Open Government Products on solving the Singapore public sector’s biggest challenges through the power of technology

Open Government Products, a team that is part of the Government Technology Agency of Singapore, or GovTech, aims to make the country operate more efficiently at scale with technology. With over 3,000 employees, the agency oversees technology across 60% of Singapore’s government agencies.

We spoke with Hongyi Li, director of Open Government Products at GovTech, about encouraging innovation among Open Government Product teams, expanding technology across the public sector, and partnering with Stripe.

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What brought you to GovTech and inspired your creation of the Open Government Products team?

About 10 years ago, I joined the Singapore government from Google. I launched GovTech’s Open Government Products team nearly five years ago by building open-source technology for Singapore’s public sector problems with an in-house group of engineers, designers, and product managers. From my experiences at Google, I realised there were many problems that tech companies were solving across transportation, finance, education, and healthcare, yet the government wasn’t set up to embrace that innovation. Furthering the challenge, many of the brightest minds want to work at private sector tech companies over government departments.

I wanted to bring the technology and efficiency you’d typically see in the private sector into government, which led me to GovTech. My goal is to build high-quality products, and de-risk, encourage, and demonstrate alternative models for how government and technology can work.

What are the differences between working in the public sector versus the private sector?

In the private sector, there are generally many resources available, from research teams to data scientists. There are also strong competitors that encourage companies to optimise their business, and bring intelligence and sophistication to their operations. Private companies have a clearer, tighter understanding of their target audiences, which they can use to optimise their products and services.

In the public sector, government regulation supports a large, diverse audience, making sure everything works according to those laws. Because challenges are often decentralised, from vaccinations to parking to infrastructure, government teams are structured differently. This arrangement can sometimes feel less empowering and slow – for example, needing three months to just get new work equipment due to procurement processes. However, the government has the access and power to solve big problems that impact millions of people, and the impact of that work operates at an exponentially higher scale.

How do you attract and retain talent?

One of the biggest mistakes in government is to assume talented people will come to you. Recruiting is a full-contact sport that requires networking and events to raise awareness. From a selection process, we strive to be clear and specific on our needs and metrics, rather than hiring talent for the sake of talent. With that understanding, you can find the right candidate who fits the right requirements.

Where do you see your team having the most impact?

Two strategies have an outsized role in our impact. First, in order to build good products, we look at vulnerabilities within bureaucracy to identify an opportunity. The biggest challenge to overcome isn’t the technology itself, but rather determining a consensus on where to deploy that technology in our operations.

Our second strategy focuses on solving problems we all face on smaller levels that can eventually grow to close gaps elsewhere. For example, we worked with Stripe to improve the digitalisation of parking, which allowed us to create and trial digital complaint forms for buses in our transit network. We then expanded those forms into schools and energy-saving tools for neighbourhoods. We’ve found our biggest impact isn’t trying to break down the walls of society’s biggest problems, but anchoring where we can build technology well for everyone.

What are the biggest challenges you’re solving in Singapore as it relates to technology?

A big challenge is tackling scams, whether through messages or calls, both at a consumer and an infrastructure level. We’re working to cut that down, but it’s an ongoing challenge. We’re also working to simplify the logistics involved with how the Singapore government allocates money to its people. We want subsidies to be distributed seamlessly for everyone.

Healthcare is another focus. One example is expanding our efforts to build on the lessons from making the COVID-19 vaccine more available. We want the same technology used to book an online vaccine appointment to be expanded to allow citizens to book any medical appointment.

How do you encourage innovation within your team?

You can’t be told how to innovate – you have to provide the space to experiment with innovation.

As a manager, I allocate only two-thirds of my team’s time, leaving them the rest so they can have the freedom to identify what is most impactful and innovative. This allows my team to be creative and find opportunities that might not have been found otherwise. Then, every six months we look at what has worked well and areas of improvement.

How do GovTech and Stripe work together?

We’ve learned the best software is tried, tested, and able to be integrated immediately and seamlessly. We worked with Stripe across a variety of our GovTech projects to enhance and simplify digital experiences for citizens. Using Stripe Checkout, for example, allowed us to roll out services quickly and reliably, and without requiring a whole engineering team to build everything from scratch. Working together allowed us to move fast while also handling sensitive data with the due care required.

Where do you see your partnership with Stripe moving in the future?

We use Stripe because it saves us time, and that is the most important thing to me. We don’t have to worry about how to accept different credit cards, and can instead focus on solving our citizens’ biggest problems while trusting Stripe to fill in the gaps. As a result, our work can be done faster and better, with higher specificity, which is incredibly helpful when working in government.

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