Want digital services tips? Watch Singapore

The Southeast Asian city-state's government may have cracked the code for providing the services citizens actually want online: listen, don't force.

Creative Commons licensed photo captured by Paul Chaloner.

(Creative Commons image: Paul Chaloner / Flickr)

A nation that has long topped global digital government measures is leading the way on digital services – sometimes by not providing any services at all.

The government CIO of Singapore, Chan Cheow Hoe, took the stage at Amazon Web Services’ sixth annual Government, Education and Nonprofits Symposium on June 25 to tout the advantages of digital services.

“The government thinks it knows what you want,” Hoe said. “That’s probably the biggest mistake in the world.”

Rather than try to direct citizens into “friction”-filled interactions, Hoe said, governments ought to let citizens’ desires guide how they provide services – and if citizens don’t want something, governments ought not bother trying to create it online.

“There should be no transaction if it’s not necessary,” Hoe said, echoing the minimalist design advice of French dreamer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. “It’s not about creating more e-services, it’s about creating less e-services so if the citizen doesn’t need to, they don’t even have to touch us.”

Hoe’s prime example: 97 percent of Singaporeans who file taxes file online – but 52 percent of Singaporeans don’t have to file at all, because the government is able to pull all the information it needs from other sources and run the return itself. (It doesn’t hurt that Singapore’s taxes are famously simple and low.)

It’s a far cry from the U.S. situation, where watchdogs warn that the IRS lacks a concrete roadmap for improving its tax services.

Hoe also touted OneService, an app Singaporeans can use to seamlessly report a variety of municipal issues.

“No more about calling the police on most insignificant issues,” Hoe crowed.

Citizens can snap a picture of a clogged drain, for instance, and send it through the app, where the problem is routed to the appropriate department. Thinking proactively, rather than reactively, makes the tool even more powerful, Hoe noted. After the drain is cleared, the government will send fumigators out to spray the area because, where there was standing water in a tropical environment, mosquitoes will have started breeding.

Yet another Singapore government innovation: a Community First Responder app that alerts doctors and first responders when someone suffers cardiac arrest nearby. Hoe said the app has saved “eight or nine lives” since its April launch.

It’s not all sunshine and butterflies. Hoe noted the “digital divide” between the Internet-connected and the poor and elderly who lack access is growing, and the “bimodal” struggle of managing old legacy systems alongside newer cloud-based systems is facing every government worldwide.

But the “slice of the pie” of government data that can be stored on the commercial cloud “is growing,” Hoe said, and he credited Amazon Web Services for enabling much of Singapore’s innovation.

Citizenship and Immigration Services CIO Mark Schwartz took the symposium stage after Hoe.

Though he said the U.S. government needs to work quickly and creatively to offer better digital services, Schwartz noted he’d always thought government lacked the competition that spurs innovation in the private sector. You should provide citizens with good services but if they don’t like what you offer, they can’t go anywhere else, right?

But, Schwartz said, after Hoe’s presentation he realized he did have competition: Singapore.

“I’m thinking about moving there myself,” the immigration chief laughed.

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