In Part 1 of this blog series, I gave an overview of emerging micro and macro socioeconomic trends and the rise of “bubbles” that we’re seeing as a result of the pandemic, and why governments must act now when it comes to digital transformation. In this post, I examine the critical steps governments need to take for successful digital transformation.
With the new norm that’s emerged this year, governments are forced to meet the evolving needs of the people, society, enterprises, and even other governments. They must transform to stay relevant and even survive, and make their cities and countries more competitive under this new norm. It’s definitely a tough job for governments and all public servants, having to undertake such transformations while tackling the pandemic, recession, supply chain disruption, increasing unemployment, rising social unrest, crime rates, and various other pressing issues. COVID-19 is both a black swan and perfect storm event for our generation. With a prolonged “Hammer-Dance-Vaccine” phase, government digital transformation is no longer a choice, and time is not on our side.
For a start, governments need to transform internal
- Keeping public servants, many of whom are essential including in emergency service scenarios, safe from infection.
- Decentralising operations and reducing the number of people at each location, creating and even regrouping government bubbles
- Allowing public servants to work from home or anywhere (e.g. call centre staff can even work from home with today’s technologies)
- Introducing more video conferencing and collaboration technologies, including VR and AR, for remote but effective team work
- Investing in automation to reduce work processes, especially those dependent on human interaction
- Increasing partnerships and innovations with enterprises, from tackling immediate issues, to developing innovative solutions for the new norm
- Speeding up secured information-sharing across departments to enable more one-stop services, which requires a government-wide data strategy to be built out later.
Government services and their delivery channels
to citizens, visitors, businesses, and organisations will also change:
- Quickly implementing mobile and online transactions to replace counter services, especially user-centric services as opposed to government department-centric siloed services
- Introducing government-wide network identity and digital signatures for people and enterprises to digitally transact with the government and even businesses
- Developing or regulating the industry to provide cashless platforms
- Investing in AI-enabled decision making to reduce the need for face-to-face interviews and time for approval
- Building physical one-stop service centres in different bubbles to offer services from different government departments to reduce travel if a physical trip is unavoidable
- Maintaining a status platform with prompt data and forecasts on (a) the skills pool and (b) supplies inventory, so as to react to shortfalls quickly through skill re-development and BCM, respectively
- Making platforms available for businesses to interact, collaborate, and share resources and facilities, such as small eateries partnering with delivery service provider.
Read more: Why Enterprises Cannot Compete On Their Own
A major transformation is the convergence of
services by the government and businesses. The ‘customers’ of governments are
usually unwilling: Who pays tax
willingly? Who goes to a police station willingly? Who applies for permits
willingly? Transactions with governments are usually a means to an end, often
required by laws and regulations. Think about the process you went through to
get on the road: you had to learn to drive, pass a driving test, get a driving
license, buy a car, register the car, buy car insurance, pay road tax, and
finally drive a car. How nice it would be if all these government and business
transactions could be done at the car seller!
Governments can become the platform to link
people and enterprises, while allowing them to fulfil their regulatory
requirements. This represents true
digital transformation, and not just computerising current manual, and usually
Critical Success Factors for Digital
Digital transformation is revolutionary and even
disruptive, and can be very costly if poorly designed and implemented. We need
to examine the critical success factors for digital transformation. In fighting
the pandemic, those countries that are more successful took prompt actions,
relied on partnerships, and even transformed themselves on the fly. We can learn
a lesson or two by studying how these governments responded to the pandemic
We first need to introduce an Operational Capability framework for
governments. Each of the following five capabilities go beyond ICT: governance,
legal framework, organisation, process, and people. For each capability, we
analysed what a few governments did and continue to do in their fight against
the pandemic. There are common traits in each operational capability that
contributed to success, or at least solid progress, in the fight.
1. Sensing: The capability to collect data and information,
either manually or automatically. Manual collection includes human-to-human
interaction such as verbal interviews, self-written, or recorded media.
Automatic collection includes human-to-machine: self-submission through kiosks,
PCs or mobile devices; and machine-to-machine: systems, databases, Internet,
cameras, sensors, and so on. Major considerations include the availability,
legal access, and accuracy of such data and information.
- Data Availability: With many years of ICT planning and implementation, both the governments and enterprises in China have many sources of data, such as from e-Commerce and different modes of transportation. Mobile phone and Internet penetrations are very high too. In South Korea, governments have access to data from mobile phones, credit cards and even video to fight COVID-19.
- Legal Access: After MERS in 2015, most South Koreans accept legal access to such data within the privacy law to fight pandemic. Conversely, some countries were handicapped in their fight because of the lack of laws for legal access to data.
- Data Timeliness: COVID-19 spreads quickly. Many people in countries hit by the pandemic were horrified by contact-tracing months after their first reported case, due to law or just politics.
- Data Accuracy: Much debate exists on the use of mobile phone locations for contact tracing, as the location accuracy can be up to 30 meters. Many people would have been considered high risks given such a wide range, overwhelming the system.
- Purpose-Built App: For better accuracy and privacy protection, Singapore was the first country to develop a Bluetooth-based tracing app: TraceTogether. Leveraging existing e-Commerce platforms, China also introduced an app for people to self-declare about their own and their vehicle’s status.
2. Communicating: The capability to communicate voice, video,
data and information between: Human-Human; Human-Machine; and Machine-Machine.
Communication can be 1:1, 1:N, or N:N. Communication channels can be permanent,
rules-based activation, one-off, or temporary. Major considerations include
timely communication, security, need-to-know, and misinformation.
- Timely Public Communication: In this black swan event of our generation, timely public communication is crucial to maintain the health and confidence of the people. Singapore and many countries rely on mobile apps (e.g. WhatsApp) and media broadcasts for such timely communication.
- Science: Government responses that focus on the well-being of people and the science behind the pandemic tend to be more popular than more politically charged responses that in some cases have seen journalists walking out of press conferences.
- Good ICT Infrastructure: Governments cannot communicate effectively without good ICT infrastructure. Singapore is a good example with its National Broadband Network, with households enjoying a 1-Gbps fibre connection. Mobile network coverage is high, too.
- High Mobile Penetration: With their high mobile penetration, countries such as China, Singapore, and South Korea could communicate and even roll out new services easily.
- Language Consideration: As a multi-ethnic society and with many migrant workers, it was necessary for the Singapore government to use different languages in their communications.
3. Collaborating: The capability to collaborate, leverage each
other’s strengths, and create greater values, such as between: Human and Human;
Agency and Agency; Agency and Community; Community and Community; City and City;
or Government and Government. It usually involves the sharing of timely data
and information, the sharing of platforms, and the sharing of devices. Major
considerations include the legality of sharing, trust, and willingness.
- Between Government Agencies: In China, the provincial and local
governments have a lot of autonomy in their day to day operations. But through
the coordination of the central government and provincial government, there are
many levels of collaboration, as witnessed in their fight against COVID-19 from
Wuhan city to Hubei province, and to various other affected cities. Healthcare
workers and medical supplies from around the country were sent to affected
areas to help with the fight.
- Government, Community & People: People in China live in communities or
villages, which fully collaborated with the governments. These communities and
villages played an important role in ensuring the safety of their
neighbourhoods and the health of the residents.
- Government & Enterprise: Many staff from airlines and hotels are
affected and even became jobless. The Singapore government worked with the
enterprises to train and deploy these people to areas that are needed to fight
the pandemic. In the early stages of the outbreak, the South Korea government
worked with many medical supply manufacturers to produce test kits, allowing for
- Community Self-Help: New Zealand provides a great example: After the terrorist attack in
Christchurch and the eruption of the White Island volcano, people in New
Zealand are very conscious of the need to help one another. They even acted on
their own in this COVID-19 fight.
- Trust: One
cannot have collaboration without trust between various stakeholders.
4. Sense-Making: The capability to make sense from multiple
sources of data and information received. It attempts to address what, when,
where, who, why, how, and even what’s next. The skills needed to make sense of
multi-faceted data are acquired through knowledge and years of operational
experience, and involve making and testing hypotheses. Major concerns include
inaccurate data, and biased algorithms.
- Big Data Technology: With years of ICT implementation by both the government and enterprises, China has a lot of experience in using big data technology to analyse the various sources of public and private data to help in the fight against COVID-19.
- Contacts Tracing: One such big data use is for contact tracing to establish the identity of high risk people (“B”), so that they can be quarantined. In South Korea, the government even put up information on the Internet for people to self-check, and those under quarantine are monitored real-time through an app, with any violators possibly being fined up to US$2,500.
- Case Forecast: To prepare for the workload ahead and to ensure enough healthcare professionals and medical supplies, Big data has been used in China to trace people (“2B”) that might have come into contact with those high risk people (“B”).
- Medical AI App: Analysing CT scans is very time consuming. China and many countries used AI technology to aid the doctors to speed up their analyses of CT scans.
Read more: Outsmarting COVID-19
- Entry Permit App: In China, as part of the self-declaration app described earlier, the app will also return a green, amber or red code, to represent the permit for entering a neighbourhood, campus or building.
Making: The capability to
make decisions usually involves taking calculated risks to achieve a mission,
based on available data and information, and interpreting results. Decisions
need to be prioritised based on the level of urgency, and level of importance.
They include the enactment and enforcement of laws, the mobilisation of
resources, the allocation of budget, and the initiation of projects. Major
concerns include delays in communicating decisions, and the lack of monitoring
- Prompt Decisions: This is a no brainer in the fight against the highly contagious COVID-19. We have seen how cases spiked in countries when governments failed to act fast.
- Science-first: Decisions have to be made based on science, and the well-being of the people.
- Strong Leadership: This sets the tone for the nation to follow.
- Early Mobilisation: Learning from SARS, China acted very quickly to mobilise healthcare professionals and even the military to help the affected areas. The speed of building field hospitals also surprised the world. In South Korea, the government also acted quickly with aggressive testing and the prioritisation of healthcare services for different levels of epidemic treatment. Singapore also quickly built various community care facilities for positive but healthy patients to avoid overloading the hospitals.
Enact Laws & Enforcement: Many governments have been caught by surprise by the scale and impact of COVID-19, and existing laws and regulations may not be adequate to fight the outbreak, and care for the people and businesses. It is important to have the ability to quickly amend and even enact laws, and enforce them.
- Leadership & Trust: Even with data and technologies, it’s difficult to harness the
support of the people to fight the pandemic without strong leadership and
trust. Strong leadership and trust can help offset weaker digital infrastructure.
Any transformational effort requires strong leadership and trust from all
- Governance Structure: How the government is structured and how the different levels of the
government work together, including the sharing of resources and information,
is important in slowing down the outbreak. A digital transformation will likely
require reorganisation and changes in processes too.
- Mobilisation Power: This is more than legal power. It includes the persuasive power
between agencies, between cities, and even between countries for resources,
from building field hospitals to PPEs. A digital transformation is likely to
cut across silos, and such power is needed to overcome bureaucracy and turf
- Laws & Regulations: The law to quarantine and isolate people, the regulation to require
organisations to provide data, and even the use of video surveillance with
analytics. Likewise, the existence of governments is built on laws and
regulations, and they are needed to back up any transformation under the new
- People Over Politics: This may seem obvious, but is often overlooked. A strong leader
needs the support of the government, enterprises, communities, and the people
to prioritise people’s well-being over politics, and at times such well-being
can be more important than the economy, as in the case of a pandemic. Digital
transformation must be for the good of all stakeholders, including people,
enterprises, and even the public servants.
- Public-Private Partnership: This is beyond the laws where private
entities partner with governments to work together, and even governments
helping to retrain and redeploy employees from affected industries. As said
earlier, a major transformation is the convergence of services by governments
and businesses, and public-private partnerships will play an even bigger role.
Before we go into the technology related critical success factors in part 3, another aspect of Public-Private Partnership is joint innovation. Even with the best ICT talents and high budgets, governments should not evaluate technologies just by themselves. Rather than seeing technology providers as vendors, governments need to treat them as strategic partners, of course within the boundaries of the procurement regulation, which may itself need to be updated to allow such joint innovations. With COVID-19, some of such innovations may be urgently needed, such as using drones for law enforcement to reduce human contacts.
The journey to digital transformation is never ending, and governments and the ICT industry have to continuously explore and even jointly develop innovative technologies for governments, such as AI, Big Data, Extended Reality, Blockchain, Distributed Cloud, Autonomous Driving, and Wearables.
In part 3 of this series, I will examine the technology and people strategies that can underpin the transformation journey.