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What businesses can learn from GovTech’s digital strategy

Modernising its infrastructure and putting digital at its core has given Singapore’s Government Technology Agency the agility it needs to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic

With the Covid-19 pandemic paralysing businesses and societies worldwide, it is tempting for organisations to put their digital strategy on the backburner, with some CIOs having to come up with cost-cutting playbooks.

That is a wrong strategy to pursue, said Singapore’s Government Technology Agency (GovTech) chief executive Kok Ping Soon during the fifth ConnectGov Leaders Summit held online for the first time.

“Unlike past economic disruptions, the silver lining in Covid-19 is the opportunity to accelerate the digitalisation agenda,” Kok said, calling for CIOs to move away from survival mode and not “waste this crisis of a generation” to digitally transform their businesses.

CIOs can take a leaf out of GovTech’s efforts to speed up its digital initiatives. For one, the Singapore government has increased its ICT procurement budget in its 2020 financial year by 30% to S$3.5bn to accelerate its digitalisation plans.

Kok noted that the plans come at a time when previously held assumptions about slower acceptance of digital tools among consumers and businesses have been shattered.

“Consumers now have greater motivations and fewer perceived barriers to actively seek technology-enabled solutions to assist in everyday tasks like shopping,” he said. “Companies are also embracing digital payments like never before.”

“Hawker centres, one of Singapore’s last bastions of cash transactions, are now more digital. The nature of work and workplaces have also changed as companies that did not imagine remote work was possible were able to operate with the majority of their workers telecommuting.”

Citing a McKinsey study, Kok said digital adoption has leapt forward by five years since the start of the pandemic, urging business and technology leaders to take advantage of the gains and not revert to old ways of doing things.

But Kok stressed that digital transformation is not solely a technology agenda. Rather, it requires organisations to redesign business processes and reconfigure organisational structures for digitalisation efforts to succeed.

To lock in the gains from digitalisation, Kok said organisations should be “digital at the core” and humanise digital services, warning against applying “digital lipstick” on legacy processes.

For example, he said while many restaurants in Singapore have stopped providing printed menus to minimise contact and are asking diners to scan a QR code to view the menus on their smartphones, their digital menus are often PDF copies of printed menus.

“Given the small form factor of a mobile phone, you can imagine how difficult it is to navigate the menu and understand the options – and ordering is still done offline,” Kok said. “That is digitisation, not digitalisation.”

Kok said organisations will also need to modernise their back-end infrastructure, with a focus on agility, scalability and resilience, by pursuing a cloud-by-default strategy.

“One of the reasons why we were able to quickly roll out many digital solutions to manage Covid-19 was because we were able to leverage the cloud to repurpose and reuse both infrastructure and applications quickly,” Kok said.

This included the use of the Twilio customer communications platform to send WhatsApp messages to a million subscribers of the Gov.sg information service. GovTech also used Google’s Firebase mobile platform to build the TraceTogether contact tracing app, along with Amazon Web Services to build Covid-19 related websites.

“We are not just developing new applications on cloud, but also undergoing a massive exercise to migrate 70% of existing government ICT systems to the commercial cloud,” Kok added. “Cloud has become the foundation that enables organisations to transform, differentiate and gain competitive advantage.”

“Licence-based, on-premise software solutions that are custom-built are fast becoming a thing of the past and SaaS [software-as-a-service] solutions have become the new norm. That’s why many government agencies are progressively migrating from on-premise custom-built HR and finance platforms to Workday.”

Kok said besides embracing cloud and modernising back-end systems, it is also necessary to boost ICT investments to bolster business resiliency.

“Covid-19 has stress-tested our ability in continuing the business of government,” Kok said. “Thankfully, our network infrastructure in terms of bandwidth and VPN [virtual private network] access held up and we were able to transition 75% of our public officers to remote working.

“We plan to further upgrade our government infrastructure to be even more resilient. Today, our network infrastructure is designed around on-premise systems in government datacentres, with network capacity to support largely e-mail and asynchronous communications.

“Our new architecture will support greater use of cloud hosting and increasingly a mobile-enabled digital workplace. We will invest in infrastructure to better support a hybrid environment where meetings and collaboration can still be effective with remote participation.”

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