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EXCLUSIVE – Leveraging technologies and partnerships for the public good with GovTech

The Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GovTech) was officially launched on October 7 2016 with the mission to spearhead the Singapore Government’s digital and data strategy. GovTech and the InfoComm Media Development Authority (IMDA) were formed as a result of a re-structuring between the InfoComm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) and the Media Development Authority (MDA).

OpenGov had the privilege to hear from Ms. Jacqueline Poh, Chief Executive of GovTech who shared in-depth about GovTech’s role in Singapore’s Smart Nation Plan, plans to collaborate with different stakeholders, the opportunities of working with a diverse team and more. 

GovTech was officially launched in early October 2016. What is your mandate as CEO?                    GovTech is built on a very strong foundation laid by the erstwhile IDA. IDA had a strong and proven capability in the delivery of public ICT systems, and now 75 per cent of IDA resides in GovTech.

Even whilst GovTech continues to build on IDA’s traditional strengths in running IT services for public agencies, setting governance and standards, and maintaining the resiliency of government infrastructure, there is a broader ICT technology and digital mandate that GovTech will need to fulfil.                    We are possibly the first government body of its kind in the world that will grow deep technical capabilities for the government and leverage applied technology and engineering to deliver the public sector’s digital transformation and to optimise smart city service delivery.

         As CEO, I am looking to continue to build strong partnerships with public agencies, industry, and citizens to transform public service delivery through the use of emerging technologies such as data science and analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning.                              

What are the major areas of focus for GovTech in 2017?

I think it is very simplistic to think of GovTech as just a technical and engineering organisation. People is at the heart of Singapore’s Smart Nation and Digital Government movement. The focus on people will ultimately drive what GovTech will and need to do.

For Digital Government, we want our citizens to enjoy more meaningful, impactful government digital services that are delivered to them at key moments in their lives e.g. primary school enrolment, getting married, retirement and old age, and to create a frictionless experience in their interactions with the government. Towards this end, we will utilise design thinking and work with the Ministry of Finance (MOF) and other public agency partners to design and develop digital initiatives under a ‘Moments of Life’ concept.

For the larger Smart Nation, we want our citizens to live in a safe and secure city, enjoy more public transportation options to meet their first- and last-mile needs, and better manage energy usage in a resource-scarce environment, amongst others. We will work with other public agencies and industry partners to put in place common infrastructure and services such as data analytics to enable better sensing of how our city works and optimise the delivery of smart city services. One example is GovTech’s continuous efforts with the National Research Foundation and the Singapore Land Authority to develop Virtual Singapore - a virtual 3D geospatial rendering of Singapore - to aid in urban planning and operations.

GovTech will also work with MOF to upgrade computer equipment and online interfaces at the Citizens Connect Centres islandwide to make it even easier for users, especially the elderly, less tech-savvy and those without Internet, to access and use government services online. 

Singapore’s National Cybersecurity Strategy was announced by PM Lee Hsien Loong during the opening of the Singapore International Cyber Week (SICW) on October 10 2016. In terms of collaboration with other government agencies pertaining to cybersecurity, what are some of the broad plans or road maps laid out?

Smart Nation will continue to create demand for ICT professionals with a range of deep technical skills. Cybersecurity is one of the key capability centres that GovTech is growing for the Government together with the Cyber Security Agency.

As the government’s cybersecurity lead, GovTech will continue to develop and strengthen cyber security policies and set governance standards within government digital infrastructure, platforms and services, to ensure the robustness of our systems against malicious attacks.

We will also explore more collaborations with research institutes and Institutes of Higher Learning to bring in proven technology into government and strengthen our ICT infrastructure and capabilities over time.

To enable more co-creation with these stakeholders, GovTech has worked with Cyber Security Agency to organise the first Smart Nation IoT Security conference in October this year to identify cybersecurity challenges and discuss solutions to build a secure and resilient Smart Nation. GovTech also ran the inaugural Cyber Safe Cyber Ready seminar series which sought to open up discussion among public officers on the cyber landscape and the role each individual plays in our cyber defence.

GovTech has about 1,800 public officers working in administrative, non-technical and technical roles. What are some of the challenges of leading such a big and diverse team? What opportunities do you foresee?

It is exciting for me to be leading and working with such a diverse group of professionals of varying technical expertise and backgrounds!

We are increasingly attracting professionals from the private sector who believe in the cause that GovTech is championing, and that is, using technology and engineering in meaningful ways to improve the lives of our citizens. Take for example, the app MyResponder that we developed together with the Singapore Civil Defence Force. MyResponder activates volunteers within a 400m radius of a cardiac arrest victim to render immediate help before the ambulance arrives. Whenever a life is saved using this app, our guys from the Government Digital Services (GDS) who built the app would cheer and celebrate. There is no greater motivation than parlaying your skills for the good of the community.

And using tech for the public good is precisely why we launched the Smart Nation Fellowship Programme in March 2016 to enable top data scientists, technologists and engineers from academia and industry in Singapore and overseas to join the Singapore government for short stints of three to six months. They will work alongside our data scientists and product developers from GDS, as well as users and developers from different government agencies, to apply data science and technology for the public good.

Our first two Smart Nation Fellows came on board in July 2016, from nearly 300 applications. One of them was a returning overseas Singaporean who is working for YouTube in Silicon Valley. He came back because he felt a calling to contribute. The other guy was a local tech professional who enjoyed his three-month stint so much that we offered to extend his stint!

GovTech, specifically the GDS, has been able to attract tech talent because of the agile, bold and collaborative culture, sense of purpose and national or even global impact of our work.

         Using digital and data tools to make a difference to people’s lives, finding solutions to real world social issues, creating opportunities and building digital communities that can lend a helping hand to one another is something unique and invaluable that a job in GovTech can offer!                              

What is GovTech’s role in helping Singapore move towards a Smart Nation?

Broadly, GovTech will support Singapore’s Smart Nation vision in three major areas, i.e. smart city services, digital government and citizen involvement.

For smart city services, we are looking to better harness data and analytics to help public agencies to share and analyse sensor data to optimise the operation of smart city services. This is what I will call the concept of “city as a machine”, where our focus is on infrastructure and hardware.

For digital government which we see as a key pillar of Smart Nation, we will drive the government’s delivery of the next generation of anticipatory and secure government digital services, by focusing on user experience design, data analytics and behavioural insights. We aim to deliver citizen-centric services at key moments of a citizen or business’ interaction with the government to minimise friction.

Lastly, we hope to catalyse a civic innovation movement where citizens - individuals, businesses and even institutions of higher learning - will participate and work with GovTech to co-create solutions for the public good. GovTech will make data and other tools such as Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) open and publicly available, through for example, Singapore’s open data portal, data.gov.sg.

Could you give us some updates on the six new Capability Centres that are being set up? What will be the role of GovTech in the different stages of projects being undertaken at the Capability Centres?

GovTech is unique in the sense that we also have the impetus to develop the government’s technical and engineering capabilities. We are focusing on six key capability areas, i.e. software development, sensors and IoT, data science, government ICT infrastructure, geospatial technology (with Singapore Land Authority) and cybersecurity (with Cyber Security Agency).

With the exception of the government ICT infrastructure and cybersecurity capability centres, the other four capability centres are nested within the Government Digital Services (GDS) unit of GovTech. GovTech adopts a multi-disciplinary and agile approach when we build a digital product.

Other than the capability centres, we are focusing on talent development within GovTech and the government. We are looking to recruit people with the skillsets in data science, software development, UX design etc to join our multi-disciplinary teams in GDS. I have also mentioned earlier the Smart Nation Fellowship Programme. These are various ways in which we aim to strengthen and build the government’s technical and engineering capabilities.

Increasingly, it is more common to see public and private sectors working together to leverage on expertise and resources in the digital age, with things like IoT which brings great opportunities for both parties. Are there any public-private partnership projects through GovTech?

While GovTech will develop our own indigenous technical and engineering capabilities, we also aim to be a smart buyer for the Government, creating lead demand and partnering closely with the industry to co-source digital and data solutions for the public good.

For example, GovTech’s Government Digital Services team has partnered with Red Hat to build the first Platform-as-a-Service for the government using Red Hat open source solutions, and recently won the Red Hat Innovation Awards Asia Pacific.

Another example is InnoLeap, GovTech’s initiative to bring together government agencies, companies, research institutes and Institutes of Higher Learning to identify solutions to real world problems.

GovTech will also work with our sister agency, the Infocomm Media Development Authority, to help promising infocomm media start-ups through the Accreditation@IMDA programme to win work for government projects.

We do not just want to work with big businesses. Recently we launched govBuy, which aims to utilise the small value purchase procurement process to provide opportunities for students, freelancers and small companies to co-create with the GDS team.

govBuy gives members of the tech community who do not have the resources to bid for a large tender, the opportunity to work with us on technical product-testing methods (also known as technical spikes), non-critical bug fixes and other small tasks. This gives tech talent the opportunity to work with us on real tech problems and tasks, as well as gain practical experience.

Which emerging technologies do you think will play crucial roles in digital transformation going forward?

Data and analytics will be critical to what GovTech is hoping to achieve in terms of building a Smart Nation and transforming digital government. Other areas of emerging technology we are looking at include IoT, geospatial technology, machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Could you share your long-term vision for GovTech and the transformation of Singapore to a smart and secure nation?

If we look at, say 20 years down the road, I would say that delivering great government digital services and building the infrastructure to optimise smart city services are measurable KPIs and certainly achievable. What is harder to measure will be the area of Smart Citizen involvement. Afterall, smart cities are not built on technology, but rather on the ideas and visions of its people.

Sparking and driving citizen involvement is one of the areas that we have the most work to do, because it requires us to do something very different as a government, and that is not to provide everything ourselves, but to really work with and harness the energy and ideas of a new generation of tinkerers, makers and civic-minded citizens.

GovTech will provide the tools, i.e. the open source platforms, more open data and real- time APIs, to spark this civic movement of smart citizens.

         To be a truly Smart Nation, the government and GovTech cannot do it all alone. We will need all hands on deck, i.e. our citizens, industry, startups, institutions of higher learning etc.                              
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