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BT EXCLUSIVE

For GovTech, it's about engineering technology for the people

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Under Kok Ping Soon's lead, GovTech has a two-man outfit in San Francisco, scouring for Singaporeans who might be willing to return home and bring their expertise to the table.

Singapore

IT IS a grim question: If a loved one dies, do you know which government Web site would give you the most information on what you should do?

It is exactly at such moments of anguish that you would want to find the relevant information retailed in a way that minimises your pain, says GovTech chief executive Kok Ping Soon.

(The place to look, by the way, is the Web site of the National Environment Agency, which provides information on cremation, burial and columbarium services.)

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GovTech's Moments of Life app, which integrates services from across government agencies to support citizens' needs at key junctures in their lives, was built using such a citizen-centric philosophy.

It is one of the many projects Mr Kok has spearheaded since taking over GovTech's helm from his predecessor Jacqueline Poh in May 2018.

"It's not about technology for technology's sake," he told The Business Times in his first interview granted to local media since becoming CEO.

"(My mission is to) engineer a digital government to make lives better. And in engineering a digital government, I want to make sure that GovTech is always able to solve the hardest problems."

He certainly has his work cut out for him, in an age where terms such as "transformation" and "agility" are often tossed around and then quickly dismissed as buzzwords.

But he is unfazed, and he has ideas.

About a year into the job, Mr Kok has already led a number of digitalisation initiatives. The biggest was the launch of the Digital Government Blueprint, a five-year plan outlining how technology will change the way the government serves the public.

GovTech is set to grow in that time frame, from 2,300 employees to 2,700 by the middle of next year, to support the agency's delivery of services to other public bodies, he said. The increase in headcount will be driven by an expansion in the product-development team, which now has 530 staff, and the cyber security team, with 140.

There is a good reason why the organisation is boosting its in-house resources. The bulk of government IT applications were developed through outsourcing, said Mr Kok.

The issue with this is that projects tend to be agency-centric, which gets in the way of inter-operability, that is, the capacity for the different types of software to work with each other and exchange information. This in turn affects how quickly the government can scale up initiatives that involve several agencies.

GovTech's solution to this has been to move from a project-based approach to building platforms, on top of which agencies can develop applications.

Motorists would be familiar with GovTech's work through Parking.sg, a mobile app that replaces physical parking coupons. And those who visit government Web sites would be acquainted with Ask Jamie, the virtual assistant who pops up with a bright smile and an offer of help.

Behind the scenes, GovTech is also responsible for weaving technology into processes that span individuals, businesses and the government.

By the end of this year, street lights in Geylang and one-north will have sensors that monitor air quality, noise and personal mobility devices.

A platform called the National Digital Identity will soon enable businesses to securely identify individuals and receive their data with their consent - simply by scanning a Quick Response (QR) code.

Mr Kok was formerly deputy secretary of development at the Ministry of Manpower, and so is no stranger to technology. In his previous role, he oversaw digitalisation initiatives, in addition to national policies and programmes for workplace safety and health.

He was also a senior director at the National Security Coordination Centre within the National Security Coordination Secretariat in the Prime Minister's Office.

He speaks fast and with a passion, but articulates his thoughts, peppered with numbered points and verbal signposts.

Having spent years in public-sector organisations, he is certain that digitalisation goes beyond a technological shift. Agencies must also change the way they think about service and policy-making, and be quick to respond to feedback, he said.

GovTech's mission is not without its challenges. As much as the agency wants to attract the best of the best, finding (and keeping) talent remains a constant pain point.

"I am competing quite aggressively with the Googles and the Facebooks," he quipped, laughing.

To beef up its team, GovTech is casting its net in the direction of overseas Singaporeans as well. It has a two-man outfit in San Francisco, on the lookout for Singaporeans who had gone overseas years ago in search of a more mature market.

"My idea of bringing them back to Singapore is that sometimes, for these kinds of people, it's not about fitting them into existing jobs. I may not have a 'box' for them.

"But because of their expertise, I can bring them here. And then over time, they can find things that are worthwhile to do, and I can build a team around that."

GovTech also plans to set up a training academy to formalise reskilling efforts. Existing government institutions such as the Civil Service College do not focus much on the digital domain, and other private schools lack a governmental context, Mr Kok noted.

As GovTech embarks on more projects, he wants to improve how his agency works with industry. Right now, the relationship is similar to that of a principal and a vendor. He envisions a future in which in-house developers work with external ones on a project from start to finish.

It is a big hurdle because it requires an alignment of development practices between both parties, but GovTech is taking measured steps.

It will put out a tender, possibly in September, that lays out the criteria for businesses interested in joining the agency in co-developing a project.

It is full steam ahead as GovTech takes on the gargantuan task of transforming Singapore's public sector, but Mr Kok is ready to roll.

"Fundamentally, in order for me to engineer a digital government to make lives better, I need to change the 'operating system' of the government," he said.

READ MORE: Public agencies must rethink cybersecurity, says GovTech CEO