Exclusive: Inside Singapore’s GovTech Rapid Deployment Unit

By Yun Xuan Poon

Li Hongyi, Director of Open Government Products at GovTech Singapore, shares lessons learned from the big tech giants.

Amazon uses AI to sell books; Tinder uses GPS to set dates; Snapchat uses facial recognition to put virtual rabbit ears on tweens. What if governments use this tech to improve their services?

Li Hongyi, the Director of Open Government Products at Singapore’s Government Technology Agency (GovTech), believes there is much to learn from the way that big tech companies have innovated so quickly. “We know how to have good technology, and we know we have big problems,” Li said.

So he founded a unit - Open Government Products - in the heart of Singapore’s GovTech Agency. It rapidly builds new services, and spreads them far and wide across government. Li spoke last month at the GovInsider Live summit at the United Nations Asia HQ, sharing how his team has built cutting-edge services - and changed the way that government operates for good.

The tech

Much like the Commandos come from a bigger Army; Li’s Open Government Products unit operates out of GovTech. It pools tools, troops, and ethos, but has its own website, branding, and it punches ahead with smaller services that quickly get scaled up. GovTech, meanwhile, mobilises battalions for bigger-scale systems like the national digital identity programme or the cloud-first policy.

Here are four examples of OGP’s services, which can now be used by governments right across the world.

1. A simpler way of building websites

If a government website is hard to use, someone may miss crucial information like a tax deadline; a benefit payment; a flood warning; or a new training opportunity.

Some governments tackle this by creating common standards for all agencies to follow when building their sites. Open Government Products took this one step further: building an easy tool that lets anyone quickly publish a standardised government website.

The tool, known as Isomer, gives a user-tested template, ensuring “all government websites for citizens will have a minimum standard of usability”, Li said. Not only are they fast and secure; they’re mobile-friendly and support users with visual impairments.

“It’s 2019. We shouldn’t have to [build government websites] over and over again,” he remarked. One less thing for a policy officer to worry about.

2. Creating secure forms

The writer Michel Houllebecq wrote that “point of bureaucracy is to reduce the possibilities of your life to the greatest possible degree” - tying people up through forms, processes and complications.

Li’s team has busted through this by building FormSG, a system that will save thousands of man hours. No longer does government have to send paper forms for anything at all. A single online tool allows for a standardised, secure approach across government.

This system saved $65m in IT costs, he said, and means that an agency now takes less than 30 minutes to put a form onto a website - a drastic improvement on the previous 3 months. Combined with government’s bigger MyInfo system, it means that citizens can be remembered when they visit a new government website and apply for a permit online. They’ll only need to complete the new information, and not keep repeating themselves.

3. Parking.sg

For decades, Singaporeans would pay for parking with a paper coupon on the dashboard of their car. Wasteful, expensive, and inefficient, this had to change in the digital era. But how could government do this simply?

The answer was Parking.sg. While a smart roads system would have cost tens of millions, a simple app costs government just $5,000 a month in hosting fees and a few smaller costs for software subscriptions.

The app was launched in 2017 and is now used for 1.5 million parking sessions each month - for a population of only 5.6 million people.

This means that drivers only pay for the parking sessions they need, rather than booklets of coupons that would expire. “We've actually lost money doing this - because we've now given back $5 million worth of parking fees that we otherwise would have unethically collected from people for time that they actually didn't end up using,” joked Li.

4. Digital Identity

Authorities have long struggled to pin down the criminal rings behind internet scams. “Online, if you are detected to have committed fraud or some kind of scam, it’s very, very, very easy to just delete your account and create a new one,” explained Li.

The solution, said Li, is to ensure websites can accurately verify each user’s identity, so nobody can hide behind several fake accounts. His team is experimenting with a new method of identifying citizens online. This system, called sgID, gives each citizen one set of log-in details for government services online, much like how everyone has a unique national ID number.

Citizens can use these details to sign in to multiple websites - be it the banks, the tax office, or even the doctor. “There are a few organisations in the world which can have a strong verification method for a person, and those are governments,” he pointed out.

How they build them

These systems are not just available in Singapore, but are for use across the world. “There’s no benefit to us keeping this a trade secret of how we managed to go paperless in Singapore,” Li said.

Li's team has made its product ‘open source’, meaning that the code is available and adaptable. “A big reason why the technology sector in California and around the world has moved forward so quickly in the last decade is because of the explosion of open source code and open source communities,” Li noted.

In practice, other governments can use the code to build their own parking apps, and may adapt the system to their needs. “They can take a look at our code, reuse it as far as possible, and hopefully in the long run, contribute back,” Li said. It could improve the original version of the parking app.

The team has also adopted big tech’s culture of embracing failure. “Instead of treating [failures] like a big point of shame, we try to treat this in good faith - that all officers on the team are trying their best to build a good product,” Li said. “The idea is that you’re going to encounter problems, so you might as well try to learn from them the best you can”.

Allowing space for innovation

Every January, the Open Government Products team hits pause on all non-urgent work to come together for a hackathon. This gives employees time and space to explore new ideas.

Officials often “generate a lot of ideas that you would never have found if you just waited for instructions from what is traditionally senior leadership,” Li said.

Li aims to include as many team members in the creative process as possible. “A leader has to support and facilitate as many of the good people you hire as possible to spend time thinking about the problem, so you maximise the amount of creative brain power,” he said.

There is no place for laborious reports, however, or seemingly-endless slide decks. Instead every team member spends just five minutes a week writing bullet points on what they achieved.

The United States Joint Special Forces Operations Command advocates an approach called the ‘team of teams’, where crack troops avoid a hierarchy to organise around specific missions. Li’s Open Government Products team seems to operate in the same way.

But one key difference between real Commandos and their GovTech equivalents? With open source coding, Li’s team shares all of its intelligence.