“I hope you won’t get me in trouble,” says Mark Lim, Director of Singapore’s Government Digital Service. A few years back, Lim admits, he started a new government unit without permission, running it in his spare time with a group of friends.

It’s taken over an hour for this story to be teased out, and he seems embarrassed to mention it. Outside his day job, Lim would join a group of like-minded civil servants, planning hacks that could improve government websites and create new digital services.

Three years later, we are in a huge office filled with young hackers standing at their desks, hammering on their keyboards. The walls have been written on; there are post-it notes everywhere; and there’s a ton of… stuff – computers, comfy chairs, a foosball table, some cartoon monsters, a teh tarik machine – just lots of stuff.

This may be Singapore’s coolest startup, and it’s run by public servants solely to make a difference to citizens’ lives. Its apps cut across transport, healthcare, education and more. GovInsider brings you the inside story on how the unit was set up, and what it’s up to now.

Secret beginnings

A few years back, Lim’s day job was in the IDA working on projects that used technology to help people with special needs. Lim was hitting his project targets, and felt a need to do more. He knew there was potential for tech to transform other government services.

Quietly, Lim co-opted one of his fellow software engineers, and started running secret projects alongside their official workloads. Slowly the team grew, with like-minded engineers doing extra tasks alongside their day jobs.

After a couple of years, Jacqueline Poh became Managing Director of the IDA, and Lim was called in to meet her. They discussed his day job for a while, but Lim couldn’t resist mentioning his other projects. She immediately saw its potential, as did Assistant Chief Executive, Chan Cheow Hoe.

With their backing, the GDS became official. Before that, there was a sense that they were “cowboy programmers”, he says, but a team of 8 enthusiasts has now grown to 100 people with a string of successful projects behind them and a headquarters modelled on a Star Wars sand crawler.

What they do

The GDS started out building apps for the Library Board, but its remit has grown substantially. Essentially, they will take on any bold new idea – the bolder the better – and use technology to test it.

These can be internal projects, like measuring the effectiveness of communication campaigns; service reforms, like building an app to put public buses on demand; or tech trials, like using sensors to measure outpatient heart rates.

“Don’t let the idea die because of procurement,” Lim says. When officers come up with good ideas, the GDS can trial it and see if it works. “We try it small and if we fail, it’s okay, we move on. But if they start with a big tender and it doesn’t work, they’re so stressed and they stop coming up with new ideas.”


”Don’t let the idea die because of procurement”

If there are signs of success, a full tender will be done so that the idea can be passed to the private sector. This co-development model has happened on a number of projects, with big companies also proving satisfied. The pilots prove that there is a clear business model, and focus government minds on the objectives of a project. Businesses can then scale up the initiative.

The GDS in four schemes

This approach is best demonstrated through the projects themselves. Here are four schemes that the GDS has already built. Alongside these are at least ten schemes that the unit won’t yet publicly reveal.

1. OneService App

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Everyone loves to complain about public service delivery. From overfull bins to dirty lifts, citizens can get frustrated. Many governments try not to discuss these complaints, but slowly officials across the world have noticed how valuable they can be. Small problems can be tackled before they balloon out of control, if complaints are picked up promptly.

This mindset led to the creation of the OneService app, which allows citizens to complain to 8 different agencies. If there is a problem in their neighbourhood, they simply use their smartphone to tag the problem there and then. They can even send a photo. Behind the scenes, agencies negotiated to unify their complaints procedures, and users can watch the complaint get routed to the correct agency while they await a response.

Over 40,000 people have downloaded the app so far.

2. myResponder app

Many of the GDS’ projects were planned on coffee shop napkins, and this is no exception. The Singapore Civil Defence Force wanted to use volunteers to augment medical services, and met with GDS officials one morning to discuss this further.

After a fair bit of scribbling, the myResponder app was born. This alerts all first aiders of a cardiac arrest within 400 metres, and displays the nearest defibrillator machine as well.

3. Beeline scheme

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What if public buses took you straight from your house to your office, without stopping all along the way? And what if you could reserve a seat on one as well? These ideas prompted the creation of the Beeline scheme – a data-driven project run by the GDS’s data unit and the Land Transport Authority.

4. Gov.SG readability

Not every idea has to be a big one. The GDS has been quietly working to make government websites more accessible to disabled people. A team of User Experience (UX) designers have been working to monitor how people currently interact with the sites, simplifying the text, layouts and design to make it easier for citizens to find information. Their equipment includes a high-tech eyeball tracker that monitors user interaction with the site.

How they do it

The GDS has a secret weapon when building its projects. Rather than do everything from scratch, they take elements from one project and drop it straight into another. The map from the Beeline app was also used to build an app that allows nature lovers to tag bird sightings in Singapore parks.

Coders often use ‘GitHub’ (a code repository), and GDS has built its own. This means that code can be shared with any department in government, instantly reducing the time it takes for an app to get off the ground.

They also use, naturally, the agile project management methodology. Lim notes that Google engineers don’t even call it this – they just describe it as project management. But government officials are still getting used to a development model that entails building quickly, testing on users and failing fast. This approach first faced resistance in government, he says, but is slowly being welcomed as the results become clear.

Incubator for talent

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The GDS is always looking out for new talent, and recruits in a rather novel way. “We do competitive coding,” Lim says. At the last event, 200 people came to take part, with the top three getting hired. It brings to mind a scene from the Social Network movie, where the actor playing Mark Zuckerberg runs a hacking competition to find the first engineers for Facebook.

This new recruitment approach is in-keeping with the GDS. Across the board, they are mimicking ideas from cutting-edge tech companies, and challenging the old ways of doing things.

That mindset shows when GI tours the office. It is messy and mad: people are packed in everywhere; most surfaces are covered in paper or written on; there are even pictures of wizards and dragons stuck to the walls.

It feels fresh and – importantly – not faked. Even without beanbag chairs and a ping-pong table, the GDS would still feel radical.

It may not intend to IPO, but this startup is getting traction. It is certainly a hot investment for Singapore.

Now read: How the GDS used design thinking to build its ‘heart attack app’