Research and Advances
Computing Applications

Successful E-Government in Singapore

How did Singapore manage to get most of its public services deliverable online?
  1. Introduction
  2. Initiation Stage
  3. Infusion Stage
  4. Customization Stage
  5. Lessons Learned
  6. References
  7. Authors
  8. Figures

Rapid advances in technology and the advent of the Internet have redefined public expectations of the government and its services. Prompted by demands for a more responsive government, leaders in the public sector have been grappling with how to best use new technologies to deliver services to the people. Government use of technology, particularly Web-based Internet applications, to enhance citizen access to government services and to enable citizens to make online transactions is called e-government [9]. By migrating traditionally paper-based and face-to-face services to the Internet, e-government has the potential to provide citizens with the fastest and most convenient way of obtaining government services.

But e-government is not a simple matter. Although governments have eagerly looked forward to a digital future since the mid-1990s, their efforts to turn vision into reality have been obstructed by various challenges. In a detailed study of 2,288 national governmental Web sites in 196 countries, World Markets Research Center found that only 8% of the Web sites offered services executable online, and only 6% provided integrated services at their portals [10]. Hence, e-government is falling short of its true potential and is still in infancy. Moreover, reports of e-government development experience describe its efforts as loose-knit mixes of ideas, projects, and affiliations. Successful e-government implementation has become a great challenge to public sectors around the world.

To shed some light on how to overcome the obstacles in e-government development, we explore the success story of e-government in Singapore. As a nation-state, Singapore has the ability to capitalize on the benefits offered by a reasonably small, well-informed, and well-wired public. It has a stable government with a long-term commitment to ensure the benefits of technology are maximized. E-citizen, Singapore’s e-government portal, is “the most developed example of integrated service delivery in the world” [2]. It generates approximately $14.5 million in savings for the Singapore government annually and was rated second in Accenture’s 2001 e-government survey [1].

A city-state with a population of four million and a landmass of 640 square kilometers, the Republic of Singapore is one of the first countries in the world to develop an integrated and coherent approach to computerizing the government. Conceived with the clear objective of turning the government into a world-class exploiter of IT, the Civil Service Computerization Program (CSCP) was launched in 1981. Singapore’s move toward e-government was built on the solid foundation of CSCP through four main waves of progress: the Civil Service Computerization Plan from 1981 to 1985, the National IT Plan from 1986 to 1991, the IT2000 Master Plan from 1992 to 1999, and Infocomm 21, launched in 2000. With the computerization of the government and the development of electronic connection between government and industry under the first two plans, government services were first put on the Internet in the mid-1990s and e-government progressed steadily but slowly from that time. It was only in 2000 that e-government, as one of the key programs of Infocomm 21, saw an accelerated development. It is currently in the process of traversing from what is known as the infusion stage to the customization stage. Following Watson and Mundy’s e-government framework [9], we identified the stages of Singapore’s e-government development—initiation, infusion, and customization—and the major actions taken at each stage shown in the figure on this page.

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Initiation Stage

The government started to develop official Web sites at the late stage of IT2000, which aimed to develop Singapore into an intelligent island. By June 1996, there were more than 60 individual information dissemination Web sites hosted by the civil service and statutory boards. But these web sites were developed and owned by individual agencies, so they were localized and fragmented. An integrated public service interface for citizens was first conceived in 1997 and the one-stop E-citizen portal was launched in April 1999. Although at that time it provided a single point of access and organized services on according to citizen life events rather than departments and agencies, many services on E-citizen did not go beyond information dissemination and few e-services offered online transactions.

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Infusion Stage

E-government developed speedily in Singapore since 2000, entering the infusion stage a year later. The major problems encountered during this phase included the need to transform the mindset of civil servants, the ambiguity of e-government goals to agencies, a lack of technical capabilities and financial resources, and the issue of the digital divide. Singapore’s success in tackling these problems may be attributed to strong leadership that formulated a strategic action plan, provided strong support, took a centralized approach to funding and infrastructure, and made efforts to bridge the divide.

Action plan. Right after the launch of Infocomm 21, the Singapore government spent six months on a study involving public servants at various levels. The ensuing E-government Action Plan was conceptualized to set out the broad directions of information communication technologies (ICT) deployment (2000–2002) [6]. In June 2000, Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Tony Tan unveiled the action plan and the vision: “to be a leading e-government to better serve the nation in the Digital Economy.” The plan charted five strategic thrusts: reinventing the government, delivering integrated electronic services, being proactive and responsive, using ICT to build new capabilities and capacities, and innovating with ICT. The plan also provided government agencies with specific guiding principles to follow in e-government development.

Strong support. To ensure the program objectives of the E-government Action Plan became a reality, the government earmarked $932 million for the years 2000 to 2003. This investment focused on the five strategic thrusts listed earlier. Projects that did not support the five thrusts were accorded lower priority. In addition to the funding support, administrative structures were put in place to give greater impetus to the e-government vision. An e-government policy committee chaired by the head of the civil service was formed. This committee provided strategic directions and led the work on changes in policies, processes, and management issues. Three other committees were also formed to review existing laws and regulations to ensure they continued to be relevant and applicable. To sustain the processes, two initiatives were put in place: the Pro-Enterprise Panel and Public Officers Working on Eliminating Red Tape (POWER).

While striving to put almost all public services online, the Singapore government realized the importance of encouraging citizens to use them. Citizens lacking access to the Internet at home were provided access to e-government services through community self-service terminals.

Centralized funding and common infrastructure. To better monitor and manage its e-government development, the Singapore government chose a centralized approach. The Ministry of Finance (MOF) was designated as the sole authority in providing and approving the funding of all e-government projects (except those that were self-funding). It also owns all central ICT infrastructure, services, and policies within the public service. The Infocomm Development Authority (IDA)—the government agency responsible for promoting and regulating telecommunications in the country—was designated the chief technology officer and chief information officer to the Singapore government. It provides technical advice to MOF; manages the central ICT infrastructure; and defines ICT policies, standards and procedures. In keeping with the centralized infrastructure, all e-services from the government follow the same security, electronic payment, and data exchange mechanisms.

Bridging the digital divide. To accelerate the e-government drive, all government agencies were required to follow the same guiding principles [4]: that every service that can be delivered electronically shall be electronically available, and that all services shall be designed on a “customer-centric” and not an “agency-centric” basis.

While striving to put almost all public services online, the Singapore government realized the importance of encouraging citizens to use these e-services, and bridging the digital divide within the population. Citizens lacking access to the Internet at home were provided access to e-government services through community self-service terminals. Also, in the mid-1990s, the Singapore government launched Singapore One—the first broadband infrastructure made available nationwide. It covers 99% of the island republic, bringing the capabilities of broadband technology to schools, businesses, homes, libraries, and community centers. In terms of Internet host density, Singapore—at 353 Internet hosts per 10,000 inhabitants—ranks first among Asian countries [6].

In addition to developing infrastructure, the government took a series of measures to make the Internet accessible to every citizen. To help citizens on the disadvantaged side of the digital divide, the Singapore government partnered with private industry to implement the PC Reuse Scheme to deploy secondhand PCs to needy parties. Singapore has one of the highest rates of PC ownership worldwide, with a penetration of 61% in 2000 [7]. At the same time, the government also endeavored to raise public awareness of e-government and its benefits. A month-long multisector campaign was held annually; a series of thematic online fairs were organized to boost public confidence in online services; and the National IT Literacy program was launched to raise the ICT standard in the population.

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Customization Stage

When all the ministries in Singapore had adopted the principle of e-government, the government embarked on the program of customization. The aim was to maximize the value of e-government to citizens by providing electronically maintained personal profiles of their interactions with the government. To attain the goal, the government focused on tackling the problems of integrating its portal with the information systems of various agencies, reengineering the process of delivering public services, and implementing customer relationship management (CRM) techniques.

E-services across agency silos. With the vision of “Many Agencies, One Government” unveiled in June 2001, the Singapore government urged agencies to move beyond seeing themselves as separate and distinct entities, and to consider themselves as “One Government” that collaborates, shares information, and leverages on its collective knowledge to provide the public with integrated services—conveniently, continuously, and speedily.

To facilitate interagency collaboration and leveraging of knowledge, the government encouraged public officers to make collaborative learning and knowledge sharing part of their work environment and culture. To that end, the government organized a number of forums, meetings, and gatherings so the best practices and knowledge could be shared across agencies. For example, the directors and IT managers of all agencies meet quarterly to share policy information and provide one another with updates on the best practices and technologies at their respective workplaces.

Through interagency collaboration, the Singapore government can present citizens with a single point of contact, and the seamless integration of front-end applications and back-end systems. For example, at the E-citizen portal, any citizen can have his or her new address updated with all government agencies by filling out just one form. Also, users of e-Citizen can reach their desired Web pages with fewer clicks. Further, they can carry out online transactions integrated with authentication and payment services at the portal.

Strong leadership with vision is crucial for e-government success. The government should clearly articulate its vision and motivate all stakeholders to share that vision.

Experimenting with CRM techniques. With the Singapore government adopting the “Start Small and Scale Fast” strategy [8], CRM was incorporated into a few e-services, such as the e-library services provided by the National Library Board and the e-services provided by the Ministry of Defense (MINDEF). Based on CRM techniques, e-library allows users to customize their personal profiles, so they can decide what they want to view on the site based on their personal preferences. Users can also view their library transactions records, renew books, and pay their library fines with e-library. MINDEF e-services rely on membership log-in consoles to capture user activities and retrieve citizens’ personal profiles. The government has also set up online forums where citizens can post queries and interact with one another. As these CRM techniques have proven successful and applicable, more and more government e-services are expected to incorporate the techniques.

With the enhanced ease of use and usefulness of e-services, the online transaction volume of E-citizen has seen a threefold increase since it was piloted in April 1999. We expect e-government usage among Singaporeans to increase tremendously after a system of secured payment is implemented, and every citizen is equipped with a universal identification and personalized profile. Given the government’s determination in accelerating, integrating, and transforming the delivery of its services to the public, Singapore should continue to experience rapid growth in e-government. We envisage that, as promised by Lim Siong Guan, the head of the Singapore Civil Service, public services in Singapore in 2005 will be drastically different from those that exist today.

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Lessons Learned

Singapore provides great variety and dynamically integrated public services online. By the end of 2001, Singapore managed to get 92% of all public services deliverable online. In contrast, Hong Kong, another developed Asian economy, had only 80% of its public services online by the end of 2002. Hong Kong joined the bandwagon later, even though its IT infrastructure is as advanced as Singapore’s, and its government as highly computerized. Singapore’s success can be attributed to the commitment and persistence of its government to fully turn a promising vision into reality, and perhaps more importantly, to the strategies that it has adopted. From the experience of Singapore, we may derive multiple lessons:

Firstly, strong leadership with vision is crucial for e-government success. The government should clearly articulate its e-government vision and motivate all stakeholders to share that vision. The clearly articulated vision of the Singapore government has inspired mindset changes and enabled government agencies to understand the move toward e-government in the country. It has also enabled these agencies to appreciate the importance of e-government, and to understand their roles and expectations in e-government development.

Besides promoting a shared understanding among agencies, it is also imperative to formulate a strategic action plan that provides clear guidelines for agencies to follow in implementing e-government initiatives. Singapore’s action plan examined all aspects of the government’s interactions with citizens along the lines of a business model, and identified the areas where more value could be created for all stakeholders by moving public services online. In addition, high-level structures should be set up to spearhead e-government development and entities should be designated to be accountable for the progress. In the Singapore experience, the efforts of high-level structures have elicited value-added e-services from intra- or interagency system integration. At the same time, the designated entity accountable for e-government development, in the form of MOF, ensured that policies were carried out effectively. In addition to giving the agencies the incentives to comply with the government’s blueprint, the central funding scheme pre-empted conflicts that could be triggered by protectionism from individual agencies; it thus averted one of the greatest obstacles in e-government development.

Secondly, the government must pursue e-government through the development of an information infrastructure and by bridging the digital divide. Historically, public administration has been centrally concerned with issues of universalism and distributive justice [5]. Consistent with the norms of public administration, e-government should be accessible to every citizen. In Singapore, the government allocated resources for needy groups and launched education programs to enhance computer literacy and e-government awareness among all citizens.

Thirdly, the strong political will to provide integrated services to the citizen should be matched with coordinating measures. Providing services from various parts of the government requires business process integration among agencies. Unfortunately, the bureaucratic ethos does not encourage interagency collaboration [3]. Hence, the government must adopt certain coordinating mechanisms to ease the transition from the existing way of doing agency business to a new and more collaborative way. In Singapore, in addition to forming various coordinating committees, the government regularly organized policy forums and various gatherings to foster the culture of knowledge sharing and to facilitate open communications among agencies. At the same time, the government used a common e-service infrastructure. In addition to achieving economies of scale, this infrastructure enabled tighter business process integration among agencies, their suppliers, and business partners. The integration of E-citizen front-end applications with back-end agency systems is seamless, and users need not worry about the detailed technical procedures by which security and electronic payments are executed by the agencies. Such user-friendliness has made it possible to deploy e-services expediently.

While the lessons learned from the Singapore experience may provide some guidelines, they cannot be generalized to all other governments. Singapore is a small country with a one-level government; the best practices of Singapore cannot be of use in solving the complicated problems entailed in vertically integrating services provided by agencies at the federal, state, county, and township levels. Secondly, with a culture of high collectivism and royal civil servants, it is easier for Singapore to call on agencies to comply with the e-government blueprint and carry out policies set by the top leadership. Lessons learned from Singapore in coordinating agencies and pushing for seamless e-government may not be applicable to countries with an entrenched culture of high individualism. Thirdly, the issue of the digital divide can be much more complicated in countries with large populations and an underdeveloped IT infrastructure. Furthermore, the lessons drawn from Singapore’s success story do not caution governments about the pitfalls in e-government development. To conclude, we appeal for more research to provide insights into the various issues in e-government development—drawing insights from initiatives that have succeeded as well as those that have turned out otherwise.

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UF1 Figure. Stages and actions taken to develop e-government in Singapore. (The dotted boxed section is adapted from [

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    1. Accenture Consulting. e-Government Leadership Rhetoric vs. Reality—Closing the Gap, 2001.

    2. America's General Services Administration. Government and the Internet Survey, 2000.

    3. Bardach, E. Getting Agencies to Work Together: The Practice and Theory of Managerial Craftsmanship. Brookings Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 1998.

    4. Civil, S.D. e-Government: Doing What We've Never Been Able to Do Before. Civil Service Department, Singapore, 2001.

    5. Harris, P. Foundations of Public Administration: A Comparative Approach. Hong Kong University Press. Hong Kong, 1990.

    6. The Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore. E-Government Newsletter 2001: Accelerating, Integrating, Transforming Public Services. Singapore, 2001.

    7. The Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore. Survey on Infocomm Usage in Households 2000. Singapore, 2000.

    8. The Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore. Think Big, Start Small and Scale Fast. Singapore, 2000.

    9. Watson, R.T. and Mundy, B. A strategic perspective of electronic democracy. Commun. ACM 44, 1 (Jan. 2001), 27–30.

    10. World Markets Research Centre. Global E-Government Survey, 2001.

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