How a growth mindset helps Singapore's GovTech agency stay ahead of the curve
By Luke Cavanaugh
Gabriyel Wong, GovTech Singapore's Director of Moments of Life, speaks to GovInsider about AI, cross-departmental lesson-learning, and developing a whole-of-government growth mindset.
“Cultivating a regular cadence of reflection is something our teams are encouraged to do as part of developing a growth mindset”, GovTech's Gabriyel Wong tells GovInsider, adding that “a progressive and growth mindset is always brewing in GovTech”. Image: Canva
Singapore’s digital government success is no secret. The tiny Southeast Asian nation has long been one of the leading examples of a nimble country punching above its demographic weight in serving a small population.
Singapore’s Government Technology Agency (GovTech) is a pioneer of providing digital government services that cut across key moments of life and daily living, as well as interoperable government tech stacks.
I first interacted with Gabriyel Wong, Director of Moments of Life at GovTech Singapore, moderating a panel on government superapps. There, Wong spoke about the “Swiss army knife” of digital government, LifeSG, designed to serve citizens and residents through birth, parenting, death, and daily living in between.
First launched in mid-2018 as an app to support parents with children under six – initially called Moments of Life – LifeSG now offers 200 services ranging from public housing applications to checking on medical appointments and reporting on municipal issues.
During the panel, Wong talked about how shifting user expectations had played a key role in his team’s production of the app. He reminded the audience that many of us start our day scrolling Facebook and watching YouTube on apps, saying that “well-kept websites can do the job, but our aim is to reduce the cognitive load on the user as much as possible”.
I recently interviewed Wong again, where this idea of capturing present trends was again front and centre. When we spoke, Singapore had recently introduced an LLM-powered government chatbot, becoming one of the first countries in the world to do so.
'A place where AI serves as a force for good': keeping Singapore ahead of the curve
Artificial intelligence in Singapore is nothing new. The country’s national AI strategy envisages that Singapore will be “a place where AI serves as a force for good” and is harnessed “to uplift and empower our people and businesses,” and GovTech Singapore has been using AI within a government-developed job-matching platform since 2021.
But with the LLM-driven chatbots – just as with LifeSG – Singapore is ahead of the curve. Built in collaboration with Google’s Vertex AI and Microsoft Azure’s OpenAI service, the bot both helps users with their initial challenges and “deciphers LifeSG users’ intent by recommending related services”.
After converting all 88 government chatbots to an LLM-based system, the GovTech team is looking at developing “transaction-based chatbots, which could allow end users to fill up forms or book rooms in community spaces”.
In my interview with Wong, I am keen to dig behind these use cases to find out what is enabling GovTech’s continued success at staying ahead of the curve. The answer, it seems, rests in creating a culture of practiced serendipity and a continued growth mindset.
The former is developed by innovative teaming practices, shared technological architecture and creating spaces for collaborative ideation.
The Smart Nation Fellows programme has become the hallmark of GovTech Singapore’s commitment to multidisciplinary teaming, offering “mid-career technologists from the private sector” the chance to work for three to six months on co-creating digital and engineering solutions within the government.
Technologists are paired with experienced officials to help them address “the irritants of working in a bureaucracy” – such as procurement processes – with each learning from the other’s background.
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Community of Practice forums and internal 'open-source'
Wong tells me that GovTech Singapore also “forward-deploys teams to ministries to identify opportunities … to tackle their product challenges,” while Community of Practice forums exist across government to keep civil servants abreast of ongoing digital efforts.
Part of the reason why these Community of Practice forums work so successfully is GovTech Singapore’s famed Tech Stack: common infrastructure, standardised development tools and reusable code deployed across government to power the likes of Singpass digital identity and digital wallet module GovWallet.
Over the past two years, the Government has consistently pursued a strategy of “inner source”, a cultivation of internal open-source practices to break down project silos and enable developers to more easily find “ready-made or ‘off the shelf’ components … removing the need to develop everything from scratch with custom code”.
As well as “cross-sharing best practices and source codes”, Wong says, there are also “whole-of-government design standards, design thinking processes, and service journey design with stakeholders”.
Efforts to continually feed in ideas from outside of the public sector, and common tech components, are complemented by the use of “internal ‘ideathons’ to encourage team members to try out creative ideas and work across different teams”.
The Community of Practice forums are one such space for these conversations to take place, but there are also brown bag sessions and meetups that the Singapore Government Developer Portal provides as a “one-stop resource hub for agencies and the private sector to collaborate and co-create solutions for citizens and businesses”.
A whole-of-government (WOG) growth mindset
In addition to his role at GovTech Singapore, Wong is a keen writer, maintaining a Medium blog where recent articles offer frameworks for identifying user problems and guides to identifying whether your organisation is product-led.
He tells me that across his agency, government officials are encouraged to “develop a keen sense of observation”, something which this blog aims to do. “Cultivating a regular cadence of reflection is something our teams are encouraged to do as part of developing a growth mindset”, he says, telling me that “a progressive and growth mindset is always brewing in GovTech”.
Such a mindset seems to have bled through to GovTech Singapore’s approach to user engagement, which is central to their digital development strategy.
The breadth of their activities in this space is striking. Wong mentions engagements such as citizen roadshows and exhibitions, feedback via the LifeSG app or website, in-depth interviews, and surveys and task-based user-testing “with a diverse slate of Singaporeans and permanent residents”.
The government even makes use of an end-user community group called Tech Kaki, founded back in 2016 to encourage citizen participation in the development of GovTech Singapore’s products and services.
The cumulative effect of all these outlets is a government determined to continually learn and adapt its products, even with seemingly tiny adjustments. In one wave of LifeSG user testing, Wong’s team discovered that some users were unable to reserve barbecue pits, for example, and so the agency integrated all barbecue reservations.
Adjusting barbecue reservation processes may seem trivial, but it is testament to exactly the kind of growth mindset that has proved the cornerstone of GovTech Singapore’s success.
More analytics, more opportunities through AI and WOGAA
Looking ahead, as AI becomes more integrated into GovTech Singapore’s modus operandi, it provides clear opportunities for user engagement. Singapore already has a Whole of Government Application Analytics (WOGAA) platform.
Launched in 2018, the platform allows public officers to access useful data points to make data-driven decisions and improve digital services. Today, there are approximately 100 government agencies using the platform.
More broadly advanced analytics, outlier detection and greater data visualisation capabilities look set to transform Singapore’s backend capabilities.
But my main takeaway as I finish my interview with Wong is that none of this would be possible without the underpinning culture of an agency obsessed with continually learning and improving, whether in the pursuit of ever more data or by fostering collaboration throughout agencies and across user communities.