Commentary: Are government superapps worth the cost today?

By Luke Cavanaugh

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to interview Gabriyel Wong (Head of Life SG, GovTech Singapore) and Debabrata Nayak (CTO, Digital India) as part of GovInsider ASEAN. This article discusses some of the experiences of two pioneers of the “Swiss army knife” of digital government tools: the super-app.

This article forms a companion piece to a panel held during GovInsider Live - ASEAN entitled “Government superapps; potentials and pathways”, which took place on 9 May. Image: GovInsider

From a digital government perspective, Singapore and India make for an unlikely pairing. The former has long since been one of the leading examples of a nimble country punching above its demographic weight in serving a small population. The latter, with a population some 250 times Singapore’s size, is developing GovTech at an almost unrivalled scale, including creating the largest open API in the world.

But both are at the forefront of developing government superapps. Lauded as the “Swiss army knife” of digital government, these apps offer hundreds (sometimes thousands) of services all in one place and accessible from the comfort of a user’s smartphone. India’s UMANG app – containing more than 22,000 services under the management of 300 government departments – now serves some 50 million users.

Singapore’s LifeSG offers fewer services, but is no less ambitious in its approach. Having started from an idea to streamline birth registration for newborns and their parents, the app is now at the forefront of GovTech Singapore’s “moments of life” approach. By identifying key moments of life and offering associated services digitally, the app can now serve citizens through birth, marriage, and death.

The shift towards superapps over the past few years has been a stark one. The UK’s GDS, at the time ranked first in the world on the UN’s e-Government Development index, famously declared they were “not ‘appy at all” back in 2014 on the grounds that they were “very expensive to produce, and very expensive to maintain”. They have since rolled back on this, developing products like the NHS Weight Loss App. But as a blog from Tom Loosemore showed recently, “a sub-1% completion rate sadly tells its own story”.

The point is, as I put it to Singapore’s Gabriyel Wong and India’s Debabrata Nayak, that creating government apps is a difficult business. What has changed over the past decade to suddenly make them worth the cost?

Building a “Swiss army knife”

For Wong, it is simply a reflection of shifting user expectations. Apps may be marginally more expensive to develop and maintain than a website, but they are a much closer reflection of how people already use technology on a day-to-day basis.

Citizens’ expectations of government technology are shaped by experiencing their private sector equivalents and, as Wong reminds me, most of us start our day scrolling Facebook and watching YouTube on their respective apps. “Well-kept websites can do the job”, Wong says, “but the aim is to reduce the cognitive load on the user as much as possible”.

Indeed, the private sector has already set a firm precedent for superapps, whether in the case of China’s WeChat or Southeast Asia’s Grab.

The principal benefit of these apps is their capacity for the aggregation and integration of government services. Through UMANG, the National e-Governance Division has built a unified front-end interface while connecting individual services via APIs, allowing departments to manage their own digital services. It is a much easier sell than requesting that departments each build their own app – reducing their workload without making them feel like they are relinquishing control of their services.

Managing just one app also allows governments to be more proactive in both the services they are offering and the app’s maintenance. With just one app to update and maintain, Singapore and India can avoid situations like that faced by the Malaysian government last year, where fewer than half of all government apps had been downloaded less than 1,000 times and hundreds of user reviews lacked developer responses.

It also allows them to be innovative in personalising government service offerings. Both leaders brought up the recommendation engines in their apps, which proactively offer services to users based on their profile. Elsewhere, Abhishek Singh (the CEO of the Indian National e-Governance Division (NeGD)) gave the example to GovInsider of the UMANG app recommending health insurance and food subsidies to citizens who qualified for them but had not yet applied for them.

Scaling government superapps

Developing great apps is only half the challenge. Returning to the Malaysian example, I was interested to hear how Nayak and Wong thought about the challenge of staying relevant and scaling their apps’ use, when so many alternatives had suffered from few downloads and low uptake.

For both, the answer lies in scaling incrementally. Wong’s team in Singapore is firmly focused on developing an omnichannel approach for their service delivery – enabling citizens to use digital by default, but also maintaining options to speak to the government over the phone or hand off to physical centres.

This is apparent most explicitly in Smart Nation roadshows, which seek to engage citizens without prior tech experience in learning about digital skills, and helping them understand the government’s digital offerings. As many as 7,000 people attend each roadshow, helping the government support the long tail of users who have not yet engaged in digital transactions with the government.

In India, there is a particular imperative to scale. As Nayak notes, “India is so big that people often don’t know how the government is giving benefits”, and the country’s size makes holding roadshows a far greater logistical challenge than in Singapore.

The solution is developing a superapp ecosystem with the support of the private sector. When it comes to digital government, India’s shining light is India Stack, which offers open APIs for public and private sector organizations alike to build and provide services.

A similar approach has proved pivotal to developing UMANG. By building open APIs and allowing private sector companies to integrate their own services into the app, the NeGD has turned UMANG into an ecosystem. Partners are able to promote the app’s services not just in Delhi or Mumbai, but across the whole country.

As we move towards the end of the interview, touching on privacy issues, product design and civil liberties, both leaders are upbeat and optimistic about their countries’ abilities to scale the apps. For Wong, who has spent much of his career in the private sector, scaling LifeSG is “every product manager’s dream”. Without having to focus on differentiating from competitors, he says, governments can focus on what matters: personalisation of services and user-centred design.

Luke Cavanaugh holds a Master’s in Global Affairs from the Schwarzman Scholars programme at Tsinghua University, Beijing and is a graduate of the University of Cambridge. He has recently worked for StateUp, as part of the ITU Team working on GovStack, and sits on the Global Visionaries Board of the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union. 

Click here to watch the full panel, Government superapps; potentials and pathways.