This month, GovInsider was invited to give a speech at Digital Pilipinas 2016. The article below is an edited transcript.
If Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California, could his alter ego — The Terminator — one day become GCIO?
After all, artificial intelligence is one of the ten trends that are transforming government.
GovInsider is going to run through these ten trends, giving examples of how Asian governments are already using them in their day-to-day operations.
Let’s count them down together.
At Number 10, it’s Artificial intelligence
AI isn’t just about supercomputers connected up to nuclear weapons systems.
It’s often smaller systems used to learn behaviours and assist humans. Think less of killer robots, and more of a digital R2D2 — a handy personal assistant making tasks just a little bit more efficient.
Let’s start with these schemes. The Kingdom of Bhutan only has a population of 750,000 people, who are scattered amongst remote settlements on steep hills and deep valleys.
Poor roads and bridges make some of the country completely inaccessible to vehicles, meaning that citizens can often go without receiving basic medicine supplies.
A San Francisco startup, Matternet, has partnered with the government to test out unmanned drones for delivering drugs over the mountains.
Further, the startup plans to make them fly themselves on regular routes without human interaction. This is much cheaper than the billions that new bridges and roads would require. AI and drones can completely transform healthcare systems.
What about in law enforcement: could Robocop become a reality?
Western Australia’s police force has tested a smart police car that automatically scans all the vehicles around it, reporting suspicious details and wanted license plates straight back to the main control centre without driver input.
It isn’t much of a leap to see these cars eventually doing this without any human drivers; after all, the state’s mining industry is already using driverless dumper trucks.
Machine learning systems are also proving helpful in transport. Hong Kong’s MTR, for example, schedules all of its meetings using a rudimentary AI system built by someone at a local university. They found that there were too many debates in meetings about which parts of the system should receive the most funding, so they let the computer decide it now!
As a broad trend — AI is definitely coming to a department near you very soon. It’s going to change fundamentally how government delivers services.
At number 9, it’s gamification
Politics, we are often told, is a serious business — but government can be game…
How does it work? Gamification creates an environment where people compete to win prizes as part of a game, and through the process learn something new or behave in a desirable manner.
Officials can use games to raise awareness of new or undervalued initiatives.
For example, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) wanted to make citizens more aware of the national census, and traditional communications campaigns weren’t working.
The ABS built Run That Town, a game for smartphones where citizens pretend to be mayor of a city and make decisions using real census data — including gender, employment, education, income, age, transport and home ownership information.
The game has been downloaded by tens of thousands of people, helping raise awareness of the value of the census — especially among a younger demographic.
Games can also tackle tougher challenges. For example, how do you make speed cameras raise a smile from motorists?
One campaign in Sweden had a novel approach: a speed camera lottery to reward drivers who stay within the limit. Every driver who went past received a thumbs-up on a big screen if they were below the limit, and they were entered into a prize draw at the end of the competition. A lucky driver won some of the money from speeding fines given out by that same camera… a mixture of fun and competition can change behaviour.
It’s a great new tool, and could take government operations to the next level.
At number 8, it’s Open Government
We’re taking a global view of government, here. I would now invite you to imagine the streets of New Dehli, India, on 2 October 2014.
It was a public holiday to mark Gandhi’s birthday, and Prime Minister Modi picked up a broom, walked outside and swept the streets.
Right across the country, huge swathes of the Indian population did the same — as part of the Clean India campaign.
Using social media, Modi called on Indians to pick a location to clean up, and then share ‘before and after pictures’ online using the hashtag #cleanindia. Sportsmen, movie stars and celebrities took part, as did government officials, whose involvement was compulsory.
The move was more than just a political stunt. It demonstrated the Indian prime minister’s desire to involve people in public service delivery.
To achieve this, India also launched MyGov — a digital platform to combine citizen feedback with volunteering projects, crowdsourcing and departmental accountability.
I caught up with the chief executive of this programme recently. By launching their own platform, he said, officials are able to have more meaningful conversations than on social media, and respond directly to citizen concerns. There is a mandatory requirement for officials to respond to complaints on the site.
MyGov also has a crowdsourcing function. Departments post tasks and problems where they need volunteer support, such as help with cleaning the Ganges river.
In essence, it is the Indian Government’s version of My.BarackObama.com, the social network that helped the US president win two elections.
Citizens also use MyGov to audit government departments. Groups are encouraged to go and monitor a particular customer centre, providing feedback and posting pictures.
This trend is also used elsewhere in Asia. Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore have all launched complaints apps to make it easy for citizens to take a photograph of problems on their smartphone and point them out to government.
Open Government is often said to be about open data sets, but while they’re important, moves towards crowdsourcing and citizen engagement are proving more important.
At number 7… it’s Government Digital Services
The movement for Government Digital Services, started in the UK in 2010, before spreading to the US, New Zealand, Australia and right across the world.
In Asia: Singapore has launched one; Malaysia is planning one for later on this year, and so is Thailand. Australian state governments are launching their own versions, and the city of Jakarta has launched one too.
They have an interesting set of characteristics that set them apart from traditional GCIO offices. Generally, they have a remit to work outside of the normal IT rules. They are set a big challenge, given freedom to recruit, and work on their own systems building small-scale proof of concepts. They are based in separate offices to create a unique corporate culture. As the pictures show, they don’t feel like government departments at all.
In the UK, the creation of a new digital startup was a culture shock for the traditional civil service. But it led to a massive change in the quality of online publishing. They won design awards for Gov.UK, saved millions of pounds, and launched a new template for e-government sites.
For example, they decided that most people come to a site through search engines, so they simplified the home page and prioritised specific pages like benefit application pages.
They also moved government new announcements off of the home page altogether. When people visit a site, they don’t want government news, they just want to find services. So the GDS clustered services by topic, rather than by agency. If you want a business permit, it’s listed under business, rather than under the department of trade and industry.
Building tech startups within government has been a huge driver of change. It’s brought a new culture into government of trialling things out, failing fast, and testing different approaches based on evidence.
This leads neatly into trend Number 6… Innovation Labs
In 1944, American Special Forces published a guide for undercover agents to bring down enemy organisations. It advises spies to “insist on doing everything through ‘channels’” and to “advocate caution. Be ‘reasonable’.” This approach is guaranteed to cause an enemy government big difficulties.
However, these tips are sometimes followed not by spies but by well-intentioned officials. They prevent damaging risks, but also stop progress being made.
Governments around the world are starting Innovation Labs to counter this trend. Singapore, for example, struggled in the 1990s with a culture where the government was very set in its ways.
So they launched a new unit, PS21, which encourages innovation. It does so by rewarding civil servants who have new ideas with bonuses, and giving them space to trial their ideas out by pausing their daily duties.
Australia, meanwhile, pulls in private sector companies to help them solve their challenges. They will set an objective and reward the private companies only if they achieve it — for example, reducing the number of prisoners who reoffend when they leave jail.
This approach isn’t just suitable for very wealthy countries, though.
Jakarta officials have turned to the private sector in an interesting way: they piggy back on existing digital services to improve value for citizens.
For example, they have partnered with a food review app to certify restaurants with good health and safety standards.
They are also partnering with a transport app to run their buses.
These start-ups are rewarded with free office space in the government’s state-of-the-art Smart City Unit with free WiFi and a high-tech environment. Hosting the companies brings an innovative culture into the heart of government, and encourages civil servants to act like their private sector counterparts.
At number 5, it’s Corporate Cannibalism
Speaking of private sector counterparts, let’s look at how the private sector works. There is always a company looking to steal another organisation’s market share by launching a cheaper, better product.
Government should do the same thing. In particular, it should use data to find weak areas where there are problems in service delivery.
“It should use data to find weak areas where there are problems in service delivery”
For example, Hong Kong’s Efficiency Unit runs a central government call centre, known as 1823, which handles citizen complaints.
Technically, because of its funding model, it benefits financially when government agencies receive more complaints.
However, its civil servants had other ideas: they wanted to cut complaints and save money. The team used analytics to judge the most common complaints, and found that some official government letters were hard for citizens to follow.
The team pinned down the specific mail-outs, used complaints data to rewrite them, and then shared new versions with departments. This helped cut complaints by over 50% for one department, and 47% for another.
A second example of cannibalism is from Singapore.
A small team of officials in the government’s data science team found that some citizens had to take three different forms of public transport to get into work — often a bus to the closest station, a train and then another bus.
They looked to cut journey times, and the result was the Beeline scheme, an on-demand bus which takes people from their houses straight to the office.
The department used transport data to approach private bus companies, showing potential new routes that are more efficient that public transport routes.
Now, a fleet of private minibuses provide a cheap way for these people to get directly to work — often in groups as small as 12. Data showed there was enough demand for a better service.
Estonia has a third great example of cannibalism.
When a child is born in the country, the government sends parents an email asking for their offspring’s name and the bank account that should receive the child’s allowance. Government then registers the child and takes care of all of the other paperwork — including providing text message notifications for upcoming deadlines like school registration. They have cut out many additional processes.
As the Estonian prime minister recently said: “The best service is the one that you do not have to do anything for, but gets taken care [of] for you — even before you realise you need it,”
At number 4… it’s Government as a Platform
Space is not, as Star Trek claims, “the final frontier”. There is a darker, deeper domain much closer to home: the gap between central and local government IT.
Local authorities use their own systems, build their own websites, and create their own transaction services. But all agencies are facing the same challenges — increasing demand, higher expectations, and the need for strong security.
The concept of “government as a platform” is the answer. This holds that all public sector agencies should use common technology systems. It’s a movement that is sweeping the world.
Australia has a great example. Their GovCMS project aims to provide a single backend system for all Australian public sector websites. In the UK, a single payment system is used by all public sector websites — rather than each site building or procuring its own version.
But government as a platform is about more than just websites. For example, Malaysia is encouraging all agencies to store their data on a cloud system procured by central government.
This approach was catalysed by the recent catastrophic flooding in the west of the country: agencies that used central government systems found their data backed up somewhere else. Those which ran their own data centres lost hugely valuable information.
At number 3, it’s Connected Government
Climate change is making natural disasters increasingly common. And climate change isn’t really a problem that one agency can tackle alone.
It’s a so-called “wicked problem” — one that requires a huge number of different stakeholders to work together. Terrorism and immigration are two others that governments struggle with.
Many governments are struggling to create organisations that can cope with these wicked problems.
For example, after the 9/11 attacks, The Bush administration established the Department of Homeland Security. This merged responsibilities from across government, including customs and the coastguard.
It was better at keeping America safe than three separate agencies. However, it also disrupted other functions of the coastguard and customs agencies. Mergers are really distracting and have adverse effects.
Much better is to use technology to share information and create flexible working groups that cut across silos.
Singapore, for example, has set up new coordinating offices to share data across agencies, with one for climate change, one for immigration, and one for national security.
Another example is its Smart Nation Programme Office (SNPO), which oversees all issues relating to technology and public services.
I recently interviewed the Smart Nation minister Vivian Balakrishnan and his team of civil servants. Their key task is to inject a sense of urgency, he said. “The point is not to be held up by bureaucratic inertia or infighting.” By coordinating the work of many agencies, and enforcing data sharing between them, they allow government to tackle complex problems — but without restructuring everything.
At number 2, it’s Inclusive Gov
The best governments reflect the makeup of their populations.
If you look at tech companies, they have — over the past few years — radically overhauled their working styles.
First, tech companies recognise that they need to be diverse. Governments must too. We run an annual Women in GovTech special report where we speak to women in government technology roles about their challenges, advice and views on public service delivery.
The chief executive of Singapore’s IDA, Jacqueline Poh, told us that diversity is vital because women provide a different perspective to their male counterparts, and ensure that services work for all citizens.
Further, Government can only get the best talent if it is seen to be diverse. The skills of civils servants are changing. If you want your agencies to appeal to young, talented tech professionals, you need to mirror society and the makeup of private sector companies.
There are interesting ways of doing this. The Governor of Jakarta has a fantastic scheme to get tech talent in his agency. He has an internship scheme for student hackers to come in and work on specific projects for 3 months. They get an experience of public service, contribute to the greater good, and provide a new energy in the department.
Singapore has also just launched a Smart Nation Fellowship programme. This is a similar scheme to get high-flying tech talent to take time out from corporate jobs to give something back.
You might be worried that tech high fliers wouldn’t want to pause their careers, but actually, they love the opportunity. It looks great on their CV, their employers love it as pro bono work, and it keeps a constant influx of diverse applicants coming into an agency.
Change is not always a bad thing. In fact, this leads to point number one.
Number 1 is Agile Project Management
Agile project management is probably the most transformative thing to hit government IT since the advent of e-government portals. It’s a complete mindshift for how government does IT, and is enabled by great advances in the cloud, big data, and software.
Using Agile, Jakarta was able to build a new platform in 2 weeks to publish citizen complaints about government and plot them on an interactive map. This provides complete transparency about what’s happening in a city, and lets the governor personally track complaints and poor performing district officials.
Equally, agile allows for the building of new ideas just to try them out. So Singapore’s digital service launched an app that was proposed by the ambulance service. When someone has a heart attack, the emergency service puts out an alert on the app showing the location of the victim. First aiders can rush to help before the ambulance arrives.
Agile project management is all about moving quickly, failing fast and doing things in new ways. There are many more examples of exciting apps and services now being built across Asia and beyond thanks to Agile.
This started off with a reference to Arnold Schwarzenneger, and will leave with a quote from the director Woody Allen. In the movie Annie Hall, he famously said that “a shark must constantly move forward or it dies.”
Government mustn’t become a dead shark. It must embrace these trends, trial new things, and, whatever you do, don’t stop moving.
*Amended from a speech given to Digital Pilipinas 2016. With thanks to Civil Service World, which published some of these thoughts as columns over the past year.