Making magic happen with AI and automation for Singapore’s government

By Ming En Liew

Dennis Lui, Chief Executive of VITAL, Ministry of Finance, shares how digitalisation helps rank-and-file staff in government work more efficiently.

In a magic show, everyone applauds the magician and their assistant for illusions well performed. Yet, no show would be successful without the work of the crew behind the scenes. Those manning the props, lighting, music, and other details help make magic happen.

VITAL works the same way. They sit at the centre of government, overseeing HR, finance, and procurement in over 100 ministries and statutory boards in the Singapore public service. It is with their support that government agencies are able to do their work without worrying about the nitty-gritty.

Dennis Lui, its Chief Executive, shares how the organisation is turning to tech like AI, automation, and the cloud to help the government keep the show running.

AI and automation for more efficient government

VITAL is exploring an AI tool that will help governments recruit talents more efficiently. Typically, when human resources teams are looking to recruit, staff members would have to read through piles of CVs, shares Lui.

The AI tool can automate this manual work by reading through electronic CVs and sieving out those that do not meet the organisation’s requirements. Human resource departments can even get candidates to fill in online forms or send in videos to filter candidates more effectively, he suggests.

This helps HR personnel shortlist candidates more quickly, saving them time and allowing them to focus on evaluating the more serious candidates, he shares.

VITAL is exploring other tech to help its staff do their core work “better and faster”, says Lui. One way they are doing so is through robotics and automation, which was particularly helpful during the pandemic.

When Covid-19 struck, government agencies needed to recruit new staff quickly to meet new work demands, such as checking vaccination statuses or enforcing safe management measures.

In normal times, there are processes in place for new hires and it takes time to go through the formalities. VITAL was able to help government agencies streamline the hiring process.

They did so by sending automated notifications and emails to potential candidates. The programme was also able to automatically update the staff when candidates replied. This helped agencies bring in hundreds and thousands of staff in a short time.

With the help of tech like AI and automation, VITAL is in a much better position to be able to deliver what agencies need for short term, high volume projects, he shares.

Opening doors with cloud

“In the area of HR, finance, procurement, the best practices, in my opinion, are in the private sector,” says Lui. This is where VITAL looks to cloud offerings in the private sector to figure out if there is a way to integrate these programmes into their own services.

“When I look at the word cloud, I don't just look at it as a technology platform, it's actually a place to get inspiration, to then bring in new ideas into the way we work,” he says.

The cloud opens up opportunities for agencies to easily adopt tech like AI and automation without needing to invest in additional infrastructure. VITAL, for instance, could offer their robotic automation programmes to other agencies so they can automate finance processes like year-end audits quickly.

“These are things that in the past, we couldn’t do ourselves because we didn’t have the budget or smart manpower,” says Lui. With the cloud, such tech becomes more accessible at an affordable price.

This allows government agencies to “experiment liberally”, he shares. The challenge for any leader is to show their team the future. With the cloud, governments can experiment with and demonstrate the impact of new technologies first hand. “Then, the conversation starts,” he says.

Digitalising as one

“Back room is no longer backwater,” says Lui, quoting one of his superiors. Digitalisation brings a whole new way of working as it allows every staff member to be a citizen developer, shares Lui. This means that tech is no longer solely for IT teams; but instead, becomes a tool that all staff members can use to be better at their work.

Rank-and-file staff are often left behind during innovation, Lui notes. When operational staff see technology improving and they are not a part of it, they can feel alienated and discontented, he says. This is already seen in other countries, where unions are concerned about how many jobs will be lost to technology, Lui observes.

“That is the wrong way to look at it,” highlights Lui. “Tech is for everybody.” While not everyone can become an IT developer, there are tech tools that staff members can easily pick up such as robotics automation.

A member of Lui’s staff was able to don multiple hats in her role as an Executive Assistant with the help of automation. She automated administrative tasks including sending emails and analysing the content of incoming mail. This allowed her to take on a full-time role in HR, while being a personal assistant to two bosses.

We still have seven days a week. But with the help of bots and automation, the kind of work that an individual can do grows exponentially, shares Lui. If those in the back offices are willing to embrace digital transformation, they can “do magic”, he adds.

Front-facing government agencies do great work in improving the lives of citizens, but they can only do so with the help of behind-the-scenes organisations like VITAL. With tech like AI, automation and the cloud entering the picture, VITAL is ready to help make magic happen.