Tracing the Singapore Govt’s tech evolution & transformation

Hongyi Li Singapore, Government Interview

Singapore has emerged as a global hub for technology and innovation, with its Government Technology Agency, or GovTech, playing a pivotal role in fostering growth and adaptation in this ever-changing environment. In recent years, the country has continued to prove itself as a powerhouse and has consistently ranked among the top countries in global ICT and innovation.

In the lead-up to our FST Government ASEAN event, we spoke with the Director of Open Government Products at GovTech, Hongyi Li, on Singapore’s ICT evolution, the challenges that governments face when undertaking transformation projects and the best ways to overcome them, and why even the smallest scale tech tools can yield big benefits for citizens.

FST Gov: How do Open Government Products and GovTech contribute to the evolution of ASEAN’s as well as the Singapore Government’s ICT landscape?

Li: Certainly a big question. First and foremost, there’s a baseline of IT systems across government that must stay online. A big share of work that a lot of people don’t see is simply in keeping the lights on.

Besides this, though, the entire goal of good government systems is essentially to extract as much of the complexity away from citizens as possible. Citizens see something very simple when they, for instance, submit a form or state their preferences, and everything else should happen automatically. We’ve been successful to varying degrees on that.

Our team, Open Government Products, is an experimental division that’s separate from the main body of GovTech specifically so that we can work in a ground-up fashion. Most government IT systems tend to be very top-down because you have all these big projects which handle some things reasonably well. But when it comes to tech, a big part of it isn’t about those big ideas that require a lot of funding; it’s about supporting a lot of experiments, a lot of startups, and a lot of prototypes to test and see what works.

Our team was built to identify problems from the ground up.


Rather than relying on soft leadership to tell us exactly what to do, we have a bunch of engineers, designers, and product managers who go around government trying to identify problems that, as practitioners, they think can be solved, and then build prototypes and tools and solutions that can address them. This lets us move a lot more quickly and get into lots of different areas to identify problems that may often be opaque to leadership. But at the same time, it means we have to pitch a lot harder and spend quite a lot of time trying to get people on board and understanding.

So, you basically come from both directions. Where has this changed landscape? For our team specifically, over the last few years we’ve focused on getting some basic tools for our government officers. These tools would be quite familiar to many; people likely access them in their private lives – for example, we built a customisable digital form which enables government offices to construct their own digital form within 15 or 20 minutes, effectively eliminating the use of paper. While this may seem simple, by building a tool where the average government office can choose which questions they want and get the answers to them digitally, we’ve more or less been able to replace all paper forms with digital equivalents.


FSTGov: Take us through some of the other tools your team has been rolling out.

Li: We built, which is a trusted link shortener and QR code generator. The reason we built it wasn’t because there aren’t link shorteners everywhere, but with all these spam and scam links going around today, it’s important to have a government-trusted short link, and particularly one which makes it easier for people to contact.

We’ve used this short link service for all kinds of things. Though it seems like a trivial thing, most government agencies have realised that having a short link and a QR code makes it a lot easier for citizens to remember [their site]. It’s easy to communicate. It’s easy to scan. You can just pop whatever link you have in and know it’s from the government and can be trusted.

Even though we start from the ground up, a lot of our products have scaled now. Redeem SG is a really good example. We started with a basic coupon or voucher distribution system; it’s now running a lot of the government’s voucher distribution campaigns and offers an easy way for the government to give out money. I don’t know if people realise this, but it’s actually a big challenge, logistically and in a planning sense, for governments to give out money. If you can digitise that, it changes dramatically; we went from people going around with backpacks and collecting, counting and distributing coupons to having it easily tracked and collated..

Another big area is healthcare, where we took and generalised it to pneumococcal, influenza, HPV and other more common vaccines. There’s a lot to do still in the broader landscape, but I’m quite sure, at least for our team, that we’ve managed to show you can have quite impactful ideas that come from the ground up, especially in technology. You want all your ideas to be very iterated and built up, and we’ve managed that. That’s been a big win and our main impact on the landscape.


FST Gov: Has it been a challenge being solution-first oriented and having a very targeted approach?

Li: Yes, but I’d actually phrase it a little differently.

We’re not ‘solution first’. We are ‘problem’ first.


Too often most government projects have a solution in mind and that’s actually the big issue. They’ll see some problem, and someone thinks we have to build an app or a website or something, and they’ll build a solution. But having a solution doesn’t mean that the problem is solved. I’d say our value isn’t so much that we put the solution first, but that we are willing to throw away solutions until, we find one that actually solves the problem.


FST Gov: You’ve been at GovTech for more than a decade now, and have led the Open Government Products (OGP) now for more than four years. What are some of the innovative projects and initiatives undertaken at OGP that you’re particularly proud of?

Li: The Health Appointment System has been a really big one. We built and got everyone in the country their Covid-19 vaccine. The question then became, ‘Why shouldn’t we do this for all vaccines?’, because it turns out that voluntary vaccination rates, in general, are not very high – not because people don’t want to get vaccinated, but just because it’s annoying. But this can make it easy. Pneumonia is one of the leading causes of death among the elderly; the pneumococcal vaccine is easily available but people just don’t do it because they can’t be bothered. It’s the same for all these other common vaccinations. That for me has been pretty impactful.

Again, it’s not like one of these big sexy things that you’re going to use every day, but it serves as a baseline – we make this easy and now the country as a whole has a higher vaccination rate for common diseases.

Another big thing we’re particularly proud of is Care 360. It’s a tool for social workers, specifically for those in the healthcare sector. When people have medical bills, they need assistance or some kind of grant or support scheme to help them. The social workers didn’t have a good tool to keep track of all this – previously, every time someone applied for a grant, they had to talk to another person and tell their life story all over again; there were notes, but they weren’t really kept in one place. Applicants would normally have to manually search through all the grants to see what they are qualified for.

We’ve built a pretty simple system where, firstly, all social workers talking to the same person are able to see their case notes, and they don’t have to ask the same 20 questions every time. On top of that, the system gives you a quick reference of the grants the patient might qualify for, in a single click. It makes it a lot faster for social workers to apply for those grants for the individual.

A lot of the work isn’t very advanced.

A lot of our work is is basically making boring stuff easy.


By achieving this, it becomes a lot easier for people to get social assistance and makes it a lot less painful.

People don’t realise this, but Singapore actually has lots of grants for people in various situations; one of the biggest barriers is that it’s not clear what the grants are and who qualifies for them. There’s a lot of paperwork involved in applying for them. The government does all this work to pass new policies and new ideas, but if you haven’t done this streamlining and make it simple for people to get access, it turns away a lot of people who are in need of social assistance and don’t have the time to deal with all this.


FST Gov: What would you consider some of the biggest challenges that GovTech and the wider Singapore government are facing with these innovation and transformation projects?

Li: The biggest challenge isn’t the potential for transformation and digitisation – almost everyone sees that nowadays, though this wasn’t true maybe 10 years ago. The big challenge is figuring out a safe path to deploy things. It’s like looking at a big house – if there’s just an open field, you can just build wherever you want and design a wonderful building. Our problem is that there’s already a big building there, but it’s also rickety and there are people living in it. So, you need to figure out how to swap parts out while keeping the building standing and people still using it.

One of the projects we’re working on now is looking at how we can improve the paperwork around organ donation. It’s important and it takes a lot of time, and if we get it faster, more people will have access to organs, which is great. The challenge isn’t, say, How would you design that system? The challenge is, How would you, having designed a new system, test it in a way that sees whether it works and figure out the bugs that don’t cause people to lose organs? Once you’ve tested it, how do you then find another place to test it? How do you keep two things up and running so you can swap it over?

It’s akin to trying to do roadworks. Everyone knows you need to fix the roads, but they hate it when you close them! The big challenge isn’t what should be done in the road, but how do you do the routing around and find somewhere to test and go before you roll out further?


A lot of established organisations, whether you’re talking about the Ministry of Health, dealing with healthcare records, or CPF (Central Provident Fund), when you are dealing with money, all of these systems simply cannot go offline. The difficulty is engineering that path out. It’s like, ‘All right, we’ll test here, we’ll pilot, and if that’s okay, when it’ll scale to two, we’ll keep this other one as a fallback and we’ll transition over. If the fallback goes okay for two months and we see it’s the same, then we’ll move from the old one to this one, but we’ll keep this as a backup just in case. And then after a few years, we’ll switch it out, and then we’ll do that for the next piece and the next piece.

There’s this level of meta-engineering going on where you’re trying to see where you should be building, and how to do so in a way that keeps the building standing while you do it?

When I talk to my teams the first thing I always tell them is, ‘You have all these grand ideas and you can sell all you want, but don’t bother trying to sell to everyone!’ There’s no point, because you’re not going to swap all government systems out overnight. It’d be irresponsible to do. Your job first is to find one place and the one person who can try your thing out and show that it works. If you can do that, then we can talk about adding two, then four, then eight, and going from there.


FSTGov: Looking specifically at a centralised system, does that make transitioning and implementing things easier or more difficult?

Li: It depends. When something’s an obvious fix, it’s easier to change because there’s just one place to change it. At the same time, it also means that when one thing’s wrong, everything goes wrong. The challenge is that, because there’s a central system, it’s hard to find a place where you can test things out.

A good example of somewhere where you can test this is a school website. For example, we just finished a project of upgrading all the school websites from an old third party system to a new system we designed, which saved about $150 million. That’s a huge amount of money. That was easy, because you can just move school websites one at a time, and if you move one and the website’s not the best, it’s not the end of the world. You can fix it and move back; it’s not a big deal.


FSTGov: It appears then to be a case of swings and roundabouts, right?

Li: There are definitely trade-offs. I would say that if you look across the industry as a whole, the more centralised something is, the slower it tends to go. But ironically, for industries like food delivery where it’s not super high stakes, they have really advanced technology for route algorithms, that we should certainly take advantage of this for organ donation, but we’re not currently and that is a challenge.

For us, our entire strategy involves trying to operate more like industry. I don’t think anyone would be surprised that governments are slow – that’s well-known across the world. Every government is slow and bureaucratic. But as people working within government, we are trying to build spaces, where and when appropriate, to move faster. For instance, if we’re talking about cybersecurity and if you’re dealing with top-secret military plans, you absolutely need to take a long time and move very carefully. Local systems, on the other hand, can afford to be a little faster. That’s a big part of what we’re trying to move towards.

There’s this recognition now that, yes, government does handle some very sensitive stuff, but the government is so big that not all of it is the same. There’s a big difference if you are talking about military plans and foreign affairs versus school fun fairs or street parking or the maintenance of trees and fences – while they’re both government, they’re very different.

We should take these lower-stakes things as opportunities for us to try new systems out so that, by the time we need to upgrade our critical systems, they’ve been battle-tested in less critical situations. I think that cycle of innovation needs to happen here.


FSTGov: You’ll be speaking at the upcoming FSTGovernment ASEAN event. What do you hope to take away from your government peers?

Li: Two things, really. The first is that we just want to see what ideas people have. Government is hard; this is the experience of every country and every electorate across the world: no matter what government you have, no one’s ever fully happy with it.

I’d like to believe that, obviously, we’ve done a lot of good work, but a lot of our best ideas come from seeing what others have tried – for instance, different ways of communicating with citizens that have been found to be more effective, or ways of handling people’s feedback or how you share information on websites.

One example that we looked at recently was the UK’s digital communication guidelines in terms of how to structure government websites with soft, simple, clear language. It offers instructions like ‘Don’t talk in bureaucratic legalese. Simply and clearly state this is the requirement, this is what you need.’ Those insights have been tremendously helpful; having a guide on how you should write things makes things dramatically easier.

We’re also hoping to see are experiments people have done. I saw at a conference a few years ago a healthcare app where a hospital patient’s status was visible and available for the patient’s family to see. These types of insight, and the technologies that support them, give patients and their families greater assurance. Also, from an overhead perspective, the patient’s family doesn’t need to keep asking the hospital and nurses to give them updates. We’d love to see people trying things like that.


FSTGov: Is there anything else you’re looking forward to hearing?

Li: The second thing would be just people who are willing to work with us to try stuff out. One of the goals of our team is not to hold all of the government technology to ourselves. Our team is really there to help share the stuff we’ve built with everyone else. Despite our obvious differences in governance, there are many solutions and problems that are common across countries, and some baseline things that every government has to deal with.

Rather than every government trying to solve these problems from the ground up, we should develop, perhaps, a core of government technology that everyone can use to get started.


We’ve spoken to a few governments and we’ve shared some stuff here and there. We’ve had some chats with Vietnamese Government representatives, and some work with the Sri Lankan Government, where we shared with them our digital form-building tool; from this, they’ve actually written and set up a copy of it for themselves.

There are enough people in the world who want to do this. Perhaps our problems are so vastly different that there’s no point. But I genuinely think that there’s some benefit to people trying to make their governments better and sharing their work.


FST Gov: Where do you want to see Open Government Products in the future?

Li: What I tell people is I don’t want the team to grow bigger; I want us, in a way, to replicate.

I don’t think it really makes sense for there to be one big tech team that runs all government technology functions. That’s not a workable model, just like in industry. It doesn’t make sense anymore to have these like big IT consultancies that everyone uses.


You can use IT consultants for things that you’re trying out. But if it’s your core business, you need to have a tech team of your own working on it. For instance, if you’re running education, you need to have a tech team. If you’re running healthcare, you can’t do it without looking at new technology.

We want that to be the case for the public sector as well, where, rather than different agencies thinking, ‘I handle the policy, but the technology is GovTech’s job’, we want to get to a stage where GovTech or OGP specifically is just a small team helping to maintain standards and coordinate, but the Ministry of Health should be the experts on healthcare technology. The Ministry of Education should be the experts on education technology.

And this isn’t divorced from policy. You cannot do healthcare policy for the future, without thinking about what healthcare technology for the future is. We’re about 180 people now and we want to help seed our practices and our teams elsewhere in government.

Hongyi Li will be a featured presenter at our inaugural FST Government ASEAN Summit 2023 on 25 October 2023. Spots are limited! Secure your seat now.