It’s pretty easy to get lost in a maze, or in the confounding twists and turns of the crooked path; daang baluktot as President Benigno Aquino popularized the term, but how can one get lost in a straight path (daang matuwid)?
It seems that even in a coast as clear as day, on a path as straight as an arrow, the government that first made the distinction of their semantic difference could be somehow lost. The President’s fifth State of the Nation Address (SONA), delivered with more emotion and more pathos, one can easily conclude that we are not yet through with the basics: the government is set up against a backdrop of an overwhelming need that easily sweeps it off its feet.
The enumeration of what the government has done for the past year is routine, almost mechanical: roads and bridges constructed, number of people lifted out of poverty, lives changed and lives saved because of government projects, rebuilding and rehabilitation efforts in areas affected by disasters, many others.
In his honest statement of the state of the nation, the President’s metaphor was clear: running the government was like watching 200 TV channels at the same time. “One can’t get confused, and one should have an answer to questions, suggestions and criticisms even before they are brought up,” he said in Filipino. “This job is not easy and I am only human, at times I also have doubts.”
Many sectors could berate the President for government accomplishments and failings he failed to mention. Perhaps, 91 minutes isn’t long enough to cover everything. Perhaps, there are many achievements that even if they look good on paper, would not sound as sexy to announce given the populist nature of the SONA.
One of these un-sexy things is the government’s (almost heroic) efforts to keep up with the global community of nations in the information age. Yes, almost heroic because in this side of the world where it is more important to put food on the table, information and communications technology (ICT) usually gets sidelined and muffled in a din of competing voices and competing needs.
In the latest Global Information Technology Report (http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GlobalInformationTechnology_Report_2014.pdf) published by the World Economic Forum in April, the Philippines ranked 78th out of 148 countries in the Networked Readiness Index (NRI), which assesses how well an economy is applying the benefits of ICT to promote economic growth and create jobs.
ICT: Speed not ranking
That the Philippine rank jumped eighth places from last year’s finish at 86th place was hardly mentioned in the mainstream media. Nobody could afford that kind of fanfare for an accomplishment little understood outside of the tech circles, but one that should matter a lot to policymakers.
What is understood more when ICT is mentioned is how slow Philippine Internet is and that we have the slowest broadband speed in Southeast Asia. In March this year, we celebrated the 20th year of the Internet in the Philippines, an occasion celebrated with glee among the tech crowd. That one got more media mileage. Many events have been graced by some of the founders themselves, including Dr. William Torres, who co-founded the first Philippine commercial IT service in 1994.
But even Dr. Torres had to lament the state of the Internet compared to our more progressive neighbors. “If I take a look at the progress that we’ve made, I think everybody knows that we’ve had progress,” he said at a forum organized by the IT Journalists Association of the Philippines to celebrate the occasion. “But if we measure our progress against the progress of other countries, how come we are next to the bottom in ASEAN in terms of Network Readiness Index (NRI)? How come we belong to bottom half of the 140 or so countries in the world in terms of global competitive index?”
His remarks were timely. Barely a month after the celebration, the ASEAN community in Thailand posted an infographic on its Facebook page showing the Philippines with the lowest Internet speed in the region at only 3.6 Mbps. Even Myanmar, which is just emerging from decades of military rule and have opened its country for reforms only in the past year or two was listed to have an average broadband speed of 4.9 Mbps. Other countries roughly in the same boat have better speeds: Laos (4.1 Mbps), Cambodia (5.7 Mbps).
Other studies followed. In Akamai’s State of the Internet Report (Asia-Pacific) for the first quarter of 2014, the average Internet connection speed of the Philippines was only listed at 2.1 Mbps. Compare that with South Korea’s blazing speed of 23.6 Mbps, Japan’s 14.6 Mbps, Hong Kong’s 13.3 Mbps and Singapore’s 8.4 Mbps, and one easily explain why they are also gunning past everyone else in the economic race.
A need for respectable levels of connectivity
Yes, speed matters. That is not only because we want to build a nation of more selfie addicts or to sustain our lead as the selfie capital of the world and other useless titles, but more to do with the greater need to support businesses and industries in the pursuit of creating more high value jobs for Filipinos.
Many of the foundational technologies that power businesses today – cloud computing, Big Data, analytics, machine-to-machine (M2M) technologies and applications, the Internet of Things (IoT) – are anchored on a very basic need: high-speed broadband. Companies, from micro-enterprises to small and medium businesses (SMBs) to large enterprises, all need respectable levels of connectivity to sustain productivity and innovation.
Experts have said it before and they will say it again, one of the fastest routes to job creation in a knowledge economy and a highly connected global world is investments in the IT infrastructure, not just physical infrastructure.
At a press briefing of the recently concluded National Science and Technology Week (NSTW), Undersecretary Luis Casambre, director of the ICT Office of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST-ICTO), said there are now approximately 900,000 Filipinos working in the IT-Business Process Management (IT-BPM) industry, which is now one of the largest economic sectors in the Philippines, which in 2013 earned revenues of approximately $15.5 billion.
Only 20 years ago these jobs do not exist. Even with our sputtering broadband speed staggering under the weight of millions of users also battling the high cost of connectivity, we have gone this far. If the government’s accomplishment is often measured by the number of jobs created and the number of households lifted out of poverty, then every administration must make the necessary investments for its people, its industries where it matters.
Going back to the WEF report, what has the government done to deserve a big leap in its NRI rank in the past year? Of the 10 pillars used to score country efforts, the Philippines did better in business and innovation environment, skills, economic impact, and business usage pillars. Globally, we were considered best in Internet and telephony competition and we fared well in use of virtual social networks (22nd), extent of staff training (27th), impact of ICTs on new organizational models (28th), quality management of schools (39th), quality of educational systems, venture capital availability, and firm-level technology absorption (40th).
Looking at the results from a general perspective, many of these feats were driven by the private sector. While the government is not necessarily absent from these endeavors, much can be improved in the political and regulatory environment pillar, where we didn’t score very well.
When global rankings such as this are released, it is always disappointing and perhaps futile to compare ourselves with the Asian tigers and what their governments are doing to sustain competitive advantage. But even in countries similar to ours, we can take some lessons. Only five years ago, Sri Lanka was a country ravaged by a very cruel civil war. More than just putting food on the table, it needs to rebuild schools, roads, educational and healthcare facilities and institutions decimated by military conflict. This year, it ranked 69th in the NRI, nine places higher than the Philippines.
Where it succeeded – in the political and regulatory and environment, affordability, and government usage pillars – perhaps we could strive to do better. First off, Sri Lanka was ranked best in fixed broadband tariffs. Other areas it did well include prepaid mobile cellular tariffs (4th), government procurement of advanced tech (16th), government success in ICT promotion (18th), importance of ICTs to government vision (19th), effectiveness of the lawmaking bodies (24th), ICT use and government efficiency (25th).
All told, it has been the government’s sole focus to make use of ICT in governance to put the country back on the map and out of the limbo they once were after the war ended.
Government transparency through technology innovations
Incidentally, the Philippine government is one of the eight founding members of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), an that envisions to make all governments more open and accountable to their citizens. No less than President Aquino represented the country in the formal launching ceremony in New York in July 2011.
Among the commitments made by the President include strengthening institutions through Open Government and a roadmap called the 2012 Philippine Government Action Plan, which calls for, among others, institutionalizing social audits for infrastructure projects and expanding electronic transparency for congressional allocations and lump sum funds.
Many of these commitments are in place today. Early this year, the government launched the national data portal (data.gov.ph) to give access to public sector information and introduce the culture of data-driven governance. At the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Asia-Pacific Regional Conference held in Bali last month, the Philippine team also highlighted other achievements, notably in achieving government transparency through technology innovations such as voluntary public disclosure of public finance documents, and encouraging citizen participation budgeting and government audits.
Recently, the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) announced that it will be using technology to automate the annual budget proposal submission process and reporting system. It also introduced a Cashless Card System for government purchases to solve unliquidated spending, and will be using ICT to strengthen public procurement processes through the modernization of Philippine Government Electronic Procurement Service (PhilGEPS).
Being part of a globally connected world
Perhaps it is too much to ask of the President to enumerate what the government is doing on the ICT front to improve public services and accountability. Maybe 91 minutes is not enough. At the end of the day, citizen Juan would like to know how well the government worked through the usual measures of public accomplishments, but at the heart of every investor, every start-up and every entrepreneur’s vision of growth is an underlying question of what kind of institutional support it can get from the government, things that aren’t always explained well in the SONA.
It is almost heartbreaking to watch a teary eyed President declare that running a government is like operating an emergency room, “the state gave everything within its power to save and stabilize the patient.”
As he sees fit to pose the question of succession and the continuity of his daang matuwid, maybe it is also time to be thinking of getting out of emergency mode and really sitting down to build for the long term, not just responding to the urgency of the need of the moment, but thinking like an investor, with eyes on the future and how we can become more a part of a globally connected world.