Agile Innovation

Agile for the People

Agile and public-private partnerships bring Smart Nation technology to Singapore

In 2014, the government of Singapore announced the Smart Nation initiative — an ambitious, comprehensive campaign to make the country a 21st century hub of technological innovation. For the leaders of the initiative, the gauge of “smartness” (according to the Smart Nation website isn’t how much advanced technology the country adopts. Rather, it’s how well it uses technology “to solve its problems and address existential challenges.”
That’s a tall order. Playing a key role in helping to realize the Smart Nation goal is Singapore’s Government Technology Agency (better known as GovTech), which develops technological solutions for gathering and sharing data and for delivering services more efficiently. GovTech was created by the country’s Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) a decade ago, in a reorganization aimed at addressing the rapidly changing tech landscape. 
Partnering with the Ministry of Finance, for example, GovTech is working to extend the use of a personal data platform called MyInfo, to simplify citizens’ interactions with banks. With the Ministry of Education, the agency is testing Parents Gateway, a new digital platform that will streamline the way families can pay school fees and sign consent forms. And in October, GovTech helped launch CorpPass, which allows businesses and nonprofit organizations to transact more easily with government agencies online. 
These innovations aren’t all being crafted in-house. Instead, GovTech is increasingly partnering with agile providers to create apps and software that streamline access to information and services.
“We believe in using technology to improve the lives of our citizens,” says Steven Koh, who is helping to encourage agile adoption. Koh is the Assistant Director of Product Design and Development with GovTech’s GDS (Government Digital Services) division. A specialized team of about 130 staffers, Digital Services works out of a 13,000-square-foot facility called Hive that is housed at Sandcrawler, a building owned by Star Wars creator George Lucas and located in the Fusionopolis area — Singapore’s equivalent of Silicon Valley. 
Building the Hive mind
The bright, ultra-modern Hive boasts floor-to-ceiling windows and a lab outfitted with sensors for testing user experience, and it has a mix of open spaces, team areas, and private spaces to support different stages of development work. “We use agile methods — Kanban, XP, Scrum, and LeSS — to deliver digital services,” says Koh, who was one of the first few in Singapore to become a Certified ScrumMaster®. “Being located at Hive allows us to have a very innovative collaborative culture.”
Housed at Hive are several “tribes” (“We are organized like Spotify,” says Koh), each made up of cross-functional squads of no more than 10 members. There is a design thinking tribe, an emerging tech tribe (among their projects: a self-driving wheelchair), an application infrastructure tribe and an agile and engineering tribe, which Koh leads. 
Koh worked in the private sector for years before joining GovTech (he was first introduced to Agile more than a decade ago while working in Austin, Texas). He observes that maintaining an agile philosophy and taking full advantage of Hive has helped him navigate the notoriously slow waters of governmental bureaucratic processes. “There is a big contrast between private industry and government. They move a lot faster in the private sector,” Koh says, noting that in his government work — which has typically done a great deal of outsourcing of tech solutions — the model has been slow, laborious, and wed to the waterfall approach. “The results are not great. “I believe adopting an agile mindset and helping people deliver things faster with an MVP will greatly reduce the risk, [and] improve the user experience and the quality of software delivery in the government.”
Koh also points out that while GovTech has around 1,800 staffers in total and is charged with serving close to 100 government agencies in Singapore, GDS is less than 10 percent of GovTech. “There is no way we can help all government agencies on our own. There is also no way we can or should do everything in-house,” says Koh. “Furthermore, there is a tech talent crunch in Singapore. The only way to scale our delivery is to collaborate at scale — collaborate with our colleagues across the whole of government and collaborate with industry players to deliver high quality digital services. The best way to do that is through agile contracting.”
Additionally, “The only way we can help as many government agencies as possible is to partner with our agile community, and to influence and grow the agile mindset within the tech industry and government,” Koh says.
Where appropriate, they also use a co-sourcing model, contracting with agile suppliers to augment GDS in-house teams and co-develop projects with these agile specialists. To get out the word more widely, they conduct monthly agile brown bag sessions to offer agile consulting to agencies. “We have been running these sessions for more than two years. These sessions are fully booked every month for the past one year¬—they are over-subscribed,” says Steven. “There is a lot of interest in how to be agile and the support from our leaders is clear and strong. Our core value is ABC: Agile, Bold, and Collaborative. Agile is the way to go forward.”
Using agile to save lives
One of the great success stories of the agile approach for GovTech, says Koh, is myResponder — dubbed “the Heart Attack App” — which has been credited with saving 18 lives in its first year. Developed by Digital Services in partnership with the Singapore Civil Defense Forces, the app is designed to get crucial, rapid help to heart attack victims. It aids users in dialing Singapore’s emergency line, providing a GPS location to an emergency operator, and then alerting trained medical personnel within 400 meters. More importantly, it shows users where the closest defibrillator kit is located.
The app, built by a small team over six months at a relatively low cost, was honed and improved through a series of role-playing workshops with Civil Defense Force officers and volunteers.
“With myResponder, we used a design thinking approach together with agile, and they worked very well together,” Koh says. “Imagine if we were using a waterfall approach. It wouldn’t have delivered such a solution at all.”
Building a more agile government
Agile is also proving its mettle with a new Business Grants Portal, developed by GovTech with the Ministry of Government and Industry. Previously, businesses in search of government grants had to do a daunting amount of research to figure out which among a host of agencies to apply to. “Now they just have to go to one portal,” says Koh. “They don’t have to do all that reading and comparing. They just answer some questions about what they want to achieve, what business sector they are in, and the portal will recommend which grant they are eligible for.”
The improvements don’t just benefit government employees longing for a more streamlined process. The portal has generated glowing reviews from citizens as well. “We have dramatically cut down the grant discovery process, from six months to three months,” Koh says. That’s not just a convenience for businesses, he adds, but a potential economic driver. “As companies are helped to expand with these grants, that will create more jobs.”
Koh says this is the biggest project GovTech has done using agile and a co-sourcing approach. “This spans most government agencies, and it shows that agile is not just for mobile apps or start-ups. It can also be used for large, technical business projects. And the way to do it is to co-source with the private sector.”