Roundtable: How Technology is Transforming the Public Sector

In this edition of the Ethos Roundtable, participants of the 10th Leaders in Governance Programme discuss the challenges and opportunities of technology and the value of engagement in the digital age.


Dato Paduka Ahmaddin Haji Abdul Rahman, Permanent Secretary (Policy) of the Ministry of Finance, Brunei Darussalam

Ms Anna Roy, Adviser at the National Institutional for Transforming India (NITI Aayog), India

Mr Declan Hughes, Assistant Secretary General at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Ireland

AHMADDIN: Technology is changing the way the public sector works. In Brunei, we now provide electronic transactions and allow some payment to be transacted via e-payment gateway, to enhance convenience as well as the ease of doing business. For example, to register a company now takes only one step and one day, and you can start a business the moment you receive your certificate. Now the global pace of doing business is much faster, and business people want speed and convenience. Taking into account stakeholders’ involvement is significant to providing a good service delivery.

But investing in technology is one thing, and up- skilling of staff is another. By the time your people finish their training course to upgrade themselves, technology may have changed. Also, once we have incorporated technology into our everyday processes, what happens to counter services and counter staff? Will they still be needed in future, when people can access public services from home? That comes with its own concerns.

When we visited the Institute of Technical Education in Singapore, I asked how often they revised their syllabus. They said it was every six months or one year, which is quite frequent. It is because they want to make sure that whatever is taught is aligned with industry requirements. In Brunei, we have a capacity-building centre to equip youth with industrial skills. We want our people to go beyond the government and learn from the private sector. We are trying to change the mindset of our youth, to say this is the way we should do things now.

Investing in technology is one thing, and up-skilling of staff is another. By the time your people upgrade themselves, technology may have changed.

ROY: In the 60 years since independence, India’s public sector had been given primacy. Over time, it has grown to encompass even sectors such as hotels, where there is little reason for government involvement. We are now in a phase of gradual divestment. The public sector will remain the primary actor in areas where the private sector are unable to play an effective role. So the public sector itself is being redefined.

When the present government came to power in 2014, it had one dictum: “less government, more governance”. Government should be minimal but effective. We want a light touch government, but one that can deliver important services to the public. We are proposing to leverage technology to the greatest extent possible, in order to improve governance without necessarily increasing the size of government.

We have provided an e-inter face for most of our government services. We are now focusing on data mining and data analytics, to facilitate more evidence-based policymaking , and real-time governance.

India has a population of over one billion—not only do we have a huge population but we also have huge socioeconomic disparities and racial and religious diversity. We leverage technology to ensure that government services reach targeted beneficiaries deep in the system—that makes for better delivery of public services.

Government has been the enabler for the digital movement. It was the government initiative that saw development of an open source platform for digital payments which is interoperable and easy to use for different literacy levels. We seek to nurture the private sector and get the best out of them.

Wherever government is not required, we are extensively promoting private participation—such as in areas like transport. Wherever we feel that government delivery remains relevant, and cannot be given up to the private sector, we pursue public-private partnership rather than outright privatisation. In these cases, the private sector can provide the efficiency and help sustain the life cycle cost of the project.

We want a light touch government, but one that can deliver important services to the public.

HUGHES: The application of digital technology over the last 20 years is having a pervasive impact on the delivery of public services, with billions of devices, locations and people now connected on a daily basis. Changes in demographics in developed and developing economies are opening up new opportunities for innovation, driving demand for technology and for new applications, new services and new solutions in areas from tax collection, licensing and regulation, healthcare and eldercare, food and nutrition, and management of the built environment.

To succeed into the future, we need to continue to develop the strategic capacity in the public sector to understand and anticipate the changes that are happening. While we will not be able to predict the disruptions and shocks that may impact into the future, we can think about the potentialities and build up our resilience for the longer term.

For instance, we need to work with the business sector to ensure our businesses and enterprises build resilience in terms of competitiveness, innovation and capacity to compete in markets. The new world of work will see an increasing number of new enterprises starting as “born global”—it is no longer sufficient to think of serving or competing in one country or market, but to think about what segment you are competing in on a global basis, who your competitors are and how best you can compete.

A particular challenge for the policymakers is developing new and pro-innovation policy frameworks for the digital economy and the adoption of new technologies—whether in terms of promoting oriented research, or in terms of managing how small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) engage with new digital platforms, and their potential impact on our markets and industry structures. We also need to be aware that, given the changing nature of work, we may need to look at our employment laws and regulations to ensure that we can facilitate new ways of working, and provide safety and security for individuals, while sustaining labour market flexibility.

Technological innovation will also present further opportunities for more effective and efficient delivery of services for citizens. However, the application of technology in the public sector needs to be coupled with effective approaches to ensuring that our people have the skills and capacity to adjust: not only having the deep disciplinary skills required for the digital economy but also the broad-based aptitudes to adjust and succeed, including entrepreneurship, inventiveness and interpersonal skills—that will serve them well in the evolving digital economy over the next 20 to 30 years. This has to start very early, including at pre-school levels: all the evidence shows that investments made at that early stage pays significant higher social returns than those at a later stage.

In an interconnected world, our processes of engagement will become more important: between the public and private sector; between large and small enterprise; between society and the economy; between policy domains, to ensure that we’re actually joining up thinking in government and not making decisions in one area with unintended consequences on others.

A borderless, globalised world will be very different from the framework and mindset of a bordered world that we have now. In 5, 10, and 20 years, people will think very differently about how they connect with each other. This will have implications for global governance, for instance. The world has benefited greatly from a rules-based multilateral system of engagement over the last few decades, that has promoted the flow of new ideas, technologies and innovation across borders, to the benefit of our economies and societies. Into the future, there is an even stronger need for governments to ensure an open innovation agenda, to ensure that we can all benefit from these new drivers of change.

Small economies can play important international roles in terms of influencing and informing, in their regions as Ireland and Singapore do through the EU and ASEAN respectively for example, and through multilateral bodies such as the UN and OECD, to ensure we sustain the progress being made on developing a more open and interconnected world to secure our prosperity for the future.

A borderless, globalised world will be very different from the framework and mindset we have now. In 5, 10, and 20 years, people will think very differently about how they connect with each other.

The Value of Engagement in a Digital Age

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The ETHOS Roundtable was conducted by ETHOS Editor-in-Chief Alvin Pang in August 2017 with a group of participants in the 10th Leaders in Governance Programme (LGP). Organised annually by the Civil Service College, the LGP draws from Singapore’s development experience to offer practical insights into the fundamentals of good governance and effective policy implementation for sustainable economic development and social cohesion. Over the seven-day programme, participants interact with senior government officials and thought leaders, and visit key government agencies to understand their operating philosophies and values.

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