By Steven McGinty
“Singapore leads in all dimensions of digital readiness and scores high in economic competitiveness, citizen engagement as well as public sector productivity.”
These are the words of Ng Wee Wei, Managing Director (Health & Public Service) at Accenture, in Singapore. He made this statement on the day Singapore was ranked number one for digital government, in a comparative study carried out by Accenture.
However, this is just one of the many accolades won by Singapore. Other notable successes have included:
- Topping the Waseda University World e-Government Rankings for seven consecutive years;
- Ranking third in the United Nations e-Government Survey 2014;
- Ranking first in the Networked Readiness Index 2015.
In my latest article on digital government around the world, we’ll take a look at how this island city state has become a global leader and what can be learned from their experience.
E-government policy development
In the 1970s the Singapore government realised that they were unable to compete with the larger labour-intensive economies. As a result, they identified ICT as a way of improving economic performance, particularly through increasing labour productivity, making processes leaner and more efficient, and delivering better services to customers.
In 1982, the government launched the Civil Service Computerization Program (CSCP). The programme’s main objective was to enhance public administration through the effective use of ICT. This involved developing new business processes, automating work functions and reducing paperwork for greater internal operational efficiencies. In essence, it provided the foundation for subsequent e-services.
Throughout the 1980s and the 1990s the government started to develop the programme. For instance, the National Information Technology Plan (NITP) was introduced to support cross agency collaboration. This led to the creation of “TradeNet”, an application that enabled exchange of documents between the private sector and various government agencies.
As Singapore entered the new millennium, the e-Government Action Plan (2000-2003) (eGAP 1) was launched. This was the first of what the government now calls the ‘eGov masterplans’. It set out the aim that:
“All government services that can be delivered electronically shall be delivered through electronic means”.
The second e-Government Action Plan (2003-2006) emphasised improving the customer experience, connecting citizens with each other and fostering collaboration between government agencies.
The third, iGov2010 Masterplan (2006-2010), had a strong focus on integrating government services, making sure that processes cut across agencies. In addition, increasing the e-engagement of citizens was also a key objective, particularly in fostering greater bonds within different communities, such as young people.
Most recently, the government introduced the eGov2015 Masterplan (2011-2015), which outlined the vision of collaboration between the government, the private sector and the people through digital technologies. There was also a recognition that the government should act as a platform provider to encourage greater co-creation of new e-services.
Key features of eGov Singapore
Singpass (Singapore Personal Access) was introduced in March 2003 and enables citizens access to government e-services, from over 60 government agencies via a single platform. In total, there are 3.3 million registered users, with transactions increasing from 4.5 million in 2003 to 57 million in 2013. The system provides a high level of security for users, as well as removing the need for agencies to develop and administer their own.
In July 2015, an Enhanced SingPass was introduced. It included improvements such as the option to customise the SingPass ID, mobile-friendly features, and stronger security capabilities. However, the updates proved to be so popular that on their initial release the website was temporarily inaccessible due to high traffic.
data.gov.sg was launched in June 2011 and is Singapore’s first stop portal for publicly available government data, as well as applications developed using government data. The portal has increased to over 8,700 datasets (covering a range of themes, from business and the economy to housing and urban planning), with contributions coming from over 60 government agencies.
The government has introduced schemes such as ideas4apps Challenge and Harnessing Data for Value Creation Call-for-Collaboration (CFC) to encourage the creative use of government data. One example from the portal’s showcase is FixMyStreet, an app which allows citizens to report, view or discuss issues with public facilities, such as litter and broken lifts.
eCitizen was introduced in 1999 and is the first-stop portal for government information and services. When the portal was first introduced it pioneered the concept of cross-agency, citizen-centric government services, where users transact with ‘one government’ (the ability to access several government services via the one website).
In 2013, the eCitizen portal was recognised for “Outstanding Achievement” in the Government category of the Interactive Media Awards. It beat 137 other nominees to the award, which evaluates entries based on: design; content; feature; functionality; usability; and standards compliance. Since the portal’s redesign in 2012, there has been a 65% increase in visitors, with significant improvement in the success rates of searches (up to three times).
What key lessons can countries learn from Singapore?
In the book, National Strategies to Harness Information Technology: Seeking Transformation in Singapore, Finland, the Philippines, and South Africa, Jeannie Chua outlines the key lessons that other countries can take from the Singaporean experience. This includes:
- Stable political leadership
Singapore has had the same political party in charge of its Cabinet since 1959. This high level of political stability is rare, unlikely to occur in most countries and not necessarily desirable for democracy. However, it does highlight the importance of some level of continuity for progressing a digital agenda, whether that’s within the same government or across different government administrations.
- Industry collaboration – getting the private sector to do more
The use of government intervention to create opportunities for the private sector and providing effective working partnerships has been very successful in Singapore. This ‘catalyst’ role has encouraged innovation and supported the creation of a successful ICT industry.
- The willingness to innovate and take risks
Singapore’s willingness to adopt technologies at an early stage has proved to be a success. For instance, the National Library of Singapore adopted RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology, the use of radio waves to automatically identify people or objects, even though it was relatively untested at the time.
Singapore has been successful at creating a strong foundation for e-government and is deserving of all its accolades. The success has been built on a combination of factors including political willingness and economic policies. However, what has also been important is the country’s ability to learn from each stage in its development.
As the country moves forward, key issues such as cybercrime and privacy concerns will have to be addressed. In 2014, there was a security breach involving 1,560 Singpass accounts. A year later, the government introduced a new central government agency for cybersecurity operations. It’s hoped that this central agency will be able to bolster the country’s critical ICT infrastructure.
It’s these measures, and its ability to act swiftly, that will hold Singapore in good stead for the future. This is maybe the real lesson for those looking to emulate Singapore’s e-government success.
Enjoy this article? Read our other recent blogs relating to the digital economy:
- The UK digital economy: how can the government support digital businesses?
- Digital Agenda Norway (DAN): international digital leader but still pushing forward
- e-Estonia: leading the way on digital government
- The Government Digital Service: successes, turmoil, and the focus for the future
- Digital transformation: rethinking the plumbing of government
- The Carnegie Trust and the Wheatley Group: showing us how we can tackle digital exclusion
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