The days of building monolithic systems will soon be over, as the government seeks to cultivate an interconnected system of developers both internally and externally
Running a government is not much different from running a mega-corporation; the backbone that holds up the organisation, such as the IT infrastructure, has to function well so various departments can communicate to each other effectively and ensure operations run like clockwork.
The key difference here is that the failure of state systems brings about more catastrophic consequences, such as the collapse of vital infrastructure like electric grids, for example.
Singapore’s legacy government IT systems were built as monolithic structures, that is to say, the applications, supporting infrastructure and data were built independently from other systems. This architecture is self-contained and might not be interoperable with other IT systems (this is also known as the silo model). This model may not an ideal environment for application development that adopts an agile approach for faster delivery of IT solutions.
As the government scales up its public sector digitalisation, a central part of its effort will be to integrate technology and operations to enable digital services to be delivered seamlessly, securely and efficiently to users. This entails a systematic re-engineering of the government’s digital infrastructure.
For a country to be run well, and for citizens to be able to access government services easily, there needs to be a collaborative framework so applications can be developed, tested and deployed to the public quickly.
To this end, the Singapore government has embarked on building an inter-agency digital platform called CODEX (Core Operations, Development Environment, and eXchange), a move that will reduce and simplify bureaucratic processes significantly.
The CODEX consists of three components. The first is the Government Data Architecture for common data standards and formats that enable data sharing between agencies.
The second is the commercial cloud. Instead of having each department build and maintain their own IT infrastructure, developers build and applications using a shared cloud commercial platform, similar to those offered by Google Cloud.
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Developers will thus have access to more toolkits and can upgrade their applications more easily. Systems can also be scaled quickly by using shared computing resources, and they can be run 24/7 without the need for expensive on-premise expensive backups and hot standbys — this also reduces manpower load.
For applications that require a higher security clearance, the Singapore government has its own cloud systems that are isolated from public services.
The third component is the Singapore Government Technology Stack (SGTS). As opposed to the aforementioned monolith, this takes a vertical approach, allowing software and infrastructure components to be shared, scalable, reusable and interoperable. They include middleware, such as centralised government-wide API exchange and analytics applications for monitoring digital government services.
A few middleware applications have already been developed as a result of SGTS. These include hats (Hive Agile Testing Solution), a tool that automates testing of digital services on multiple browsers and mobile devices simultaneously.
SGTS would also enable a library of micro-services to be developed. These include services such as the National Digital Identity used for citizen authentication. Another example would be MyInfo Bank Pilot, an application that allows banks to speed through the KYC (Know Your Customer) process using government verified citizen data. The SGTS infrastructure allows smaller products to be connected to a bigger product family.
The Singapore government recently introduced a suite of apps and services called “Moments of Life”. They deliver digital services that citizens require at key events of their lives, such as marriages or birth of a child or funerals, on one centralised platform, even though these functions may be handled by different government agencies.
While these micro-services are interconnected, each contains its own code base, operated by small independent teams, and can add value and progress at their own pace — it can govern its own states autonomously and, in case it fails, the overarching service would not be crippled. Of course, some micro-services may require more interdependency and therefore teams to work more closely together to avoid deadlocks.
A better way
The transition to a collaborative model marks a major paradigm shift for the government. Developing micro-services on a central platform will allow agencies to deliver value to their customers or clients more rapidly — and customers gain the convenience of accessing multiple products without having to re-enter their information repeatedly.
Sharing services also lead to a smarter process that enables easier exchange of data, resulting in richer insights for policy and solution development as well as monitoring of operations.
Additionally, developers are freed from having to spend time and resources on managing infrastructure and administrative issues. They can focus on innovating and experimentation on business solutions and use cases.
Of course, all these would not have been possible without cultivating a “startup” culture, one that encourages teams to take risks and fail fast and learn fast through sprints.
Within the Singapore government, an innovation lab called Hive, is catalysing this movement. More than just a gathering of like-minded developers, Hive, with its shared spaces, vibrant aesthetics and amenities, provides the perfect environment for co-creation. A big part of Hive’s ethos is also the use of open source software, which developers configure for government usage.
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To stay ahead of tech disruption in the new economy, the Singapore government needs to experiment with bold and novel ideas. The only way to achieve that is if agencies ditch the ‘ego-centric’ approach used in the legacy development days and adopt one that is open-minded, liberal and collaborative.
At this year’s STACK conference, the Singapore government has demonstrated that it is cognizant of the limitations of its old ways and understands that is imperative for the new collaborative framework be implemented across all IT agencies, so that the lives of citizens will be improved.
Image Credit: Leung Cho Pan