The lessons on ICT4D forced me to reflect back on the government’s various digitization projects which comprised the bulk of my young career. My baptism of fire was back in 2002 when we had to digitize and index all the country’s birth, marriage and death certificates for the NSO. The city of San Fernando, Pampanga also had the same project, but also included all the council’s resolutions and ordinances. Three years ago, with funding from the World Bank, the Bureau of Internal Revenue piloted the digitization of tax returns of three Revenue District Offices. One of the bigger ones was the imaging and indexing of documents and microfilm from the National Library, UP and DOST for the government’s E-Lib project.
I cannot hide the pride that I was somehow a part of these projects, all of which are online now and doing very well in terms of providing better service and making information easily available. My role then was on the more technical side of things, and having been caught up in the world of servers, keystrokes efficiency, and systems integration, one will easy forget the social value of the whole endeavor. I realize now that I was right in the heart of the government’s efforts to use ICT for development. It is not the more critical area of funding, policy-making, or increasing ICT reach, but the other often neglected part of ICT: providing content and making it available for the masses.
This was validated by a talk I heard several weeks ago at the Y4IT Conference in UP Diliman. The talk was entitled, “A Clarion Call for a National ICT Governance Framework”. The Government ICT Plan, according to Ms Helen Macasaet, the speaker, is:
“A digitally empowered, innovative, globally competitive and prosperous society where everyone has reliable, affordable and secure information access in the Philippines. A government that practices accountability and excellence to provide responsive online citizen-centered services. A thriving knowledge economy through public-private partnership.”
There were several points in the presentation that mirrored some of the problems and features in the aforementioned projects. First, one of the ICT strategies that she mentioned was managing the ICT environment as a business, and responding to the opportunities created by its external environment. With the long lines at the NSO prior to their digitization, it made perfect sense to make the whole process online, and make some money out of it. When I thought of it more, those projects really were not just for the purpose of simply digitizing documents. It was a way to generate more income for the government, the same way as before, but with ICT, the volume of transactions can be scaled further without needing more manpower.
A more poignant realization set in though, when she cited one of the challenges to ICT governance. Traditional build-and-deploy software projects causes IT to be operationally disconnected, to deliver slowly, have rare innovation and have low user adoption. With emergent IT capabilities, she says, it can address these shortcomings. I thought, this may be the reason why the pilot BIR project was never replicated in other offices. Besides the problem of funding, the digitizing of documents were out of place in the largely manually intensive processes still being practiced at BIR. For an ICT project to have an impact to the organization, it has to strike the roots. Documents are usually at the rear end of the process, and the project just appeared to be addressing the problem at the seams.
Relating this experience to the complex discipline of ICT4D, IT cannot achieve its intended social value if communication is not integrated into the whole picture. By communication, I mean being aware of any ICT project’s role to the whole system. Is it just to automate processes and make interactions faster, or is it given the more critical role of driving the whole business forward? As Ms Macasaet pointed out, the Philippines is the 7th largest country on the social networking scene, yet we are at the bottom of the World Economic Forum competitiveness ranking. Obviously, internet connectivity is not that much of a problem if a significant portion of Filipinos can get online to interact with friends. The glaring truth is that our tech-savvy is being applied largely to matters of entertainment and trivial pursuits.
This observation is reflected in our 86th rank in the Networked Readiness Index of 2010-2011[i]. Our neighbors in that ranking are Mongolia, Pakistan and Peru. Namibia and Kenya are placed even higher above us. The ranking assesses the extent of leveraging ICT advances for increased competitiveness and development, using the following gauges:
• the conduciveness of national environments for
ICT development and diffusion, including the
broad business climate, some regulatory aspects, and
the human and hard infrastructure needed for ICT;
• the degree of preparation for and interest in using
ICT by the three main national stakeholders in a
society (i.e., individuals, the business sector, and the
government) in their daily activities and operations;
• the actual use of ICT by the above three stakeholders.
It seems that the major defect in the Philippines is the alignment of goals among the three stakeholders in terms of properly using ICT for development. The staggering population of Filipinos on Facebook and the ordinariness of mobile phone usage in the country indicate that the infrastructure is there; it’s just not being used purposively for economic advantage.
As to the causes, I can do nothing but speculate. Perhaps there are gaps in the national policy – the lack of public-private partnership, as Ms Macasaet professes? Perhaps it is rooted deep in the Filipino culture – taking of things for granted, the lack of innovativeness.
Perhaps there is a need to reconsider what an information society really is. It is worth noticing that Singapore, with its already advanced economy, has a strategy called Singapore i2015, a vision to make the country “an information society” by 2015[ii]. Maybe our delusion that we are living a real information society – manifested by ineffective digitization projects, building static websites, constantly publishing trivial goings-on in Facebook – is the cause of our stagnation.