Information and communications technology (ICT) is not just about business process outsourcing (BPO), although the latter is one of the key drivers for job generation in the country today. In very simple terms, ICT is a very potent resource of the new age that can help make our local and national governance efficient and responsive, and our educational system competitive and relevant. It will provide fair and equitable chance for all regions in the Philippines to improve their local economy, speed up their processes, as well as increase their chances to provide better quality of life for their constituents.
ICT is too technical; it is hard to argue that it is as important as health or agriculture. Unless the Philippines is a country where much of its agricultural productivity and food security or health services, and industrial competitiveness rely heavily on ICT.
Unfortunately, the countryside is not aware of the opportunities that come with ICT development in their regions. Many of the stakeholders especially in the rural areas cannot relate to the phenomenal growth of the BPO industry in the urban areas. What they are not acquainted of is that ICT spans not only BPO’s but practically all important sectors such as governance, education, social services, agriculture, tourism and many more.
A dead-end for ICT advocates
For the last several years, I and a handful of advocates banded and created ICT councils and organizations, representing academe, local government and industry in their provinces and cities. These groups of ours championed ICT development in the countryside.
In the forefront of our advocacies is contributing to policy development, particularly lobbying for the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) to ensure that knowledge and resources trickle down to every part of the country. In the Philippines, however, the private sector has never been able to successfully lobby anything unless the policies being pushed are politically appealing and useful, non-detrimental to the political careers of our politicians. From time to time, however, laws get to be passed by the powerful push of elected champions inside the system.
In an ideal world, departments such as the departments of labor, health, education, agriculture and many others were created to provide both local and national structures to streamline and cascade programs down to the regional, provincial, city and municipal levels. Yet even with this bureaucracy, there is no guarantee that regions, provinces, cities and municipalities, usually outside of Metro Manila equitably get what is due to them. How much more worse without these departments.
Based on the data available online, the move to create a Philippine DICT has started sometime in the late nineties, when countries in Asia have began to develop their economies anchored on the Information Age.
Today, there is long list of countries which had established their respective ministries or departments for ICT. In Asia, more particularly, this includes Malaysia (1990), Singapore (1990), South Korea (1990), Indonesia (1991), India (2000), Viet Nam (2000), Thailand (2002), Brunei Darussalam (2003), Saudi Arabia (2003) and China (2008). The Philippines, has never, however, entered the league despite the fact that some of our lawmakers proposed the policy more than two decades ago.
Instead, what happened was a series of temporary bodies created by Philippine presidents by way of an executive order.
From NICT to ITECC; CICT to ICTO
On July 19, 1994, former president Fidel Ramos issued EO No. 190 approving and adopting the National Information Technology Plan 2000 and establishing the National Information Technology Council (NITC) on July 19, 1994.
On July 12, 2000, former president Joseph Ejercito Estrada issued EO No. 264 establishing the Information Technology and Electronic Commerce Council (ITECC) from the merger of the National Information Technology Council (NITC) and the Electronic Commerce Promotion Council (ECPC) on July 12, 2000.
On July 20, 2004, former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo issued EO No. 334 abolishing the Information Technology and Electronic Commerce Council and transferring its budget, assets, personnel, programs and projects to the Commission on Information and Communications Technology (CICT).
The CICT was established through Executive Order (EO) No. 269 signed by Arroyo in January 2004, as a provisional measure while Congress has yet to pass a law creating a DICT.
Quoting Senator Edgardo Angara, in one of his public statements: “ It was not to be a mere advisory entity, but active in harmonizing the government’s ICT-related initiatives and ensuring that our ICT infrastructure is globally competitive and attractive to investment. In the absence of a full-fledged department, the CICT served as the primary policy, planning, coordinating, implementing, regulating, and administrative body on strategic ICT development. It followed an uncertain path from the very start.
Amidst stakeholders’ clamor, and despite the good performance of CICT, president Benigno Simeon Aquino III, on June 23, 2011 signed EO No. 47 reorganizing, renaming and transferring the Commission on Information and Communications Technology and its attached agencies to the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) as an ICT Office (ICTO).
Ever since the concept of creating a separate department for ICT surfaced, the dynamics among the existing departments of government have stalled productive discussions. Cabinet members heading various departments in government have always appeared to be threatened about the new department. While we, stakeholders believed the DICT will make more efficient the ICT development of the country to complement the mandate of all the mentioned departments, political appointees felt the DICT is a “turf war” issue. This mindset of refusing to accept collaboration as a major key of development has already hurt our country.
But the “turf war” on the DICT extends to the legislative realm as well. For many congresses already, the DICT bills in both houses have not seen smooth sailing. Senators, who are not even able to explain officially and convincingly why they are against the DICT bills have managed to stall the passage of the DICT bill, especially during the time when former president Arroyo has openly manifested support to it, knowing that the CICT she created has been effective especially in spurring new growth centers in the Philippine Cyber-Region. Sans politics, I feel the former president knew the stakeholders needed stable policies to support ICT development. Sadly, her term ended and the 2010 elections came with only the House of Representatives approving their own version.
I have witnessed how the CICT did a good job of assisting in creating local ICT plans and helping establish ICT councils. Eventually in 2008, it even assisted the creation of NICP. But the CICT was a small body directly reporting to the Office of the President. It did not have any regional offices aside from regional personnel under the Telecommunications Office (Telof), numbering to almost 4,000 nationwide. Without a DICT, these personnel are under-utilized. Without a DICT, equitable distribution of ICT programs to countryside is still wanting. Local stakeholders had to maximize the commitment of representatives of national agencies such as the DOST, Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC), Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), and Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) can offer through their provincial counterparts.
2010 was perceived to be a reinvigorating year for the ICT sector as it brought forth a president who bannered “pagbabago” as his campaign slogan. ICT stakeholders felt the “turf war”, “partisanship” or the “too centralized system” were things of the past under the Aquino regime. But the demotion and technically, abolition of CICT in 2011 showed that nothing is about to change. The dynamics is still the same — from Ramos’ NITC, to Estrada’s ITECC, to Arroyo’s CICT and now to Aquino’s ICTO. The ICT stakeholders are now guessing what temporary body the new president in 2016 will create.
For more than two decades now, national leadership, wittingly or unwittingly, has not seen the value of stability and importance of sustainability in the ICT sector, much more, benchmark with global ICT developments of advanced countries, nor had they developed foresight and sincerely stopped to think of the country’s future outside of their respective political tenures.
Cost-cutting, as the major argument for abolishing the CICT, should not mean cutting off the opportunities of all the regions to develop economically by maximizing ICT as a tool for growth. Cost-cutting should also not mean sacrificing the potential of the Philippines to become a major and sustainable global player in the ICT sector today.
In the midst of constant reorganizations, the CICT, which was directly under the Office of the President, was composed of the National Computer Center (NCC), Telecommunications Office (TELOF), Philippine Postal Corp. (PhilPost), National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) and all other operating units of the Department of Transportation and Communications (DoTC) dealing with communications, when it was abolished in 2011.
EO 47 transferred NCC and the TELOF to DOST as part of the internal structure of the ICTO while the NTC and the PhilPost continue to be under the Office of the President.
New leaders, no change
Since its creation in 1979 under the Ministry of Transportation and Communication, it has been transferred from one agency to another, thereby resulting to the perception of an unstable telecommunications policy environment for the country. In 1987, former President Corazon Aquino issued Executive Order 125-A making the NTC an attached agency of the DOTC. In 2004, Arroyo under EO 269 creating the CICT, transferred the NTC from DOTC to CICT. A year after, Arroyo issued EO 454 transferring the NTC back to the DOTC. Three years later, Arroyo issued EO 648 transferring the NTC back to the CICT. In 2011, as stated the NTC is now directly under the Office of the President.
The ICTO-DOST structure is very much centralized in Manila just like CICT. We have yet to see the rationalization plan of ICTO and check whether the positions created will be equitable to all regions or will still have more than half of its positions in the ICTO Central Office under DOST, whether there will be more positions allocated to regional and provincial field offices, rather than the central office. More importantly, we need to know whether there is an ICTO Regional Offices like other national agencies, which has regional offices. The manpower of ICTO-NCC-TELOF is believed to be more than 4,500, who are proposed to be fully utilized under the DICT. If they are not utilized under ICTO, then thousands will remain jobless, and worse of all, the regions will still not have regional offices dealing with ICT development and everything will be centralized in Metro Manila.
Unfortunately or fortunately, a little ray of sunlight was seen by stakeholders who advocated for the DICT bill for more than a decade ago. This was when the House of Representatives and the Senate overwhelmingly and in record time, recently approved House Bill No. 4667 and Senate Bill No. 50, respectively, both calling for the creation of the DICT.
In March of this year, Angara, principal author of the DICT bill in the Senate, officially wrote the House of Representatives to request for a bicameral conference to consolidate the two bills for approval of President Aquino. Procedurally, the said communications is referred to the Committee on Rules chaired by Neptali Gonzales II. To date, insofar as I know, no movement has been made by the said committee.
It is sad to see that despite the change of leaders, there is really no real change in their concept and brand of leadership. Hence, instead of aspiring for sustainability and stability beyond the presidential terms, we experience programs that are simply a rehash of old programs, projects that are fleeting in nature and has no built-in mechanisms to withstand the onus of a new presidential regime.
Needless to say, the lack of respect for institutions and processes in the Philippines stems not only from the weakness of these institutions and processes but likewise from the concept that anyone in power can always change what has been established. This results to instability, unfairness and a slow pace of growth for most sectors in the country, including the over-all economic condition of the entire country itself. Our politicians’ personal decisions are followed instead of the real sentiments of the stakeholders. This speaks of the kind of governance in the Philippines, especially in the national level — contrary to the eight major characteristics of good governance as defined by UNESCO, which is participatory, consensus oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive and follows the rule of law.
Having a central ICT body allows for government to focus on the development of the telecommunications sector despite the changes in the political landscape every three or six years. Regardless of who is in power, the country will have the chance to plan for the next 20 or 30 years on how to be part of the global market. With a DICT, no President can ignore the ICT sector because it becomes part and parcel of the everyday affairs of government, very much like education, health, justice, and the environment.
Instead of cutting cost, without a DICT, no focused agency will create and monitor standards of ICT-related projects and hence result to wasteful use of public budget due to lack of coordination and inter-operability. Without a DICT, large investments will naturally be siphoned only in in Metro Manila. Once a dedicated ICT body is created, regional offices will be set up to cascade ICT programs and projects, thereby spreading opportunities for development throughout the countryside. With a DICT, ICT programs will be more or less uniform and equitably implemented throughout the nation.
Without a DICT, planners and bureaucrats based in Manila are not mandated to consult with regional stakeholders in setting up standards and deciding how and where government funds earmarked for ICT must be used. With a DICT, the regional offices will be in a better position to tap local stakeholders on how to best spend government’s resources, on how to jumpstart human resource development throughout the countryside, and on how to create investor ecosystems for technopreneurs outside of the country’s major cities. We can help cultivate more ICT-related industries, from contact centers to other global services such as in software development, animation, health IT and other high-value industries.
The costs of not having a DICT may not be apparent to some. But clearly the status quo has to be changed if the country is to achieve breakthrough growth and transition into an ICT-driven economy. If we wish to predict our country’s future prosperity, then all the more should we establish a DICT today.
Good governance is not just about minimizing or eradicating corruption, it is about taking into account the long-term impact of programs launched today, making sure that the voices of stakeholders in society are heard in the process of decision-making. It is about respecting processes and institutions. It is about leaving a legacy to the Filipino people.
But the Filipino people are conditioned to possess shorter memories, so that politicians design programs that are short and fleeting. The Department for Information and Communications Technology (DICT) is a program with far-reaching and long-term effects – although it is not as palatable as dole-outs and scholarships, not as controversial as the Scarborough Shoal or the RH bill. It is an inclusive program that places the Philippines on the road towards a long journey to developing a knowledge-based economy – that will position our country better in the global arena, considering the intrinsic quality of human resource that we have – a new page for the country, a better chance for the countryside.
On June 30, 2013 or in less than a year from now, when the 15th Congress of the Philippines ends, the two approved bills in Congress will die a natural death. Unquestioned, in fact, and of unknown value especially to the countryside, whose chances is significantly controlled by a central government that practically dictates the policies that affect the future of the Philippines.
Atty. Jocelle Batapa-Sigue is a former Bacolod City councilor and an ICT advocate.