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Business

Digitalization dream

BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa - The Philippine Star

Decades ago, the Land Transportation Office (LTO) was possibly the worst government agency when dealing with Filipinos. Long lines, long waits, and delayed releases, not to mention corruption, were the standard of the day for those who needed to renew their licenses or register their vehicles.

Then, one day, the LTO Makati started using big boards to inform its public of a process flow. Numbered windows helped guide motorists on what to do to get a new license, and a sort of queuing system enabled transactions to be completed in an hour or two – considered a miracle at that time.

Clear glass windows enclosing the main document processing desks of the LTO Makati personnel allowed a vestige of transparency, and a number of desktop computers being used could be seen. At that time, the big desktop computers were something new for government offices.

For a long time, digitalization was a novel idea for the LTO to manage requests of the tens of thousands of daily motorists, as well as to oversee other areas of operations, such as franchising of public vehicle operations and vehicle smuggling or recovery if stolen.

Then Stradcom came along. By 1998, the Filipino information technology company had sold to LTO the idea of digitizing its records into a central database accessible by its many offices through the internet. Though it offered limited scope, the Stradcom system was one of the first lessons by government in digitalization.

(Stradcom’s contract with the LTO in issuing drivers’ licenses has since expired, although it now handles the LTO’s web-based Electronic Payment Assessment Tool or e-PAT that automatically computes fees to be paid by motorcycle and vehicle owners. The German technology company Dermalog now issues drivers’ licenses for LTO.)

Caught flat-footed

The digitalization dream in Philippine governance is finding renewed momentum on the third year of the pandemic with the issuance by the President of Executive Order 170, directing all government department and agencies to adopt digital payments for government disbursements.

The pandemic had caught the government flat-footed when it exposed the difficulties of delivering government services and providing policies under conditions when people were not allowed to leave their homes and when government offices had to operate on a reduced staffing and schedules.

Providing government financial assistance to 18 million families under a social amelioration program and 3.1 million workers eligible for the small business wage subsidy during the pandemic was a major challenge given the absence of a single registry or central database of Filipinos.

With over 70 percent of the country’s adult population without a bank account, disbursing pandemic aid to those who needed it most proved to be immensely difficult for the government.

EO 170 is expected to force the unbanked, especially those who need continued government help to register for a digitized ID or national ID under the Philippine Identification System (PhilSys) Act of 2018. If you have no national ID, chances are you won’t be eligible to receive a subsidy.

Before EO 170 was issued last week, registration for a national ID continued to be slow, and processing was even slower. It may be considered birthing pains as the unique data of over 110 million Filipinos will have to be meticulously collated and validated in a central registry.

As the country’s economic engine eases into a more normal pace, we should see a better pickup in the registration of national IDs. Likewise, we expect a faster processing. PhilSys must be implemented fully to enable government to truly become e-responsive.

For better governance

The extent of government’s digitalization also determines the quality of its services, such as an overall reduction in bureaucratic red tape, minimization of corruption and anomalies, uninterrupted services, and the development of better governance policies.

Even before the pandemic, initiatives had been introduced to link together more than 850 government agencies under one Philippine government network. However, infrastructure support that promises system reliability continued to be a hurdle.

Even today, the underserved and unserved Filipinos who live in far-flung areas still struggle to receive the services they badly need. The National Broadband Program has made some progress in providing the infrastructure network, but is still far off to be truly capable of covering the whole nation.

The role of local governments in subscribing to e-governance cannot be undermined, and those who do not receive enough internal resource allocations or collect significant amounts of local taxes are at a disadvantage. Something must be done to help them overcome their shortness of financial resources.

Cornerstone program

The digitalization dream is something that the outgoing President holds dear to his heart, and with full belief of all the good that it can deliver for the country. In his nearly six years of office, there have been numerous measures to ensure that the bureaucracy transforms into a more responsive government where services can be made accessible to Filipinos even from inside their homes.

The incoming president will have to put in the same passion that his predecessor nurtured for e-governance, and even while many of the stepping stones have already been laid out, perseverance will be key to push the whole of government forward in digitization.

In this year’s Digital Quality of Life Index, the Philippines landed in 67th place out of 110 countries ranked in electronic governance performance and did not show any incremental positive change in efforts to digitize services.

The new president faces multiple problems, many of them exacerbated during or related to the pandemic. It would be prudent of him to consider digitalization of government as a cornerstone to solving them.

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We are actively using two social networking websites to reach out more often and even interact with and engage our readers, friends and colleagues in the various areas of interest that I tackle in my column. Please like us on www.facebook.com/ReyGamboa and follow us on www.twitter.com/ReyGamboa.

Should you wish to share any insights, write me at Link Edge, 25th Floor, 139 Corporate Center, Valero Street, Salcedo Village, 1227 Makati City. Or e-mail me at [email protected]. For a compilation of previous articles, visit www.BizlinksPhilippines.net.

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