what schools or subjects he can take, for example, Leong continued. And in his silver years, a smart care app that detects falling will empower him to be more mobile at home, he added.
Where design thinking fits in
This new approach to delivering government services will naturally require a new approach to designing them. How can agencies effectively design services so that they are helpful and intuitive for the people that need them most?
Design thinking is essential here, said Lau. It prompts agencies to: empathise with the user; collaborate with the user to create solutions together; and experiment with new ideas while continuously requesting for feedback, according to Lau.
When agencies deploy design thinking, services become “a lot more people-centric – meaning not just citizen-centric”, Lau pointed out. “You need to understand from the citizen point of view, as well as the agency delivering the service, so that everyone can do it more efficiently, more intuitively,” he said.
“You need to understand from the citizen point of view, as well as the agency delivering the service, so that everyone can do it more efficiently, more intuitively.”
More efficient and intuitive service design will benefit both citizen and agency. The best public services “are the ones that we don’t actually think that we are benefiting from or using”, declared Rõivas.
“Come to think of it, why are we actually declaring taxes at all? This is something that can be done without having any interaction with the government,” said Rõivas, adding that governments today are able to “design public services to be happening without us actually needing to apply for it”.
Rõivas believes that healthcare in particular is “one of the most important sectors to think about economics”, particularly as personalised medicine comes into the fore. Actually looking into the genome to identify possible hereditary diseases before they manifest could be a boon for precision medicine and preventive healthcare, he said.
For his native Estonia, Rõivas hopes to see healthcare evolve until it gets to a point where “it is as easy to book my doctor’s appointment as it is to book a hotel in any place in the world”. “If you could have this kind of service, it would be a huge game-changer,” he mused.
In the concluding remarks, a common sentiment among the panellists was that they hoped to see the public service become “a lot more collaborative”, as Lau put it. “How do we view a very collaborative culture so that we can create solutions together, among agencies, among different disciplines and also even with the end users themselves?”
Public service is fast changing. The emphasis is now on how government services can ‘nudge’ citizens in the right direction so they lead better lives, while also supporting them during the most important moments.
With collaboration, a focus on citizens’ needs and friendly little ‘nudges’ at the right time, that mountain won’t feel so daunting after all.
Main image from HPB’s Facebook Page