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R(e)volutionary journey of Singapore : Choy Peng, Deputy Chief Executive (Industry) and Government Chief Information Officer, IDA, Singapore

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  What was the genesis of e-Government activities in Singapore? How and when did it start?

e-Government is a word that has become fashionable over the last 4-5 years.

 

But IT in Singapore government started long ago in the year 1981, when the government decided to set up the National Computer Board to drive the Civil Service Computerization Program.  It was thought that the computer industry would be a potential area of economic growth for Singapore and computerisation itself would improve efficiency and productivity in government.  Hence, Singapore government would take the lead. First, we should use technology for our own efficiency and productivity gains. By doing so, we would create a demand for computer professionals and industry players. 

 

I would say e-Government is a natural evolution of the Civil Service Computerization Program. We started using technology in the back office to reduce paper work, automate back office activities and reduce manpower.

 

Technology should not be used in isolation but it should support other goals, objectives and philosophies. It has been a long journey. In the late 80’s, we realized we have implemented many computer systems within government, but greater value would come from “joining” these systems. So, we introduced one-stop-change-of-address. When you move house, you go to the neighbourhood police post and inform the policeman on duty. He updates his computer system and this change-of-address is broadcast to all government agencies.  This made changing address very easy and convenient for the citizens.  Then came TradeNet, MediNet, LawNet, etc., which made use of Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) technologies to connect government and private sector computer systems.

 

In the mid- to late 1990s, the Internet became pervasive. The Internet allows us to deliver government services directly to the computer in the home, the school and the workplace.From my perspective, e-Government is an evolution and journey, in which our use of Information Technology increases in scope, depth and sophistication.

 Has the e-Gov vision with which you started been fulfilled? Or does some of them remains to be done?

 In the area of “Delighted Customers”, we have a very impressive number of government services, which are already online. All services that are feasible to be delivered online, are already  up and running. In terms of usage, about 80% of customers who have used online government services are satisfied with the quality of these services.

 

More can be done to “delight customers”.  We should continue to drive the development of “integrated services”-services that cut across agencies’ organizational and functional boundaries. We should do more systems like the Online Business Licensing System, which won  a UN award this year. It took us 2 years to fully develop the Online Business Licensing   System, after a lot of persuasion, negotiation, policy reviews and business process re-engineering.

The area of “Connected Citizens” is a new outcome in our e-Government Action Plan. This is  about using the e-Channelto supplement the current channels of consulting citizens on public policies, getting feedback from citizens on government policies and programmes. Our target is  to have all government agencies to explain their public policies online. Today, public policies are published on the Internet at various stages of development so that our stakeholders can have a say in their formulation. The e-Channel is also an effective channel of building virtual communities with similar interests and needs. The Singapore government has  recently launched the Seniors Portal and the Youth Portal, in partnership with social and community groups.

“I notice that different countries are motivated differently. For some countries, e-Government is about increasing transparency. For some, e-Government is about
quality of public services. For some, e-Government is about cost savings. In some,
e-Government is politically motivated and driven.”

The 3rd outcome of our e-Government Action Plan is “Networked Government”. This is not  only about wiring up the government and connecting computer systems. In designing and  developing our e-Government services, we need to work as a “Networked Government” to  integrate policies, business processes, and information systems to deliver “customer centric” government services.

What lessons Singapore has for other countries to learn?

Almost all e-Government plans share the same vision and goals. But I notice that different  countries are motivated differently. For some countries, e-Government is about increasing transparency. For some, e-Government is about quality of public services. For some,  e-Government is about cost savings. In some, e-Government is politically motivated and  driven. A lot of what a country can or cannot achieve depends on a lot of other factors, such  as ICT infrastructure, ICT literacy, acceptance of technologies by politicians, civil servants,  general public, businesses, state of public sector reform and more. One factor is the  availability of a pervasive and affordable national ICT infrastructure. Singapore is fortunate in this aspect.

Singapore has more than 60% home penetration of computers. All public libraries have  Internet enabled computers for public use. All schools have a pervasive Internet enabled  computing infrastructure. Likewise, all community centres are equipped with Internet enabled  computers for public access.

Ultimately, e-Government cannot replace good government. In fact, good government is a pre-condition for a successful e-Government. Every country has to find its own solution.

Has one of the motivation been cost of government?

Most definitely. In the early days of computerization, every project must demonstrate a strong business case in the form of a cost benefit analysis. For Singapore, the public sector does not see its role in creating jobs within itself. It is more important to grow the economy, which will in turn create jobs. Hence, computerization in the early stages had focused on productivity gains and headcount reduction.

In the last 4-5 years, there is recognition that e-Government creates non-quantifiable value such as greater convenience for our customers, increased transparency and accountability for
service standards, etc.

At any point during implementation was there any resistance?

In any thing you do, there would be pockets of resistance. All in all, e-Government implementation in Singapore has been relatively smooth.

Our public servants are savvy users of IT. They work well across agencies. Our people are generally IT literate and welcome new technologies.

Although we have put most government services online, we have also programmes to help people who have no convenient access to the Internet and those who are unable to use the Internet. Public libraries, schools and community centres have Internet enabled computers for
public use. There are e-Citizen centres where assistance is available to help people use online government services.

In implementing e-Governance in Singapore, who provided the technical skills?

In the 80s and early 90s, the technical skills were primarily provided by the previous National  Computer Board. Highly specialized systems were outsourced to the private sector. In 1997,  the government decided that the National Computer Board would focus on the project  management role, while systems development, operations and maintenance would be  outsourced to the private sector. The National Computer Systems Pte Ltd was divested. Today,  the CIO role is performed by the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore.

We continue to work very closely with the private sector for systems development, operations  and maintenance. Both MNCs and local IT companies continue to be an important source of technical advice and skills.

How have you tried to measure the success of your e-Government programmes?

Both our e-Government Action Plan 1 and e-Government Action Plan 2 have well defined Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and targets. The 1st Plan had simpler KPIs and targets, which  were easy to measure and quantify. The 2nd Plan has more sophisticated KPIs to measure adoption, usage and satisfaction with online government services.

We have met all our targets for our e-Government Action Plan 1. By 2003, more than 1600 government services were available online. Many online government services have resulted in tangible cost savings for government, which in turn translated to lower administrative charges for our customers.

We are well on our way to achieve our targets for the 2nd Plan. For example, we have met our target of having at least 90% of people who need to use government services do so online at least once a year. We are still a bit behind in our target of having at least 90% of people who use our online government services being “satisfied” with the quality of these online government services. We have also exceeded our target of implementing at least 12 whole- of-government integrated online services.

What are your plans going from e-gov to m-gov?

We think there is great potential for many existing online services to be delivered to our customers’ mobile phones. There is also great potential for new innovative services to be developed and delivered through the mobile channel. M-Government is likely to be a major thrust in our next e-Government Action Plan.

What is the role of the private sector in e-Government in Singapore?

All IT systems, except those classified as SECRET and above, are developed, operated and  maintained by the private sector. Outsourcing to the private sector is an irreversible trend. We  have also formalized the Public-Private-Partnership model in procuring services from the  private sector. In the past, government would just pay for everything, acquire everything as  an asset, and then ask somebody else to operate the system and provide the service. In some  major development projects, which are asset intensive, the private sector maybe in a  better position to maximize the value of these assets. In such instances, the PPP model would  be a win-win arrangement for the public and private sectors. For IT systems developed by the  private sector for government, our default policy position is for the Intellectual Property of the  system(s) to be retained by the contractor. Again,  this is in recognition of the fact that the private sector is in a much better position to maximize the value of this IP by productising and selling these system(s). This more “enlightened” approach to government IT contracts will also lower the cost of such systems to government.

“For IT systems developed by the private sector for government, our default policy position is for the Intellectual Property (IPR) of the system(s) to be retained by the contractor…. recognising the fact that the private sector is in a much better position to maximize the value of this IP by productising and selling such systems.”

How did this lead to a good growth of companies?

For example, our TradeNet system has been replicated in many other countries. The company is Crimson Logic.

What are the challenges, which Singapore went through
during the development phase?

In the early development phase, the business case for IT projects was clear and compelling. When extending automated back office operations to online services, the value tends to
disproportionately tilted to the citizens and businesses. The government agencies have to work harder to transform their business processes to derive greater value from these online services.

“We are still a bit behind in our target of having at least 90% of people who use   our online government services being “satisfied” with the quality of these online government services.”

Generally, we have far fewer challenges than other countries. We have world class ICT infrastructure that is pervasive and affordable. We have politicians and public servants who  are IT savvy and embrace technologies. We have only 1 level of government, and  government agencies work very well amongst themselves. We are a small country, with only 4  million people. The public, private and people sectors are cooperative and work well together.

Does IDA bother about what technology to use – Open Source
or Proprietary?

Our philosophy is very simple – value for money and fit for purpose. We specify our business  objectives and requirements, and let the private sector put together solutions that best meet  our requirements and objectives. We do not prefer or discriminate against Open Source. For  us, this “Open Source or Proprietary” debate is not an ideological debate.

Is there any strategy to take this model out from Singapore and implement somewhere else?

Yes, we think many of our e-Government solutions and expertise is “exportable”. We would  like our IT companies that have delivered e-Government solutions for the Singapore  government to be able to take these solutions to other countries. In this respect, we will give  our companies whatever support and assistance they might need to successfully market and  implement e-Government solutions for other countries. On a Government-to-Government  level, IDA will engage in G-to-G collaborations to support strategic national objectives.

What are some of your major launches coming up?

The e-Government Action Plan 2 will end on 31 March 2006. We are now working with all government agencies to develop the e-Government Action Plan 3 and we hope to announce this 3rd Plan middle of 2006.

On a higher and a more strategic level, IDA is developing a national ICT plan, called iN2015,  where iN stands for Intelligent Nation. Many people in the private and public sectors are involved in this co-creation process. This Blueprint will also be launched in the middle of 2006.

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