"Every product manager's dream": India, Singapore, and the age of the government superapp
Thought Piece #16 A decade after the UK's GDS famously declared that they were "not 'appy at all", digital government's swiss army knife is reinventing service delivery...
A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to interview Gabriyel Wong (Head of Life SG, GovTech Singapore) and Debabrata Nayak (CTO, Digital India) as part of GovInsider ASEAN. This article, originally published in GovInsider, forms a companion piece to the panel, entitled “Government superapps; potentials and pathways”, and discusses some of the experiences of two pioneers of the “swiss army knife” of digital government tools: the super-app.
From a digital government perspective, Singapore and India make for an unlikely pairing. The former has long since been one of the leading examples of a nimble country punching above its demographic weight in serving a small population. The latter, with a population some 250 times Singapore’s size, is developing GovTech at an almost unrivalled scale, including creating the largest open API in the world.
But both are at the forefront of developing government superapps. Lauded as the “swiss army knife” of digital government, these apps offer hundreds (sometimes thousands) of services all in one place – accessible from the comfort of a user’s smartphone. India’s UMANG app – synthesizing more than 22,000 services under the management of 300 government departments – now serves some 50 million users.
Singapore’s LifeSG offers fewer services, but is no less ambitious in its vision. Having sprung out of an idea to streamline birth registration for newborns and their parents, the app is now at the forefront of GovTech Singapore’s “moments of life” approach. By identifying key moments of life and offering associated services digitally, the app can now serve citizens through birth, marriage, and death.
The shift towards superapps over the past few years has been a stark one. The UK’s GDS, at the time ranked first in the world on the UN’s e-Government Development index, famously declared that they were “not ‘appy at all” back in 2014 on the grounds that apps were “very expensive to produce, and very expensive to maintain”. They have since rolled back on this, developing products like the NHS Weight Loss App. But as a blog from Tom Loosemore showed recently, “a sub-1% completion rate sadly tells its own story”.
The point is, as I put it to Singapore’s Gabriyel Wong and India’s Debabrata Nayak, that creating government apps is a difficult business. What has changed over the past decade to suddenly make them worth the cost?
Building a “swiss army knife”
For Wong, it is simply a reflection of shifting user expectations. Apps may be marginally more expensive to develop and maintain than a website, but they are a much closer reflection of how people already use technology on a day-to-day basis.
Citizens’ expectations of government technology are shaped by experiencing their private sector equivalents. As Wong reminds me, most of us start our day scrolling Facebook and watching YouTube on the sites’ respective apps. “Well-kept websites can do the job”, Wong says, “but the aim is to reduce the cognitive load on the user as much as possible”.
Indeed, the private sector has already set a firm precedent for superapps, whether in the case of China’s WeChat or Southeast Asia’s Grab.
The principal benefit of these programs is their capacity for the aggregation and integration of government services. Through UMANG, the National e-Governance Division has built a unified front-end interface while connecting individual services via APIs, allowing departments to manage their own digital services. It is a much easier sell than requesting that departments each build their own app – reducing their workload without making them feel like they are relinquishing control of their services.
Managing just one tool also allows governments to be more proactive in both the services they are offering and the app’s maintenance. With just one product to update and maintain, Singapore and India can avoid situations like that faced by the Malaysian government last year, where it was revealed that fewer than half of its 200 government apps had been downloaded more than 1,000 times and hundreds of user reviews lacked developer responses.
It also allows them to be innovative in personalizing government service offerings. Both leaders brought up the recommendation engines in their apps, which proactively offer services to users based on their profile. Elsewhere, Abhishek Singh (the CEO of the Indian National e-Governance Division (NeGD)) gave the example to GovInsider of the UMANG app recommending health insurance and food subsidies to citizens who had qualified but not yet applied for them.
Scaling government superapps
Developing great apps is only half the challenge. Returning to the Malaysian example, I was interested to hear how Nayak and Wong thought about the challenge of staying relevant and scaling their apps’ use, when so many alternatives had suffered from few downloads and a low uptake.
For both, the answer lies in scaling incrementally. Wong’s team in Singapore is firmly focused on developing an omnichannel approach for their service delivery – enabling citizens to default to digital services, but also maintaining options to speak to the government over the phone or hand off to physical centers.
This is most apparent in Smart Nation roadshows, which seek to engage citizens without prior tech experience in learning about digital skills, and help them understand the government’s digital offerings. As many as 7,000 people attend each roadshow, helping the government support the long tail of users who have not yet engaged in digital transactions with the government.
In India, there is a particular imperative to scale. As Nayak notes, “India is so big that people often don’t know how the government is giving benefits”, and the country’s size makes holding roadshows a far greater logistical challenge than in Singapore.
The solution in Delhi has been developing a superapp ecosystem with the support of the private sector. When it comes to digital government, India’s shining light is India Stack, which offers open APIs for public and private sector organizations alike to build and provide services.
A similar approach has proved pivotal to developing UMANG. By building open APIs and allowing private sector companies to integrate their own services into the app, the NeGD has turned UMANG into an ecosystem. Partners are able to promote the app’s services not just in Delhi or Mumbai, but across the whole country.
As we move towards the end of the interview, touching on privacy issues, product design and civil liberties, both leaders are upbeat and optimistic about their countries’ abilities to scale the apps. For Wong, who has spent much of his career in the private sector, scaling LifeSG is “every product manager’s dream”. Without having to focus on differentiating from competitors, he says, governments can focus on what matters: personalization of services and user-centered design.
Click here to watch the full panel, Government superapps; potentials and pathways.