A new mother barely has time to think, let alone to interact with government. But New Zealand used to require her to complete 25 different processes before the baby was even 6 months old.

This was a complex burden, and one that was unnecessary. So government took on the heavy lifting, pulling those services into one place to make it easier for her.

This is the vision for personalised services, where government does the work so that citizens can focus on their lives. GovInsider spoke with key figures in New Zealand, Singapore, Estonia and the United Nations at the Innovation Labs World summit to find out how this can work.

Helping new parents

New Zealand’s flagship programme is called SmartStart – the predictive service for new and expecting parents. Maria Robertson, Deputy Chief Executive of Service Delivery and Operations in the Department of Internal Affairs of New Zealand “mapped out quite successfully a series of life events that are quite predictable and they’re usually when people are at their most vulnerable.”

These services were pulled together and simplified. Rather than having to hunt for information, parents now get information sent to them, such as what financial assistance they can get, options for hiring carers and immunisation services. It’s taking the same approach now with end of life services, which guides citizens through services available in the event of a death in their family.

The SmartStart and End of Life services are part of New Zealand’s larger agenda of developing predictive services that make it much more convenient and intuitive for citizens to apply for welfare or benefits, or access specific government services, at key points of their lives.

Smart Singapore

Singapore is also prioritising this approach. Dr Janil Puthucheary, Singapore Senior Minister-of-State for Communications and Information, believes that governments “need to rethink what constitutes success”, and constantly innovate. The fancy technologies of today, such as autonomous vehicles, e-residency, and blockchain technology, could very well be outdated five years own the road.

He stressed that Singapore’s smart nation vision is ever-evolving. A smart city of any kind requires “ongoing transformation, ongoing updating”. “If we went down the route of saying that a smart nation is defined by a series of projects, we’re missing the point,” Dr Puthucheary said.

“If we went down the route of saying that a smart nation is defined by a series of projects, we’re missing the point.”

For constant innovation to take place, he invited Singapore’s government officials to take a “whole-of-government, whole-of-nation, whole-of-society approach”, so that no matter their designation, they will all be working towards one common goal.

Digital identity for everyone

Taavi Rõivas, Prime Minister of Estonia from 2014 to 2016, echoed Dr Puthucheary’s sentiments, noting that there is “no way of setting any end dates” for improvements in public services. “With technology, you constantly have to keep pedalling, and then you can really tell that your society is developing as digital,” he said.

Estonia is a nation that, very early on, made digital technologies a cornerstone of its vision. Crucially, it was decided in 2000 that “we have identity for everyone, which was a very, very important key enabler”, he explained.

The system was not set as a national objective, but started “as a hobby” he revealed. Official were noodling around with an idea that sounded like a joke, but instead became revolutionary. Rõivas encouraged other nations to explore digital identities as “once we have that, everywhere globally, imagine how much we can save”.

Pay it forward

Pedro Conceição, Director for Strategic Policy for the Bureau for Policy and Programme Support at UNDP, identified digital finance as a way for developing nations to “really move ahead quite quickly”. He shared how, in parts of East Africa, citizens are using mobile phones to transfer money to each other.

Companies are taking it a step further, deploying utilities such as solar-powered generators to poor-income households in a ‘pay as you go’ system, he said. Families can pay through their mobile phones in installments.

Governments even have an opportunity to measure the creditworthiness of a household by monitoring whether these mobile payments are being made, he noted. “This mechanism is being used to enable people to access loans for education, start a business, buy a bicycle.”

The panellists concluded the session with sharing a wishlist for the next year. Conceição hopes to see more citizen engagement in government processes. Meanwhile, Rõivas thinks that governments should be open to new business models: fintech and the gig economy are two examples. “Helping them to emerge is something that will enable progress,” he said.

Robertson, on the other hand, wants government to “try things and commit to iterating and putting additional evolutions out there in very quick succession”.

The general consensus, then, is that it is this spirit of constant innovation that is how governments will propel forwards into the next century.