Making a “smart nation” even smarter

“We’ve had a busy year,” says Dr Janil Puthucheary. You can say that again.

As minister-in-charge of GovTech, Singapore’s Government Technology Agency, Puthucheary has responsibility for a sweeping array of digital initiatives, all of which are geared towards maintaining the city-state’s pre-eminent position as a beacon of technological, citizen-centric excellence.

Puthucheary, though, is not about to rest on any laurels. With Amazon Prime, Netflix and Google all making rapid strides in Singapore, he is acutely aware that government has to keep up with this pace of change while at the same time ensuring that services remain user-friendly, inclusive and a public good. Woe betide anything that threatens the strong connection that exists between citizens and their government.

“The most important consideration is the confidence that Singaporeans have in their government,” he points out. “We currently enjoy a very high level of trust, which has been hard-earned. It is precious and vital. This trust allows us to deliver many public services. As we think of each incremental step, we need to maintain and safeguard this trust and ensure that each new product, platform and service integrates with the ecosystem already in place.”

Smartening up Singapore

Puthucheary is not your average government minister. He has worked at hospitals in London, Belfast and Sydney, and is currently balancing his government commitments with his role as a senior consultant in the children’s intensive care unit at Singapore’s KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital.  Medical responsibilities aside, he is playing a pivotal role in helping Singapore’s government fulfil its ambition to become a Smart Nation, whereby tech-enabled solutions address big urban and societal challenges.

Since the programme’s launch in 2014, Singapore’s policymakers have overseen the rollout of a dizzying number of initiatives, varying from extending autonomous vehicle trials to a Smart Health Video Consultation and many more besides. All are connected by the goal of using digital technology to enhance the way Singaporeans live, work, play and interact. And that’s critical – it’s citizens, not technology, that are at the heart of the government’s vision.

Puthucheary, who has been in post since January 2016, pinpoints three major objectives of the programme. “We want to improve the everyday convenience and quality of life,” he says. “We have to do this in a way that drives greater enterprise, efficacy and opportunities for the private sector, ultimately creating new jobs and opportunities for Singaporeans. And the expectation, correctly so, is that we need to be inclusive for all Singaporeans from the start. The benefits of Smart Nation have to be widely distributed and not just available to a select few.”

He is also keen to stress that the projects run deeper than just taking what was an in-person counter service and making it available on the web. While such a move is to be welcomed, Smart Nation is also about transforming the policymaking process as a whole. “When we build the platforms and services, it’s not just about using the most advanced technologies,” he says. “They need to be interoperable, publicly accessible, and designed in such a way that policy development will improve over time.”

To illustrate his point he cites the example of OneMap, an integrated map system for government agencies to deliver location-based services and information, which has recently been rebuilt by the Singapore Land Authority. “This is important, as we can’t just have commercially available products as a solution to government – there are some things that we have to build, maintain, operate and secure ourselves. And in a way that helps us keep pace with the innovation, opportunity and disruption that is coming to us from around the world.”

Pathway to progress

For the Smart Nation vision to become a reality, Puthucheary says that there are several issues that need to be addressed up front, starting with making the most of data. “For the past year we have been designing a data-sharing framework that will boost interagency collaboration and improve the design and delivery of public services,” he explains.

“But to maintain the longstanding public trust of citizens, we want to introduce legal safeguards towards government’s use of personal data. We’re also enhancing the ways we share data with the public. We’ve come a long way since we launched our open data platform. Earlier this year, we introduced an open data licence to welcome more citizen involvement, and we’re lowering the barriers to the use of public sector data. This is because if we are to develop new solutions, new ideas and new platforms to solve policy issues, we need more participation and cocreation.”

Puthucheary also asserts that government has to be constantly evolving and developing in order to better meet the needs of its citizens. “We are studying ways to improve how our information is organised and to provide citizens with a seamless experience when interacting with government,” he points out. “So, we’re looking at how civil servants can work across agencies, ministries and interests in order to break down barriers. We need to do this systematically around our products and platforms – looking at government, governance, policy and services.”

One of the results of such reforms is OneService, a centralised platform collecting citizen feedback from over 30 agencies and town councils, aggregating the process in both directions. “The application has enhanced our ability to monitor service quality and coordinate improvements,” adds Puthucheary. “We want to think through this approach and expand it to a broader range of services.”

Citizens first, and always

Underpinning all this is the need to focus on the user experience of citizens – improving website design and the convenience and safety of online transactions to take account of the fact that daily transactions are increasingly performed on mobile devices. “We need to design these experiences to be more intuitive, secure and hassle-free,” says Puthucheary.

Since 2003, citizens have been able to use their Singapore Personal Access (SingPass) account to access hundreds of government digital services easily and securely.

“Last year, we gave SingPass users the option to try out a new digital service – MyInfo – which enables them to manage their personal data online and auto-fill forms upon consent. We created the service to reduce the hassle of filling out your own personal data for online applications and to provide government-verified data for transactions that require SingPass authentication. The response has been very encouraging. In just over a year there have been over 200,000 sign-ups, and we have successfully extended the MyInfo service to the banking sector. By the end of the year, all SingPass users will be provided with a MyInfo profile.”

Such examples illustrate Singapore’s progress towards achieving its Smart Nation vision, but they also hint at what might be possible beyond the horizon. As Puthucheary points out, when they first embarked on using technology for government services, no one could have foreseen the scale of the digital revolution to come. “We’re riding on the success we have had for the past 15 to 20 years, but the opportunities today – and the threats around cybersecurity – have significantly changed,” he says. “So we have to continually refresh our initiatives while staying true to the principles of being inclusive, user-centric and interoperable.”

If the past is a guide to the future, there is little doubt that progress will continue to ricochet across the small city-state. Singaporeans should buckle up for exciting times ahead.



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