technology

NZ could learn from Singapore’s move to end IT blowouts

Small is beautiful according to Singapore’s new digital strategy which aims to curb the kind of bloated outsourced projects which have plagued New Zealand.

The tiny city-state, with a population similar to New Zealand’s, is bringing technology development in-house, focusing on solutions which can be shared between government agencies and moving hosting to the cloud where possible.

It's new direction is in stark contrast to New Zealand's where there is not even a digital strategy. The creation of one was meant to fall into the lap of a Chief Technology Officer but delays in recruiting and the retraction of a job offer made to Derek Handley has meant no strategy exists.

At present big projects are out-sourced with often disastrous results. A recent Ministry of Health project costing $90 million has been scrapped before launch. The Ministry of Education’s $182 million Novopay system still causes issues.

Singapore's move comes after the country experienced its own issues where the health records of 1.5 million people were hacked. 

“Every agency is egocentric and wants to build their own thing and have their own vendor. This needs to change,” said Singapore’s Chief Information Officer Chan Cheow Hoe.

He said years of outsourcing had left Singapore with poor quality results.

At last week’s GovTech Stack conference in Singapore Chan and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced how the country's digital strategy will be achieved. 

Tie-less an in short sleeves Lee opened the conference, delivering an engaging message of a fundamental re-engineering of Singapore’s government to 1000 developers in attendance.

The city-state already has a “Smart Nation” digital strategy. Its goal is to use technology to improve its citizens' lives with projects like autonomous transport, a national digital identity and a sensor platform which can measure things such as air quality. Lee’s message explained how the vision would be achieved.

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Photo: Supplied

“IT can no longer be an afterthought or add-on that is grafted onto the organisation. It must intrinsically be part of what we do,” said Lee.

Senior staff making decisions on technology projects need to be tech savvy and “cannot be totally dependent and hence at mercy of consultants”.

“They need to have a feel – ‘Am I paying 10 times too much for the job?’.”

Instead of big systems, the government will focus on creating a “stack” of micro-services, small reusable bits of code, which will be shared among government agencies.

The government is recruiting international talent and local IT stars to work for it, offering an environment called The Hive, within government which mimics Silicon Valley start-ups. Staff can “walk around in Bermudas if they want to”, use shared work-spaces and snacks are free-flowing.

Part of Lee’s vision for Singapore’s shift involves attracting top talent from the likes of Google, Netflix, Dropbox and Slack to the country, and to the government.

One of Singapore’s big hires is former Apple employee Quek Yang Boon. He was the designer of the optical sensor in the digital crown on the Apple Watch.

Boon is leading the development of smart lamp posts currently being trialled. These have a range of sensors which feed data such as air quality, video footage and audio to the government. 

Choosing to shift from Apple to a public servant role came down to a desire to help his country he said.

“I didn’t want to just build gadgets for rich people.

“Even at Apple, a lot of us ask the question what’s next. We look at Tesla etc, it’s a step down. To be able to help your country is a very noble thing.”

Farah Hancock travelled to Singapore as a guest of GovTech.

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