Why digital licensing should be a Smart Nation priority

By Gordon Heap

Here is how a whole-of-government digital licensing platform can be a key part of the Smart Nation vision, writes Gordon Heap.

Power. Mao Zedong claimed that it “grows out of the barrel of a gun”, but modern thinkers disagree. Harvard Professor Joseph Nye famously coined the phrase “soft power”, referring to a nation’s values, culture and foreign policy.

How could tech boost Singapore’s soft power? How can Smart Nation be intertwined with projects that project a vibrant, vital Singapore?

There is one dataset, in particular, that I think is currently overlooked. It is a crucial method of measuring economic and cultural activity across Singapore, from festival applications to movie and media approvals. I am referring to licences - an area that usually does not get pulses racing.

Just last year, over $156m was spent on licences through Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority, while the Energy Market Authority, which oversees the entry of new electricity suppliers, received over S$42 million in licence fees. Much more could be done to understand these data if the tech that underpins it improves, learning from other nations who are leading the way.

What’s at stake

These data are gathered through a standard web form, with little in the way of machine learning or advanced analysis at the back end. Imagine if Singapore could target its cultural spending by using this data on licensing to maximise its global reach.

This isn’t the only area where licences are valuable. They determine much of our lives, from marriages to hawker centers. The Singapore Government issues hundreds of them, in different formats, including papers, cards and certificates. They are managed through complex processes and their status continuously changes as they are revoked, amended or expanded.

Agencies like the Land Transport Authority and National Environment Agency have teams of officers to check if businesses are complying with the licences they are issued. In the case of physical licences, these officers may not have access to accurate and up-to-date data.

With each agency setting up its own licensing system, businesses and residents have to fend for themselves. The user journey is still disconnected. For instance, someone setting up a new F&B outlet must go to eight different agencies and apply for 14 different licences, the CEO of the GovTech Agency shared at the Smart Nation and Digital Government industry briefing last year.

Government is planning to change. “Instead of every regulatory agency having its own online licensing processes or web forms, we can set up one central system that agencies can adapt for their use”, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the GovTech Stack Developer Conference. “Forms can be pre-filled with information, and users then do not need to repeatedly give government data that we already have.”

What it could look like

So what could a digital licensing platform for the whole of government look like? It would mean that the entire process for issuing, enforcing, renewing and verifying licences could be done digitally. It would be a platform that connects to agencies across the government, so that users wouldn’t need to go to multiple agencies.

The licences themselves can take many forms. It could be a digital register, a QR code or a digital wallet. In some cases, businesses may still need the option of paper licences if they must be public displayed like in hawker stalls.

Some models exist for Singapore to learn from. Estonia maintains over 200 digital registries - the ‘Immovables’ real estate registry allows citizens to carry out real estate transactions simply with an e-ID card and a digital signature. All the necessary documents they need are linked to their e-ID cards.

Meanwhile, South Australia has built a digital wallet for proof of age cards, boat licences and land agent credentials, according to a report by Australia Post. It has built in security features to prevent the use of fake licences.

New South Wales is looking at a one-stop platform for permits, which could open the door for digital versions of those credentials. Singapore has already taken steps in this direction with the LicenceOne website, where users can apply for, renew and pay for certain licences.

Enforcement and costs

Digital licences will completely change enforcement, making it more efficient, effective and timely. The Australia Post report shows some ways digital licences could be enforced in the future: agencies could use APIs to issue licences, allowing them to suspend, renew, change or expire them remotely and in real-time. They would be able to automatically notify users on the expiry of licences in advance. The government could even ask the public to complain if they feel that someone is violating a permit.

Officials would have better access to data, with an audit trail of where and how licences are being used. This would open up a whole array of analysis the government can conduct on how and which licences are being used, predict revenue streams and make the system even more efficient.

As a result, there would be cost savings in the whole administrative process. Agencies will need to hire fewer officials for enforcement, as much of the process would be automated. It would also cut down on cases where paper licences are lost or damaged.

Trust and payments

Interoperability will be a key requirement for the platform. The government will need an open standards-based framework connecting the adoption and use of digital licences across agencies.

The system could tie up with a standardised invoicing and e-payments platform that the Singapore Government has embarked on. The payment systems for all licences could be consolidated and streamlined.

Ensuring security and trust in the system will also be critical, with the possibility of using technologies like blockchain and encrypted tokens that make it difficult to counterfeit or steal licences. Biometrics will play a key role in verifying the owner of a digital licence.

Of course, all of these will lead to a more seamless user experience. They will be able to check the validity of their licences online, pay online, and be notified when licence conditions change. Even the renewal process could be done online. And this could all be done through a single mobile platform, without having to go through multiple agencies.

It’s clear that a whole-of-government digital licensing platform is closely linked to many of the key pillars of Singapore’s Smart Nation vision - digital identity, e-payments, and a more seamless and anticipatory user journey. On top of these, it will make for a much more efficiently managed and predictable revenue stream for the government.

Gordon Heap is Director and General Manager for the Enterprise Services business with the Singapore Public Sector at DXC Technology.