Failure of government leadership
FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo (The Philippine Star) - February 8, 2019 - 12:00am

I refer to the Executive and Legislative Branch. The business community is deeply concerned that there does not seem to be a sense of urgency in preparing the country for the digital economy.  In contrast, our ASEAN neighbors are proceeding apace in building the core requirements of a digital economy – affordable and reliable connectivity, an ICT-savvy population, and a nimble regulatory ecosystem that encourages innovation and entrepreneurship.

Better late than never?

Survey after survey show the Philippines lags behind our ASEAN neighbors in digital readiness. A survey commissioned by the World Economic Forum ranks the Philippines 51st among 60 countries using a digital development index based on three equally weighted dimensions: 1) Enablement (mobile internet, fixed internet, overall bandwidth). 2) Expenditure (online retail, mobile retail, online ads). 3) Engagement – broken down by: business (business internet use, ICT impact); consumer (internet use, online media and social activity); and government (e-Government, e-Education).

We are behind Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam. We are ahead of Myanmar in the overall index, but they are ahead of us in terms of internet speed. It won’t be long before they capitalize on this asset to overtake us.

I have a reason to be frustrated having been involved in the evolution of this digital transformation for over four decades. For 25 years, I was in the information technology business. Interestingly, I was selling the concept of real estate tax collection through the use of computers in 1967. Manila Mayor Antonio Villegas was the first to install a computer at that time. Ironically, it never took off. Fifty years later, I am happy to hear that Makati City was recently awarded best in eGov Finance Empowerment category in the 1st Digital Cities award organized by DICT for opening 31 barangay centers for online real property tax payment. Hopefully, now that Mayor Abby Binay has successfully launched such an initiative, this will take hold and more cities will be digital savvy. Mayor Sarah Duterte is also leading the effort to make Davao City a model for an e-enabled city. Better late than never.

Since joining the Ramos government in 1992, I have been an advocate of the need to utilize ICT for pushing our economy forward. For many government agencies, that meant computerizing for word processing and file management, but very limited online interaction with the public.

In May of 1999, I was appointed chairman of the e-ASEAN Task Force with the mandate to develop the e-ASEAN Framework Agreement. The agreement, which was signed a year and a half later, “commits ASEAN members to an implementation schedule to achieve digital readiness for the region in order to develop the basis for ASEAN’s competitiveness into the future, better the lives of their citizens through the application of information and communication technologies and foster the spirit of ASEAN community.”

In 2000, I was also elected chairman of the Digital Bridge Task Force by my peers at the Global Business Dialogue on e-Commerce (GBDe), an organization whose membership included 72 of the world’s leading companies involved in ICT and e-Commerce. The task force recommended an aggressive agenda to bridge the digital divide and spearheaded GBDe’s participation in the Digital Opportunities Task Force (DOT Force) created by the G-8 during its summit in Okinawa in 2000.

I mention these to point out the fact that the prescription for digital readiness at the national level was already out there almost 20 years ago. The Arroyo presidency responded, albeit four years later, when she created the Commission of Information and Communications Technology (CICT) in 2004 as a transition period for the creation of DICT. It took 12 more years (2016) until the end of the Aquino administration for the DICT to finally come into existence.  Today, two years into the Duterte presidency, a permanent DICT secretary still has to be appointed. The National Broadband Plan was launched in 2017 to address the digital infrastructure constraints. But the DICT, which is in charge of implementing it, seems totally consumed by the selection of a 3rd Telco provider. Meanwhile, the other elements of the NBP including those that address obstacles to further investments in infrastructure remain on the back burner. For example, issues like the expense and time for cell tower construction. And where they have reached a point where these proposed solutions become legislation, it has been a painstaking process. The Open Access bill is pending Senate approval. I am not conversant with the pros and cons of the bill, but it is another example of the legislature’s glacial speed when dealing with the digital economy.

Why committed leadership is a necessity

Here is where I think we are missing the point. There is a danger that we have become enamored with technology, like the latest smartphone, for its own sake rather than as enabling tools for achieving a wider economic and social development agenda. For example, without reliable connectivity and enabling regulations, that smartphone’s potential beyond social media but as a financial and marketing tool for a microenterprise will not be realized. In other words, digital technology should be appreciated for the transformative impact it has on how we are governed (including the delivery of public services), conduct business, and carry on with our daily lives.  Absent this perspective, digital technology adoption is not going to be sustainable and should be given the political priority that it deserves.

In looking at the successful digital transformation achieved in various countries, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) found the common thread is government leadership “inspiring from the top, governing through the center, and engaging on the ground.” In these cases, they concluded that “Leaders begin by defining a unified vision for the transformation and establishing a set of broad goals and specific outcomes to drive continuous alignment with broader national priorities. Then they engage with digital stakeholders in the public and private sectors to detail the steps involved in executing the transformation on the ground, and they explore and test innovative concepts with topic and industry experts. At a minimum, a government needs to select a centralized unit to coordinate its transformation efforts.” To be truly transformative, it will require the participation and active support of all stakeholders. In other words, government must work hand in glove with the business sector and the community – a whole of society approach.

This is the path that Malaysia’s Mahathir and India’s Modi have taken. Why, even oil rich Brunei is thinking ahead with Sultan Bolkiah saying that innovation and digital economy will spur future growth. As they and our other ASEAN neighbors are showing, political will and policies defined by clarity of vision and underpinned by specific measurable objectives that are driven from the top are the most crucial determinants of a country’s digital transformation journey. We do not have the luxury of time. I appeal to the Executive Branch and members of Congress to take the bull by the horns and take leadership of this transformation.

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