ETHOS Issue 25, April 2023
Transforming the Work of the Public Sector in an Age of Scarce Resources
Due to various headwinds in the world today, resourcing has become an increasingly pertinent concern in the tech space, and the public sector has not been spared. GovTech, through the Digital Government Blueprint,1 is making a difference by helping to realise Singapore’s public sector transformation, particularly in three broad areas: the Future of Work, our Future Workforce, and our Future Workplace.
Under Future of Work, we are leveraging data, and data analytics, to relook at how the public sector should be working in the future, including how public officers interact with, ﬁeld enquiries from, and work alongside citizens. The pandemic has changed how we work; it has made us realise that a lot of what we do can be digitalised and carried out online for an enhanced experience.
These changes have implications for our Future Workforce. We need to determine the skills which will be relevant to our public officers in the future. It is important to upskill and reskill our public officers, uplifting their digital competencies such as how to make the best use of data and technology tools, as well as cybersecurity. Training aside, it is also about attracting and retaining talent for the public sector. In the past year, we have seen the tech sector slow down their hiring and letting their workers go because of over-hiring during the pandemic. This period of industry correction has provided an opportunity for our public sector to bring in quality digital talent.
With the pandemic unlocking hybrid modes of working and flexible work arrangements, we must explore how to enable more productive, ﬂexible and joyful Future Workplaces. How can we leverage digital technology to improve these new modes of working, enhance collaboration, and at the same time, maintain engagement with our public officers, as well as monitor their health and mental wellbeing? How should team leaders manage their workplaces differently in this new context?
Realising Digital Transformation
The Smart Nation and Digital Government Group (SNDGG), which includes GovTech, typically looks at three sets of stakeholders: citizens, businesses, and the Public Service. As Director of GovTech’s Digital Workplace, my purview is the stakeholder group comprising public officers. Our Future Workplace is one of my key themes of focus, but I also look at the Future of Work and how our public officers can leverage more data, as well as upskilling and other aspects of building up the future public sector workforce that we need.
The work we do goes beyond just gadgets and technology—it also addresses the psychological and cultural aspects of work. For example, team cohesion is an important element of work. After putting in place the technology to let our people connect and work remotely, we need to think about how to enable more seamless interaction and engagement. For example, after providing connectivity tools such as Zoom and SG-Teams, we want to support communities of practice, so we have technologies like Workplace from Meta, to help colleagues come together and share ideas and best practices to help each other level up on areas they may not be strong in. But having technology is one thing—people must also be willing to use the technology. Officers may have webcams, but they may not turn them on during online sessions. Getting people to turn on their webcams is not a technology issue; it’s a cultural one. So, one of our key priorities is the non-tech side of work.
Through various surveys, we know that many public officers have been saying that being provided with and given tech training is one thing, but it is quite another to see it used in the workplace. For instance, do supervisors and leaders model tech adoption? One of the initiatives we have set up to address this is a Government to Employee (G2E) Change Network. We have gathered around 1,400 Change Champions across different roles in the public sector, including some who are in public-facing roles. These are individuals —not necessarily senior leaders—who are passionate about technology and driving digital transformation; they are inﬂuencers and ambassadors. At the same time, we also work with senior leaders to help set the direction for where agencies are going, sponsor changes, and empower efforts to do so, embracing both a top-down and bottom-up approach to adopt technology. Our role is to give these champions the right tools and knowledge to lead the change and get their colleagues excited about what technology can do for them.
Having technology is one thing—people must also be willing to use the technology.
We also have an online community through which we share the latest products as well as innovative uses of technology. We run workshops based on where the end-user agencies and teams are. These workshops may not always be for IT departments or Chief Information Officers (CIOs), but are often the officers on the ground. We show them how various tech tools can be usefully and securely adopted within the Public Service. We also share how other agencies have leveraged technology. For instance, HDB mounted a camera on a drone and used SG-Teams to do building inspections through livestreamed aerial drone video feeds. If an incident were to occur, this could also be used for crisis coordination and better appraisal of the situation. Such cases demonstrate how we can use available tech to do our work better and faster. By sharing these examples, we inspire new applications and new public sector innovations.
Making Data Available as a Generative Resource
Apart from technology, data is also an increasingly important resource for public sector work. A lot of data has already been made open and available, through platforms like data.gov.sg. Now the issue is whether we can continue to grow this data, and whether people will make use of it to create public value.
What may hold people back from continuing to contribute data? When it comes to sharing data, public agencies typically adopt a mindset of sensitivity and security, and public officers tend to err on the safe side—this has long been ingrained, and for good reasons.
So, we need to work on democratising our data: not only sharing it with the public but also with each other within the Public Service. This is an important workstream for us at GovTech, but it is not so much about technology as it is about good knowledge management, both within and across public agencies.
We need to encourage some mindset shifts. First, are we overclassifying our data? The right classiﬁcation is important. Some data used to be classiﬁed by default for selected senior management meetings. But after consulting the meeting secretariats, we concluded that not everything needs to be classiﬁed by default. Some materials are meant to be published later and could be declassiﬁed. Do emails you forward to your staff need to be classiﬁed? Probably not. We want to inculcate the right leadership behaviours so that the right classiﬁcation cascades down the workﬂow and makes useful information more widely available. We want to put in place policies about data sharing: such as right classiﬁcation to reduce the tendency to overclassify data, and the democratisation of data by granting access according to an officer’s role, instead of by request or by name. This will promote a greater general willingness to share data, within, across and perhaps outside public agencies.
What Technology Cannot Do for the Public Sector
In a technology space, you can throw a lot of money and tools at various problems, but when the rubber hits the road, things may not always work. But that’s where you start getting new insights.
We know public agencies can be more risk-averse, in comparison to the private sector, because they are spending public monies. So, we need to develop a mindset of taking calculated risks to start small, start quick, and then through that process build fast, fail fast, and move on if it doesn’t work. We must adopt a culture in which failure is taken as a norm and a basis for learning which can and should be shared. This culture is not something technology can provide. Instead, we need leaders who model the right culture and empower people to experiment.
Instead of being critical or quick to judge, leaders should begin with curiosity, and share their own concerns surrounding an issue, while inviting their teams to share the thinking behind a new approach.
We need to work on democratising our data: not only sharing it with the public but also with each other within the Public Service.
Finally, we need to encourage people to make use of the data, and that means having the right expertise to convert that data into useful insights and innovations. This relates to the work we are doing to upskill people around data analytics and promoting a data-driven culture. It is part of what we term Ops-Tech integration. As tech leaders, we need to work closely with the operations side of agencies so that our changes can reach our colleagues and beneﬁt their actual work.
Resourcing the Digital Workplace
At GovTech, we are building several pieces that will support our public sector's digital transformation.
The first is developing platforms to scale: something we call Scaling 10x. By adopting a platform approach, we can enjoy economies of scale, and achieve ten times the outcome even with constrained resources. The idea is to optimise our resources in an output or outcome-driven way. Some early examples of this include the Singapore Government Tech Stack, which leverages the Government Cloud.2 For speciﬁc services, such as cyber security, if you were to ask 10 agencies to list their requirements, you will likely have at least ﬁve teams asking for the same thing. That means a lot of resources will be spent on duplicating solutions. Instead, once we build a common platform and basic infrastructure, individual agencies can just focus on their mission outcomes and devote more time and resources to serving citizens or doing their work better. They do not have to reinvent the wheel.
Another example is Workpal, a mobile app that enables a number of HR-related functions, from applying for leave to checking one's salary. For some agencies with their own HR systems, we build connections from their systems to shared platforms such as our Digital Business Cards, so they can scale up these functions quickly. Workpal also has a function for booking co-working spaces—which is a Future Workplace initiative meant to support hybrid work. Public officers need not return to their office every day. Instead, they can use a co-working space near their home and use the Workpal mobile app to book these spaces. Agencies can come on board this platform whenever they are ready.
Another approach we are taking has to do with Software as a Service (SaaS). Our Digital Government Blueprint recognises that there is a lot of technology out there that we can already buy as a service, so we do not have to develop it ourselves. Microsoft Teams is a good example of these. Going forward, we are also looking at other SaaS platforms such as Salesforce that could help with customer relationship management (CRM), since many agencies need to touch base with the public. Such systems are the best-in-class globally, so why try to build them ourselves, and at great expense? Instead, we could focus on aspects such as procurement, security, and integration to make these platforms work for the public sector.
Recently we rolled out an App Library, which carries many common tools that have been reviewed to ensure they are compliant with our licensing, security, and other needs. Again, by democratising some of these apps, we are encouraging agencies to see what their counterparts are doing with tech, and to adopt some of these ideas and solutions to benefit their own workplaces.
A third approach we are taking is co-developing new solutions with the industry. This also helps optimise our scarce public sector resources—we work with others to build things we may not be able to build ourselves. This stems from our experience in working with key industry players on our Government on Commercial Cloud, including firms like Amazon, Microsoft, and Google. Last year, we ran some industry workshops to publicise some of our key initiatives and invited various players to co-develop solutions with us, to benefit public officers as well as citizens and businesses.3
Next Steps in the Digital Journey
Moving forward, GovTech will focus on three key areas.
The ﬁrst is digital inclusiveness. We have promoted tech aggressively, but we also know that not everyone can just pick up new tech tools and run with them; people need to be supported in this transition. Furthermore, we do have diverse individuals—in the public sector as well as in Singapore more broadly—with different needs, including those with visual or physical challenges. How can we make sure our products consider these needs, such as in the way the user interface is designed?
The second area is our use of data—how we should continue taking in more data, unlocking it, and enabling our public officers to get more value out of it.
The third area is to look at learning on-the-go. How do we use digital means to help people ﬁnd the right mentors or career coaches for their needs? How do we push the right learning materials to officers in a timely, personalised way? In these areas, we are working closely with the Public Service Division to create a talent gateway. We are also collaborating with the Civil Service College on a digital academy to help generate some of the curriculum we will need, both to learn, and to learn on-the-go.
Most importantly, the future workplace is not just about using technologies. Its purpose is to help our officers become more productive and more engaged in their mission, instead of spending time jumping through hoops or dealing with red tape and other unnecessary processes. This is also about retaining people by keeping them engaged with the work they do and creating value for our country and fellow citizens.
- See: “Digital Government Blueprint”, accessed January 6, 2023, https://www.tech.gov.sg/digital-government-blueprint/.
- For more information on the Singapore Government Tech Stack, see: “Singapore Government Tech Stack”, December 16, 2022, accessed January 6, 2023,
- Example of such initiatives include: Cloud hosting on the Government on Commercial Cloud, Smart Facility management and Speech-to-text transcription. For more information, see: Rei Kurohi, “Govt to Spend $3.8b on Infocomm, Tech in 2022; More Projects to use AI, Data Science”, June 10, 2022, accessed January 6, 2023, https://www.straitstimes.com/tech/tech-news/govt-to-spend-38b-on-infocomm-tech-in-2022-more-projects-to-use-ai-data-science.