Can Tech Move Policy?

(This post was inspired by speaking to one of my colleagues who asked me whether I really thought tech could make a bigger difference than just improve service delivery.

So here’s a policy maker’s perspective of how tech moves me to do better. It’s a short post because I’m tired from engagements. But I thought it’s worth thinking, not so much to make accusations of power plays, but to understand that there are cycles in governance and planning.)

Recently, I’ve been thinking about my colleagues’ role in government, society and how we effect change.

Is it truly one code, one line at a time as the old adage goes,

Or one system, one sector like the wind blows?

Is there a better way to understand the impact that my team is making, and how the policy-ops-tech cycle shifts with time?

Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that we’re doing something first order. Tech, much like operations, sits downstream of government policy planning and strategy. It’s not so much who has more intrinsic or institutional power, but more of how centralised planning has traditionally taken place:

  • An administrator has a view of how the policy landscape should be shaped — regulations, legislation, policies, programmes and all.
  • He calls for decisions to be made on the end state of things, not limited by operational constraints.
  • Things, processes and people move around these big decisions to shift the system towards this ideal state.
  • Very naturally, tech and operations play second fiddle because they are tools to achieve policy outcomes.

Sounds familiar? If you are in the business of government, then that’s pretty much how most things operate. That is, at first.

But fast forward a little, and here we are, flowing midstream towards our ideal state of governance, city planning and policy landscaping. Big decisions have already been made, and we’ve more or less reached a meta-stable equilibrium where we ride out the waves that we made for change. (I say meta-stable because policy can always change. And it should always change with the times. But assuming incremental changes at the benefit of preserving socio-economic stability, we hover around the status quo for just a bit.)

Policy reaches a standstill because broad intents have already been achieved, and first order achievements have already been made— with last mile service delivery being that last step towards our utopia, the policy maker is forced to look inwards to streamline operations and outwards to optimise the citizen user journey.

And this is the time where tech plays a different role in the policy-ops-tech cycle:

It rears its head against its policy head,

and plays its streamlining role to consolidate.

You see, policy making is much like owning a product roadmap. Your citizens are your customers, and your policy roadmap is very much your product backlog. In the early days, you prioritise big changes for your citizens, because you’re eager to deliver value. Despite some messiness, you press on as a policy maker because you do not wish to withhold value and service. But there comes a certain time when it’s no longer about delivering new features, but ensuring that the user interface and experience is fully optimised.

So how does tech consolidate and streamline?

Take for instance, a simple digital service such as a consolidated government grants portal. Early on in the design of such a service, one makes reference to the policy requirements of the few grants to be listed on the portal, and the portal is customised for the policies.

But as time goes by, the portal itself becomes a repository of governance frameworks and good workflow practices, and sets the standards for all future grants to adhere to before they get to be listed on the portal. And one by one, policies harmonise before they onboard the portal.

Where grants are similar and duplicative, the grant portal collapses these. It makes apparent the features of policy that require finetuning, and provides a way for us to do so quickly.

As if that were not enough, the data collected from the portals goes back into the review of existing grant policies. So in this way, tech gets its little laugh at policy, which goes a long long way.

Tech sometimes redraws the line

Helping policies redesign

Or maybe consider another simple app, such as a digital wallet for every single resident. When such an app is initially created, its features are specific to the policy initiative that it was designed for, such as government subsidies or payouts.

But once we have such an app, the policy solutions are endless. And the app works almost backwards in time, unravelling the very policies that led to its genesis.

For example, policies that tap on service providers to administer subsidies can redesign to decentralise cashflows to the residents — instead of cumbersome provider-to-resident administration and backend provider-to-government claims, residents own their subsidies for usage at service providers.

Think clinics, charity organisations, businesses — through policy re-design, we free them from administration, to better serve their customers.

So maybe it’s not so much about how tech moves policy per se, or how policy is king. But how policy, ops and tech shift, depending on the natural cycles of governance and planning.

I shall stop here tonight.

Piqued your interest in GovTech’s grant portals? Check out the Business Grants Portal here, and OurSG Grants Portal here.

Want to check out GovTech’s GovWallet, a wallet (duh!) for every resident in Singapore? Check us out here and here.

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Yeo Yong Kiat

Yeo Yong Kiat

Teacher l Data Analyst | Policy Maker: currently exploring the tech sector