Exclusive: Singapore’s Permanent Revolution
Interview with Chan Cheow Hoe, government's technology chief
Something big is happening in Singapore’s gov tech scene.
It started quietly, but has now grown to a roar. Almost every week, there is a new government announcement. From robotic boats to cutting-edge apps, officials are trialling everything to make their nation work better.
At the centre of this storm is Chan Cheow Hoe, Government’s Chief Information Officer. He joined the public sector just two years ago, and has since has been working behind the scenes to rebuild Singapore’s hidden wiring.
Chan sat down exclusively with GovInsider to discuss his approach, his vision, and how Singapore gov tech is changing for good. Buckle up, because plenty more change is coming.
Why everything must change
But first, we start with a history lesson. Back in 1981, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew became interested in how computers could improve government. He launched the National Computer Board, with a mission to put a PC on every official’s desk.
Computers need infrastructure, so the NCB also built software and data centres. This grew into a healthy company, but seemed better off in the private sector. So in 1996, the engineering division was sold to Singtel, while the project management team stayed in house.
This split worked great for the engineers, but government lost its in-house expertise. “We were just a buyer,” Chan says. “Project managers have become contract managers, so your capability in IT goes further and further down.”
[blockquote]“We had these big, megalomaniacal projects” [/blockquote]
Lack of expertise caused officials to overcomplicate their plans. “We had these big, megalomaniacal projects where we said: ‘Let’s integrate the core systems of 15 agencies’," Chan says. "It never works.”
So Chan is redressing the balance, building internal skills and changing the way government builds things. His vision mirrors the private sector, he says, learning from how Facebook and Google build their own services.
Enter the craftsmen
Coding used to be outsourced to large “factories” where huge units would build software together. Now it’s done by small groups of “craftsmen,” he says. “Three guys working in their parents’ bedroom can build a world-destructive app.” This is thanks to cloud computing, he adds: costs have shot down and tech teams don’t need to build their own infrastructure.
Chan wanted government to embrace the possibilities of new tech. Two years ago, he joined government and started a unit of 8 craftsmen building apps in-house. The Government Digital Services have now grown to over a hundred people because the reaction has been so positive. “The scary thing is the demand is about two or three times the supply,” he says.
Let’s put the GDS’ new approach in non-technical terms. An agency might want to build a new river crossing. It could commission a suspension bridge from the private sector, which would be the sturdiest option. The GDS, however, would first build a rowing boat - test out demand - then build a small ferry, a hovercraft, a swing bridge, and finally build that suspension bridge.
This approach – agile project management - appeals to government for three reasons, Chan says. First, it’s cheaper to build things this way. “Some of these apps cost less than a hundred thousand dollars. It used to be millions of dollars,” he says.
Second, it’s much faster to try out new ideas. “We are doing projects in three months, four months. It used to be three or four years.”
And third, it allows the agency to focus on citizen feedback, continually upgrading services to make them better. The river crossing might be in the wrong place, for example.
The digital service can’t build everything, however. A team of a hundred is much smaller than most private sector companies. So the team prioritises schemes that affect multiple agencies. That way, it makes an impact across government, and proves the value of building things differently.
Don’t worry about technology
The “fundamental shift” has been how the team prioritises data over technology, he says. When they built a feedback app for the Municipal Services Office, for example, they wanted citizens to complain to 14 different agencies using a single system.
These agencies log complaints on different platforms, so there was a choice: build a new mega-system that would “take two years, cost tens of millions of dollars, and with no guarantee it’s going to succeed.” Or it could code a simple switchboard – “an API gateway” – that just routes complaints to the right place without touching the back-end systems.
The team did the latter, the app already exists and, this week, government announced plans to add more features. “If you keep doing this enough, you realise that the back end systems become less and less relevant,” Chan says. “This is how we are doing it now: all the systems are done that way.”
[blockquote] “The backend systems become less and less relevant” [/blockquote]
Chan's ultimate vision is to re-use systems across government, rather than have agencies use different platforms. For example, SingPass is an online identity system built to let citizens pay their taxes and check benefits. Every time another service goes online, it uses the SingPass log-in system rather than building a new system.
The same can be true for other applications, such as maps. Government can purchase the tool once, then re-use it for every new service – be it a first aid app or a system to help people track rare birds.
They also have a nifty method to keep costs down when they do build a new system. “We pair our programming guys with the vendor,” he says. A joint team builds the system, helping the in-house team learn from the private sector, and ensuring they can manage the system once it’s built.
Further, they keep the source code built for the project, he says. This means that they can continually upgrade the platform without buying from the private sector.
It all sounds relatively painless, but nothing is easy. When the UK moved towards this system, it saw resistance from agencies, who preferred to keep control of their projects and build everything to their own specifications. “They bit off more than they could chew,” Chan believes, overhauling back-end systems and citizen-facing services together.
“I believe in guerrilla warfare, an all-out war of attrition doesn’t work for me,” he replies. “When you go out there and say: ‘Look, I’m going to conquer the world, all of you better follow my way, in the end people will be cynical.”
Singapore GDS didn’t start with a grand plan, he adds. There were eight people proving the concept of agile development, and focused on delivery rather than strategy. “When we deliver something and it becomes better, cheaper faster, people will think – wow, let’s do that. It becomes compelling. And once you deliver ten of these, people will quickly realise the choice is clear.”
Suppliers are also happy with the changes, he believes. “Companies are looking at ways of transforming themselves. The traditional way of doing things is not going to last forever, so they are also in the process of transforming themselves, and I think that’s good.”
“They are very keen to work with us,” he adds. “The amount of money we spend on internal projects done by Hive versus external is a fraction. It’s not a big threat to companies out there.” Instead, it’s about levelling up capability internally, and building things in a different way.
Indeed, more complex systems will still be reliant on bigger, long-term contracts. “It’s not something that you can just do off the cuff, and in fact, I really think there’s room for both.” So IDA’s approach just reflects that “this is the whole industry moving together.” Everything has changed thanks to cloud, so everyone is experimenting.
While the GDS predominantly builds apps, Chan has plans for a “post-app era”. Citizens will are nudged to pay taxes or register with government without having to log into a service.
“Let’s say you have a fine to pay. I’ll send you a notification – ‘Joshua you want to pay your fine because you have an outstanding fee of $62’ – for example.” Using smartphone notifications, you could push a single button that would authorise your bank to pay the fee.
Government can also become more predictive, he believes. For example, when you register to get married, government could connect you with all of the relevant agencies, providing notifications on what you need to do as the big day approaches. Or when you register a business, you could be assisted in completing other necessary licenses, such as for restaurants or taxi drivers.
This vision is one that other governments are also discussing. For example, Estonia uses this principle when a child is born. The parents register the name by email, and everything else is taken care of, with SMS messages reminding them of school registrations and vaccinations as important milestones approach.
Singapore is also experimenting with other tech. The GDS has launched a “things team”, he says, which will play with sensors and robots to test out the industrial internet. “We’re not going to reinvent anything, we’ll just take this technology and apply it in an innovative way,” he says. Apple built its iPhone using existing technology, but the overall product was something new.
As government changes its approach, it needs to recruit talented people who are hugely in demand. After all, most tech companies want exactly the same recruits.
Chan appeals to recruits by taking the moral high ground. “Why do people want to come and work for government? We don’t pay well, we have this dodgy image of being bureaucratic,” he notes. “But we realised one thing about people who are creative: they have a very strong sense of purpose, and they genuinely want to do something good for other citizens.”
The Hive exists to break free of bureaucracy and create a fun environment where people can try out new things. Equally, he doesn’t want recruits to stay for life. “You don’t need people to come in and work for you for 25 years,” he says. They can work in government for a few years, make a contribution, then leave to the private sector.
This mindset has launched the new Smart Nation Fellowship, which is designed to attract mid-career high-fliers. When Chan visited Silicon Valley with the Prime Minister (pictured top), they spoke to many Singaporeans working at big tech companies. They wanted to make a contribution, but couldn’t leave their careers and move their families.
The Fellowship lets people come into government for three to six months, mentoring others, guiding officials on the latest techniques, and inspiring new projects that can make a different.
Chan is, himself, not a career civil servant. He spent his career in finance firms, but moved into public sector “because at some point in your life you get a sense of purpose. It’s not just about adding another title to your career, or earning a bunch of money.”
[blockquote] "It’s not just about adding another title to your career, or earning a bunch of money” [/blockquote]
He has brought a fresh perspective to government technology, moving away from long-term contracts to an era of permanent revolution. Everything is expected to evolve and improve. After all, that’s what’s happening to technology.
While Chan has exhausted every line of questioning, he appears able to talk about this topic for hours more. He speaks in rapid fire sentences, prone to digressions and detailed examples. He exudes enthusiasm.
This isn’t unique, though. When you speak to anyone in Singapore’s govtech scene, they all have the same enthusiasm. Something big is happening here.
The tech itself is secondary, he notes. But the culture change is revolutionary.