How did a crack GovTech unit pivot to combat Covid-19?

Open Government Products (OGP), an experimental team in the GovTech Agency of Singapore, had to roll out new tech to tackle the pandemic, adapt to remote working, and find new HR methods to measure success.

GovInsider interviewed OGP’s Head of People and Culture, Rahul Daswani, to learn lessons on how digital units are coping with Covid-19 and creating a new normal.

Working remotely

The unit has worked remotely since early February, and helped build many of the tools now widely used to manage Covid-19 in Singapore, from daily WhatsApp updates to quarantine trackers.

They quickly found that video conferencing was “just not good enough” at helping them innovate, Daswani says. Instead, teams must “build in the informal, spontaneous stuff that really results in a lot of innovation”.


Video conferencing was “just not good enough”

OGP has found ways to replicate these conversations online with Discord – a video platform popular among gamers. It’s split into different rooms and you can see who’s in them and join the conversation. “If I want to find out what’s happening with a product, I just go and sit myself in a meeting that’s happening”, he says.

People can contribute ideas to others’ projects, like they would at weekly team meetings in the office. Daswani built a Slack bot to collect weekly updates from the team and share them with everyone. “There’s an opportunity to start new threads, like ‘hey, this is interesting, I’d like to find a bit more’ or ‘have you considered this’.” Agencies have to drive internal communications and make sure staff are kept up to date.

Bringing in the community

OGP, and their parent agency GovTech, have included the community in the battle with Covid-19. “We got emails and interest from over 600 people from overseas and in Singapore to say we want to contribute to the fight against Covid,” he says, making the agency think more broadly about its role as a facilitator, as well as a builder.

GovTech responded by pairing volunteers with existing project teams within the government. “You’re going to have to figure out new ways of working; this could be working with people who you haven’t worked with before,” Daswani (left) said at a GovInsider seminar last month. This saw over 30 volunteer coders join the full time efforts to build new tech.

Meanwhile, GovTech also launched the COVID-19 Idea Sprint, a two-week hackathon calling for prototypes and solutions from the public. They opened up a Slack channel for people to discuss their ideas directly with civil servants.

GovTech, OGP and the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office held a series of video sessions where ministries set out their Covid-19 challenges and invited the tech community to prototype solutions. For instance, the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth shared issues around mental health and isolation, while the Ministry of Health discussed contact tracing. Over 300 people took part, Daswani says.

This openness with the community and opportunities for informal “water cooler” conversations allowed the team to build better products. “We’re getting feedback from people who are using it and also passionate about technology at the same time,” he says.

Measuring success

How do you measure progress on tech tools to tackle a pandemic? OGP has created new systems that enable closer collaboration.

People get evaluated by six of their peers, along with a review by a manager. “You want to encourage more than just individual performance; you want to encourage cooperation,” he says. Every person gets a colour-coded chart showing others’ assessment of them. Scores from those working closely with an employee carry more weight.

Promotions and career progress are not decided by comparing staff against each other. Instead, people are measured against a “career schema” – a set of capabilities that each role requires. “Relative rankings without clear descriptions of good performance at each level for different job types aren’t seen as fair or objective as a system with clearly defined absolute scales.”

Aside from technical abilities, people are measured on their values and impact on the wider organisation and community. “By putting these down explicitly, it really encourages the behaviours and skills that you want, and you end up with a much larger impact both externally and internally,” adds Daswani.

The measures are benchmarked against those used by leading tech firms. “We wanted to make it industry-compatible, because then it is also transferable, and it’s reflective of what’s happening around in other tech firms.”

Tech for HR

Daswani believes there is potential for new technology to improve the way people work with each other. “Automation is great because then I can then go back to fundamental rethinking, I can check in with people in my organisation more,” he says.

For instance, he’s used software to speed up the hiring process. It emails candidates an employment contract which they can sign electronically. “We’ve had people sign it within 7 minutes. You’ll never be able to do this with a paper-generated contract.”

He is also experimenting with AI to recruit people, though the tech isn’t close to good. “Machine learning algorithms haven’t been able to give me a sufficiently better quality of candidates than traditional recruiting agencies,” he says.

Algorithms largely judge people by what’s on their CV, but many of the skills in demand today can’t be measured this way. Daswani looks for people who are self-starters, have strong public service values and can communicate in tough situations. These are “important but not easily measured”, he says.


“That is one tech innovation I wish we had already”

In the future, virtual reality could offer more natural ways for colleagues to connect, Daswani believes. “If you could in VR tap somebody on the shoulder or crack up at a side comment, I think that would be so great. That is one tech innovation I kind of wish we had already and I think can make a big difference.”

Everyone has been disrupted by Covid-19. But that disruption can’t prevent government from innovating and serving its citizens. OGP has made some of its tools open source, so that others can innovate quicker: Postman, a system for sending out government alerts, and Go, a tool to share links and updates from trusted sources.

OGP, along with its partner ministries, has adapted new tools and ideas to battle the disease – opening up the work of government, bringing the community in, and structuring and leading in different ways. Many of the innovations will likely remain even once this virus is finally slain.

Images by Open Government Products