Editorial Issue 21

With Singapore’s ambition to be a Smart Nation, what does it really mean to be “smart” these days? This issue explores the apparent tensions and trade-offs that both underpin and animate Singapore’s Smart Nation efforts.


Date Posted

7 Aug 2019


Issue 21, 30 Jul 2019

Singapore’s ambition to be a Smart Nation, driven by and harnessing technology, is at heart about making this city-state the best home possible for its citizens. But what does it really mean to be “smart” these days?

F. Scott Fitzgerald offers a clue in one of his short stories: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function”. True smarts, he suggests, come not from the glibness of the smart-aleck, but from something much deeper.

This issue explores some of the opposed ideas—the apparent tensions and trade-offs—that both underpin and animate Singapore’s Smart Nation efforts.

Most critically, this hugely complex ambition requires a whole-of-nation effort, not just deliberate government action. The lead article by Ng Chee Khern, Permanent Secretary for Smart Nation and Digital Government, lays out some of the key multi-sectoral transformations that Singapore is making. Beyond simply adopting technology, the government is building on existing strengths as it undergoes profound shifts in policies, strategies, processes, organisational structures, projects, systems, and people. These intertwined, mutually reinforcing transformations enable it to serve citizens in ever better ways in this digital age. Jane Lim and Rachel Chen discuss transformational changes in the economy and society respectively; these must be adopted by organisations and individuals if they are to not only understand but also seize opportunities and participate meaningfully in the digital age.

Digital Government requires governments to think of data as a strategic asset, rather than conceptualise resources in the traditional terms of finances and people. Daniel Lim discusses the key changes the Singapore Government is undergoing to become more data-driven, including reorganising its data architecture, enhancing data literacy among public officers, and creating and identifying use cases that can facilitate and deepen digital transformation. If, as he says, data is “the raw fuel that powers and sustains digital transformation”, then the governments should be thinking about the political-economy that manages the generation and use of data. Accountability, privacy, security, efficiency and convenience will need to be balanced in order to nurture the social license for data-driven government.

Governments will also need to acquire different habits of mind and ways of working, which must coexist with more orthodox mindsets. A key principle of digital government is that many of the techniques used in software engineering are also applicable to public policy and management. At the same time, since more policies, operations, and services will come with a layer of technology, it is truer today than ever before that all public servants need to understand best practices in developing good technological products. For both these purposes, Li Hongyi’s insights on how to make good software may be especially useful to prompt reflection on the habits, practices and competencies of a government that is truly “digital to the core”. Karen Tay draws on experiences from Silicon Valley to observe how organisational cultures as a whole might need to change in order to attract and retain engineering talent. Abhilash Anselm and Tiana Desker describe what the Agile work approach looks like in their teams, and how it differs from traditional bureaucratic practices. All three contributions show that the creation of digital organisations concerns everyone in an organisation, not just engineers.

Serving in the digital age will demand that governments both seize opportunities and manage risks. Rahul Daswani and Jevon Tan discuss how digital technologies can both augment security operational capabilities and introduce new threats such as cyberattacks and deep fakes. A multi-agency approach is needed to manage risks and progressively apply technology to defend against threats and enhance security. Governments will also have to partner industry to both nurture innovation while working for the public good. David Hardoon and Shameek Kundu reflect on the balance between these imperatives for the financial industry. In the complex, rapidly-changing environment fostered by digital technology, the public and private sectors will need to know each other well in order to harness synergies and manage differences.

Leonard Loo’s piece on how his team took just one year to develop FormSG, from an idea to a product used by thousands, illustrates what digital transformation in government looks like in practice at an individual level. The story of his team’s relentless focus on problem-solving and producing good work contains useful advice on public entrepreneurship, and provides inspiration for any officer with a good idea. The challenge for public managers is how to encourage and enable others to identify opportunities to solve problems and create value for everyone, while managing the equally important priority of probity in the use of public funds.

Amidst the push for digital transformation, there might be a temptation to measure digitalisation simply by the presence—and survival—of digital projects. Aaron Maniam suggests how governments must balance this instinct with more meaningful measures and evaluations of digital success. His piece will be particularly useful to public managers who must not only deliver useful products that solve citizens’ problems, but also steward IT systems, platforms, resources such as finance and time, and data security.

In many ways, all public policy is about the delicate reconciliation of opposed ideas: current technology trends simply make the contradictions more acute. We hope that these articles highlight both the challenges and opportunities in the Smart Nation effort, and point a way towards insight and wisdom.

Vernie Oliveiro & Aaron Maniam

Guest Editors

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