A tale of two cities: Singaporean techie compares govtech approaches across Singapore and San Francisco
By Yogesh Hirdaramani
Adrianna Tan, Director of Product Management at San Francisco Digital Services, shares with GovInsider the perspectives gleaned from her time as a Singaporean working at the heart of the City of San Francisco’s digital government.
Adrianna Tan moved from Singapore to San Francisco and now leads product management within the City's Digital Services' team. Image: Adrianna Tan
Until recently, Adrianna Tan boasted a Twitter following of over 41k followers. In late 2022, she deactivated her account, citing the rise of hate speech on the platform. In a blog post reflecting her time on the platform, she wondered if much of modern digital technology past the early optimism of web 1.0 has been a mistake.
Now, she advocates intentional participation over chasing virality, and recommends using Mastodon instead, a social networking service vaunted for its higher content moderation standards.
It is this thoughtful and critical perspective on technology that has guided her from blogging in Singapore in her teens to working in startups across Southeast Asia, and then to her present role as Director of Product Management at San Francisco Digital Services, having moved there in 2018.
On one of her visits back home, GovInsider was able to sit down with her over coffee and learn about her journey.
Technology for social impact
After years in the startup scene, Tan currently develops government technology, or govtech, for the City of San Francisco – nearly a full day away from Singapore by flight.
“I’ve been working in tech for a long time, around 15 years. I moved to San Francisco because I wanted to experience what working there was like. It was there that I realised that I really wanted to work in technology that made an impact,” she shares. She further explains that she and her wife moved there in part for its more inclusive environment.
In her current role, she leads projects, helps enable programme managers access tech tools, and lays the foundations for the future.
Product management is an ill-defined role in government, so part of her job has been to navigate that uncertainty and lay the groundwork for future leaders, she explains.
One of the first challenges she faced was adapting to her agency’s high standards for content publication. As more than half of American residents read below a sixth-grade level, the team’s content strategists would ask her to rewrite copy to be simpler and more accessible.
“If you want it to be accessible, it’s got to be readable,” she says.
“I feel relatively empowered and able to work on strategies that have far-reaching impact, while also working on nitty-gritty stuff. It’s checked off all the things I wanted from a job, especially at this point in my career where I’m thinking about, ‘What else can tech do beyond selling advertisements?’”
Responding to the Covid-19 pandemic
One of her proudest accomplishments during her time in San Francisco thus far has been her team’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
She explains that when she first joined, the city had more than 200 government websites and her department had just begun consolidating these different sites into a single touchpoint, sf.gov. When the pandemic hit, they moved rapidly to make vital information accessible to various communities.
“That team was really focused on distilling Covid-19 information on a really rapid timeline. We did such a good job that we were perceived to be a source of vital information about Covid-19, not just in the US but externally as well,” she shares.
The website currently offers Covid-19 information in English, Spanish, Chinese and Filipino, and she explains that the website regularly received traffic from the Philippines as well, thanks to its stringent translation standards.
“Having a combination of engineers, product managers, and content people interested in accessible and accurate information was vital.”
Adapting to different contexts
When it comes to digital government, Singapore and San Francisco are not only miles apart, but worlds apart. Both countries have a very different relationship to government technology, she explains.
“The degree of trust is very different. For good reasons, many people in the US do not trust the government,” she shares. For instance, SingPass, the national digital identity platform through which Singapore citizens transact with the Government, would not be a viable platform in the US due to privacy concerns around data usage.
In comparison, her team embraces a philosophy of data minimisation, where agencies only collect data they absolutely need. As San Francisco is a sanctuary city, the state does not collect or share any data on citizenship status of residents, she says.
“Understand what context you’re in and what people care about. Then, design something that works for them, reduces friction, and makes it easy for them to interface with the government,” she advises aspiring govtechies.
Leading the way nationally
Right now, her efforts are focused on building in-house platforms and infrastructure projects, she shares.
As departments across San Francisco run separate databases and programmes with different levels of modernisation, she views her team’s role as building the application and infrastructure stack that can run on top of all existing databases.
She also shares that there is a strong emphasis within the city government to ensure digital services are responsive to the needs of edge cases, such as people who use screen readers, people who read languages other than English, or people who may not be citizens.
“This aspect of catering to the edge cases, rather than only to the majority, is something that I see as quite unique about American society and its approach to digital technology,” she says.
And because of the city’s proximity to Silicon Valley and international reputation for tech innovation, other cities are watching as the City of San Francisco charts its digital government journey.
“There are a lot of different points where one can become extremely frustrated transacting with the Government in the US… but there are also people working on simplifying the process, not just in the City but elsewhere. There’s definitely a push to try and lead the way in terms of what a city can do,” she says.