Even though mobile broadband infrastructure and smartphone apps have already been universally adopted throughout most of the world, there remains a wide gap between the potential of digital technologies and their present use cases, even in highly advanced economies. This gap is particularly evident in government services which, while mostly digitised, could still be further improved to match the potential offered by current-generation technologies.
On that front, there is some promising tech news in Singapore. The city-state’s policymakers are currently making the country’s public services smart through several keystone projects. Ongoing policy initiatives cover everything from the standardisation of government technology tech stacks to the creation of nationwide sensor networks, all to eventually make Singapore a leader in public digital services.
Fortunately for countries with more limited resources, even modest tried-and-tested forays into digital transformation can make a serious impact on government services. Here are just some of the societal benefits that occur when governments integrate current-generation digital technology into their processes:
1. Better Efficiency
Replacing paper-based processes and legacy computer systems with newer platforms can remove much of the friction that often plagues public services. As a whole, contemporary digital systems have thoroughly minimized the need for human inputs, making it possible to seamlessly transfer data to wherever it is needed without the need to repeat data entry. Updating to modern digital systems should thus not only make data management faster but also more accurate.
2. More Responsive Governance
The efficiency boost created by digitalizing services isn’t just a win for users’ convenience. It also gives public agencies the capability to act on citizens’ concerns faster than ever before. With fewer forms to fill out and validate, government workers are freer to focus on the key aspects of their jobs, resulting in better service.
Soon, the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) into established digital platforms may increase government responsiveness even more. Going back to Singapore, digital technologies on the cutting edge of development are already being used to instantly detect emergencies as they happen. A wider roll-out of these systems may one day increase public safety without straining limited manpower.
3. More Grounded Decision-Making
Faster, more accurate data handling also helps with long-term decision-making. Properly implemented digital systems increase the timeliness and trustworthiness of available data, which means that policymakers can have more confidence that the solutions they’re crafting are appropriate for their constituents’ needs. This can result in fewer delays of vital public projects and increased transparency on the ROI of public funds.
4. A Reduction in Welfare Fraud
Ordinary citizens and business owners are often rightly protective of public benefits given to them. While this concern is normally a good thing, this protectiveness can also breed widespread distrust that degrades societal cohesion, particularly when public coffers are limited compared to the range of public services.
Digital transformation has already presented an answer through modern national ID initiatives. According to the World Bank, the digitalization of national IDs is associated with reductions in fraud related to public services, effectively expanding the resources available for legitimate beneficiaries. While there are legitimate concerns about such digital systems, they have generally been well received by both the public and government leaders wherever they have been implemented.
5. Better Data Security
Data held in paper archives and legacy onsite computer systems have proven vulnerable to online and offline threats. Events like physical calamities and social upheavals have often resulted in the total destruction of data in these systems, with the effects continuing to reverberate decades later. Putting everything in modern, cloud-based digital systems with multiple redundancies will be key in securing invaluable public data for good.
6. Improved Civic Engagement
Even today, digital technology is already playing a key role in how people the world over communicate with public offices. Digital transformation is now widely seen as a key ingredient in empowering ordinary people to make their voices known. Importantly, digital platforms have allowed previously disenfranchised people to collectively exert necessary pressure on the leaders tasked with handling their concerns.
7. Increased Opportunities for Innovation
Finally, the speed, efficiency, and transparency enabled by digitalized public services open up new ways of addressing societal challenges. For instance, the push for digital payments worldwide has been credited with increasing financial inclusion and a reduction in petty corruption, increasing entrepreneurial opportunities in the process. Likewise, digital public services have also reduced red tape wherever they have been implemented, leaving innovators freer to pursue their ideas.
The Argument for Smarter Government Services
Contrary to common fears that the digital transformation of public services would create an ever-more powerful “Big Brother,” bringing governments and the wider public online will empower both to an unprecedented degree. With smarter online public services, ordinary citizens can be better served and heard by the agencies tasked with serving them. Meanwhile, the expanded digitalization of services will give leaders the visibility and confidence they need to pursue specific and actionable policy changes.
The great news is that governments do not necessarily have to pursue digital transformation at the same scale as Singapore. Even relatively modest changes such as collating services of different but related agencies under one website can create positive ripples across society. As advanced economies work out the inefficiencies in their own digital services, they can serve as examples for others further behind in their digitalization projects, reducing the costs associated with building sound government systems online.