Three lessons on how Singapore built an agile government

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi

Poh Kah Kong from GovTech Singapore recently spoke about the building blocks of agile development.

Organisational change is hard everywhere - even more so in governments. So when GovTech Singapore formed in 2016, promising a fresh, new way of working and sporting a catchy tagline - ‘agile, bold, and collaborative’ - it piqued curiosity across the country.

Since then, Singapore has seen a slew of citizen-centric apps and digital government services - made possible by the agency’s agile approach to software development. The secret? Hire curious people, and empower them to build great things.

This is the advice of Poh Kah Kong, a Senior Delivery Manager and agile coach at the agency, who recently shared how the concept of agile development will not work without the right people. They are arguably the “most important” aspect of any organisation, he said at the GovInsider Live summit last October.

1. People: the foundational layer for agile agencies

In agile agencies, leaders need to first set in place the right conditions for their people to work together, said Poh. This could mean changing the dynamic between management and employees, boosting independence and cutting the need to “spoon feed”.

“When I start a project, I tend to want to give instructions to the team and have the team follow them. But actually, this is not very good, because this will take away the opportunity for the team to learn,” Poh remarked. “It is very important that we empower the team to make decisions on their own to execute what they think is right.”

Managers instead play the role of coach, facilitator and resource finder, supporting the team as they self-organise and make their own decisions. This will inevitably build up their sense of ownership around the product they are building and “give them a sense of responsibility”, Poh continued.

He believes that effective agile teams are made up of “good people that have access to information and power”. During the hiring process, leaders need to be “strict” about finding people that are inherently curious, because “very naturally, they will find all the ways they can to understand deeply on their own without needing to push”, said Poh.

As for building the team itself? Multi-disciplinary, cross-functional teams work best together: “They will be having all the expertise required to make decisions on their own, and deliver features,” Poh explained.

Co-location is important to agile development too, he added, as “the feedback loop will be very quick”. Physical proximity like this means that team members will inevitably build rapport and trust with each other, which will lead to better overall communication, Poh said.

2. ‘Good processes create good results’

With the ‘people’ bit sorted, the other two layers - ‘process’ and ‘product’ - will follow. Good processes help to shape good products that solve citizens’ problems and have a place in their daily lives, according to Poh.

Good processes allow for change, and in fact, need to prioritise it. GovTech Singapore subscribes to the ‘Kaizen’ mindset, a Japanese way of thinking that champions continuous improvement and changes, however small. “That’s how we approach big change - we focus on small change,” Poh said. “For improvement, it has to be measurable, standardised and repeatable so that once we know this change is successful, we can replicate it to other teams.”

Collaboration is crucial to building something truly great. This means working with everyone inside the agency - and outside of it - to polish up the minimum viable product, or MVP. Developers need to talk to the IT and business folks for their perspectives, bringing together “different ideas and diversity of experience” so that they can consider the product from all angles and “future-proof” it better, Poh explained.

Poh’s final piece of advice on this is to automate as much as possible. This removes routine tasks from team members’ desks, freeing them up for higher-order work.

3. Open source innovation as the backbone

On a broader level, open source software is a rising trend among ASEAN governments that want to adopt agile ways of working. Simply put, open source software is freely available to anyone to use, so that “people can prototype often and fail fast to iterate to the desired outcome quickly”, Poh told GovInsider.

There are a few insights for governments here: firstly, “open source is community-driven, which fosters collaboration among people,” Poh remarks. “This helps to create a collaborative spirit for business users, developers and everyone to work closely together in an agile way.”

Second, open source software provides the advanced technology and tools that make agile development easier. The open source community is “actively improving the software for better productivity, continuously”.

The collaborative aspect of open source innovation represents a big opportunity for ASEAN governments. They can discuss how to solve common issues and create solutions together, and build a community of their own, Poh continues.

There is also a compelling cost benefit. “Open source is free and can significantly reduce the cost of development and open up new ideas, and so will allow governments in ASEAN to progress in their digital transformation faster,” he concludes.

When the three tenets of people, process and product come together in the right way, government agencies will be able to figure out their digital transformation. The bottom line? “Change is necessary”, as Poh put it. “We have to build in this mindset that change is normal, it is okay.”