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Transforming a Government – Singapore’s Digital Transformation and Why it Matters to Analytics Leaders

Last year, I kicked off my blog series, Analytics State of Mind, to examine some of the intriguing analytics projects that were taking place outside of the private sector. With a significant uptick in the hiring of local and state CAOs and CDOs, my thought was that there would be some interesting work happening in the public sector that could translate to the corporate world and spark inspiration. While my focus pivoted pretty quickly to examine COVID related issues in March of 2020, there was still a lot of interesting and relatable work occurring whether it was a set of universities developing highly visible and utilized COVID-19 dashboards or cities grappling with the implementation of 5G or upskilling talent in local government. This year, I’ll continue to search for topics that span both the public and private sectors and highlight some of the innovative work taking place in our communities.

Last week I started reading Why Digital Transformations Fail by former P&G executive, Tony Saldanha. Many of our clients at IIA have embarked on this transformation journey and we hear every day how difficult it is… no matter what stage they are in in the process. A digital transformation is arduous, it’s messy, and it takes time. It requires a lot of change on a lot of levels and change management is difficult. While there’s no cookie cutter recipe to follow for a digital transformation, there are frameworks available to assess, there are lessons to take in and evaluate, and there are some tips from first hand witnesses on where the landmines are and what to avoid. In Saldanha’s book, he presents a number of case studies on where digital transformations have failed but mostly focuses on where there’s been some success and why.

To my surprise, there was a non-corporate case study that highlighted Singapore’s digital journey and why the work it started as far back as 1981 has made it number one on the World Economic Forum’s Network Readiness Index (the US ranks number five) and number one by the World Bank when it comes to “ease of doing business.” So, what did Singapore do right? What were some of the factors that led to its success? The following points are practical examples that can be broadly applied regardless of industry.

Develop a powerful and inspiring vision

  • Imagining your ideal end state provides inspiration and a path to where you would like to be. When looking at a corporate vision, Microsoft’s vision was to be ubiquitous -- to have a computer in every house and on every worker’s desk. Having a strong vision motivates others and helps people understand what they are working towards. For Singapore, Saldanha noted that its aim was to be the “leading provider of digital services for citizens as well as industry, driving a competitive advantage vs. other countries.” Saldanha shared his positive experience relocating to Singapore and the extreme ease of working with the government thanks to a universal eCitizen portal. The fact that the country has number one ratings by WEF and the World Bank are also signals it has achieved its vision.

Enlist leadership support and commitment

  • Goal setting and the translation of those goals into strategies must be delivered from the top. It’s also important for leaders or executives to have “skin in the game” and demonstrate that they are accountable and part of the team solving the complexities of a digital transformation rather than just delegating the work and stepping back. Singapore was successful at its transformation because the prime ministers were actively involved and did not delegate the heavy lifting, they remained involved and accountable. While all executives won’t have the digital background of Singapore’s current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, a leader who is passionate about technology and studied math and computer science while at university, it’s imperative that your executive sponsor is committed, versed in the big, heavy projects taking place, and can articulate the goals as well as the why behind those goals.

  • “Barrier busting” is often undervalued but Saldanha described it as an essential element of a successful digital transformation. By having a leader in place that will provide air cover and remove barriers, the team in the trenches can progress without constant interruption. I have experience working with a top healthcare provider that shared this same approach in their journey and it helped the analytics team immensely – it allowed the team to get the necessary work done while their executive sponsor was on point to take the heat and work through objections. Without this kind of sponsor in place, the team would have been inundated with issues and unable to focus on delivery. At the culmination of their three year journey and initial transformation, the sponsor stepped back and handed the reins back to the analytics team to lead.

Maintain discipline

  • With “as many as 70 percent of all digital transformation” failures attributed to fatigue and a lack of discipline, Saldanha emphasized the need for leaders to take a more methodical approach when embarking on a digital transformation and finding ways to maintain that discipline along the journey. One recommendation was to borrow techniques implemented in the airline industry. Think about all of the steps a pilot must take before even moving an airplane onto the tarmac; the checklist procedure maintains focus, ensures that a step is not skipped or overlooked, and if there is an issue, it is immediately addressed. By maintaining this hyper-focus on the work you’re doing daily knowing that it is mapping towards an actual destination, it will help provide a smoother experience.

While the US may never achieve a completely digital experience like Singapore’s citizens at times enjoy, it’s an interesting story and use case to understand the art of the possible especially for businesses starting to think through their vision and journey. For instance, Singapore was one of the first to launch a comprehensive contact tracing app called TraceTogether during the onset of COVID-19 to help quell the spread. The government was able to do this so quickly and efficiently because they already had the framework in place, they had the vision of what they wanted to accomplish, and the support of the leadership. The fact that TraceTogether is now being used by law enforcement for criminal cases crosses into the ethical use of that app but it’s still a useful example of how a digital transformation can make the seemingly impossible task of widespread contact tracing for millions of people possible.

Lise Massey is the Program Manager for IIA’s Analytics Leadership Consortium (ALC) and has been with IIA for six years. The ALC is a closed network of senior analytics executives from diverse industries who meet to share and discuss best practices, as well as discover and develop analytics innovation, all for the purpose of improving the business impact of analytics at their firms. Prior to IIA, Lise spent over 10 years designing, managing, and leading media analytics programs for a diverse portfolio of clients and has experience in many aspects of program and project management, account management, strategic and tactical planning, business development, and training. Lise is a graduate from the University of Oregon.

You can view more posts by Lise here.

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