Singapore's public sector ready for digital future

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Singapore's strong Smart Nation foundation puts it ahead of other countries

With the Smart Nation agenda well-established - and now parked under the Prime Minister's Office as the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office - Singapore has a strong foundation to harness emerging technologies that will define public services of the future.

However, attracting digitally savvy workers to the public sector is a continuous challenge. Stubborn issues such as replacing legacy information technology systems, updating infrastructure and improving citizen services are difficult to solve without skilled professionals.

A new Accenture survey of about 800 technology leaders in nine countries, including Singapore, shows that government leaders feel an urgent need to develop in-house skills and recruit technology specialists who can bring them closer to the digital interactions citizens expect.

But hiring and developing people with right skill sets is one of the top three most difficult challenges facing the public sector globally, the survey found.

While it remains a challenge, Singapore reported much less of a skills-gap issue, with only 20 per cent of government tech leaders believing a lack of internal skills (or the ability to hire) is among the top three barriers to success with emerging technologies. The figure is 40 per cent in Japan and 35 per cent in the United States.

In addition, 86 per cent of Singapore's public-sector agencies said they have made significant structural changes to their workforce in order to implement emerging technologies. This is more than any other country, and far higher than the global average of 40 per cent.

Talent is clearly sufficient in many areas, but key gaps remain. Singapore's public sector is well-equipped with software engineers (80 per cent), digital developers and designers (68 per cent) and other essential skills.

However, survey respondents said their organisations also require their workforce to have other skills in order to succeed, with machine-learning specialists (54 per cent) being the top priority for future recruitment.

The public-service agency of the future will need to build an organisation that encompasses traditional and new roles.

While new skills are needed, agencies also need to retain the deep sector knowledge of existing employees. But individuals who combine technical skills with an understanding of the relevant public-service agency and citizens' needs are not easy to find - or keep.

Government competes with private business, academia and tech start-ups to recruit and retain the best workers.

Experienced digital developers, data scientists and software engineers who are in high demand may not always view government as an innovator. And workers who combine technical skills with the understanding of the agency or citizen challenge are not easy to find.

Half of all respondents globally said they look predominantly to the private sector to hire talent when developing projects using emerging technologies. This is even higher in Singapore at 59 per cent.

The benefits of hiring and retaining top tech personnel in government could be massive. Investing in tech to bring citizen services up to 21st-century standards gives government more opportunities - and power - to change lives.

The writer is managing director for Health and Public Service at Accenture. This article appeared in The Business Times yesterday. It has been edited for length.