How Singapore is using bots and data to streamline spending

By Yun Xuan Poon

Interview with Paul Loke, Director of Technology and Chief Information Officer of the Accountant-General’s Department.

Looking for anomalies in a financial statement can be like trying to eat a big bowl of stew with a fork. You might be able to get a mouthful of potato or radish with a couple of swipes, but it would be difficult to finish every last morsel.

Auditors at Singapore’s Accountant-General’s Department (AGD) pick samples for payroll audits to check for anomalies, as going through every single statement would take far too long. That was until the agency met Robotic Process Automation (RPA), a rule-based software that combs through all of their data to make sure nothing falls through the cracks.

Tech has transformed the heart of AGD’s services. Paul Loke, Director of Technology and Chief Information Officer of AGD, shares how the department is using automation and data analytics to conduct more thorough and targeted finance checks.

More thorough robots

RPA has allowed the agency to conduct more thorough checks in agencies’ payroll audits. “Instead of random sampling, where it's a little more hit and miss, we are able to increase the depth and breath of the audits,” Loke explains.

This is possible because of the large volume of data the bots can process. “[RPA] basically allows us to look for exceptions very quickly, because the bot can handle 100,000 records in ten minutes,” says Loke.

This approach is similar to how cyber security specialists scan networks for vulnerable spots, says Loke. “Why can’t we adopt the same approach to payroll audits? Or any other audit, for that matter,” he says.

Revealing insights with RPA

RPA has also helped AGD check if an agency’s bills tally with their actual usage of services, so they are not overcharged. “Because [this process is] very rule-based and it is very much a process that doesn't require a lot of intelligence, it is a perfect use case for RPA,” explains Loke.

But the agency didn’t stop at that. It is feeding RPA-processed data, which is more detailed, into its analytics systems. This reveals anomalous trends and allows agencies to better allocate spending.

For instance, if there have not been any charges for a phone line for three months, the agency can look at whether they can terminate the line to save on unnecessary telephone bills. “If I have a bunch of officers that don't really use their office phone, maybe we can get them to share a phone,” explains Paul. “Or, if we see that an officer is perpetually on the move, we may want to increase their data plan.”

‘Personalised’ audits for government agencies

AGD’s data dashboards provide a “bird’s eye view” to an agency’s financial information, says Lau Tuck Hing, Assistant Director of Business Analytics at AGD . This includes a list of employees who are submitting the highest amount in claims and potential duplicate payments. The agency can then easily identify the claims that need to be investigated further.

The dashboards offer each agency flexibility, as they can tighten or relax review policies as they see fit. With the traditional rules-based system, every agency gets a fixed percentage of their claims reviewed, but this is “a very blunt tool”, says Loke.

Some agencies get very little claims a month, so they might wish to tighten the review policy a bit more. Meanwhile some agencies have a lot of claims, so they might need a higher threshold, explains Loke.

The dashboards also take into account the job profile of public officers when deciding if their claims should be checked. “If your job requires you to go around the whole of Singapore a lot - let's say you are a social worker - there's a high chance you will have a high volume of claims anyway,” says Loke. “But if you’re a desk-bound person, the chances of you having to claim a large amount is very slim.”

Agencies can also identify staffing issues with the data dashboard. For instance, it might reveal that a public officer has been submitting a lot of taxi claims because he or she is frequently leaving work past midnight. This might be a sign of an overworked staff, and supervisors can intervene to make the workload more sustainable.

Mobile app for SMEs to track cash flow

Beyond transforming the government’s financial management capabilities, AGD is supporting small businesses to submit claims to the government. It has launched a mobile app for SME government vendors to submit invoices and check the status of payments. A sports coach hired by a school, for example, would be able to submit a bill in his or her car right after the coaching session ends.

The app, known as Vendors@Gov, includes a payment dashboard to predict a service provider’s cash flow and to track invoice status. “You know what's the state of the invoice as it goes through the process, so if it's going to be rejected you can quickly resubmit it,” says Loke.

The app also tracks how much money an SME will receive in the next week or month. “It gives you good visibility into how you manage your cash flow,” Loke notes.

Driving businesses to go digital

A big part of digitalising financial services is making tech tools more accessible for organisations. Loke is looking to the UK’s Government Digital Service. The agency has developed standards to make public services more accessible and simplified procurement to lower the barrier of entry for SMEs.

It could be interesting to explore having a community to build bots for services commonly used by government vendors, says Loke. “This will drive down costs and remove the barrier of entry for SMEs who want to look at robotics,” he says. Government organisations also benefit as they no longer have to rebuild the same service for multiple companies.

“We look forward to the days when 101 spreadsheets and manual data entry are over at AGD,” says Loke. The agency has given finance checks a tech boost with robotic automation, data dashboards, and mobile apps.