Digital technology is key to recovery

FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo (The Philippine Star) - June 26, 2020 - 12:00am

The webinar organized by the Carlos P. Romulo Foundation and the Makati Business Club last June 23 on the topic “Digital Readiness for the New Normal” provided some insights on the government’s economic recovery plan from the coronavirus disease 2019 or COVID-19 pandemic in which digital connectivity will play a major role. Acting NEDA Secretary Karl Chua made the presentation on behalf of the government and gave a measure of the enormous challenge in reviving an economy which entered the year among the best performing in the world, but is now being battered by the pandemic, with the end not yet in sight.

I will not go through the recovery plan in detail. In sum, it consists of three phases with the first aimed at addressing the immediate impact of the pandemic on livelihood and on businesses, the second phase on recovery, and the third on building resilience to future shocks. All of these entail enormous sums of money to carry out and will put a severe strain on government resources.

A key component of the recovery and resilience plan will be the deployment of digital technologies as more and more aspects of our lives go online. I am heartened to hear the role that the digital economy has been given in our economic planning moving forward. To get us to the stage of readiness where we begin to reap the full benefits of digital connectivity will require robust communications infrastructure, tech-savvy workforce and entrepreneurs, and enabling regulatory environment. It seems that the government’s digital readiness plan has all these three bases covered. I appreciated his advocating for increasing the available spectrum for internet connectivity to empower more people to use online transactions and how he said they would encourage the implementation of the Ease Of Doing Business Law and reforms on amendments to the Public Service Act, Foreign Investment Act and the passage of the Open Access in Data Transmission Act.

Execution is challenge

As is the case, the devil is in the details, or more precisely, execution. While these plans are ideal, I was also hoping to hear more about how he intended to address many of the pervasive problems that have been around for some time and have slowed down our digital transformation. For example, it would have been interesting to hear how the NEDA intended to work with other agencies and local government units to ensure cooperation and lessen red tape to fast-track steps to create more digital infrastructure. Erecting cell towers, the need for which will grow exponentially as we move into new technology such as 5G, has proven to be the bogeyman.

Telcos and government support

Furthermore, there also has to be a realization that relying on private telecommunications firms to connect the entire country in the short time we need it connected is not realistic. Private telcos should be tapped to develop infrastructure in economically viable areas; however, government must also be willing to invest its own funds in digital infrastructure in underserved and unserved areas to ensure all Filipinos are included in the digital transformation.

Multi-stakeholder commission

Lastly, there is also the challenge of preparing the youth and the workforce towards digital transformation in terms of skills training, job creation and digital careers, as Senator Angara, one of the reactors, mentioned. Of course, this is not all NEDA’s responsibility. However, as the nation’s economic planners, it would be nice if they could work with other agencies and units in government to ensure their economic recovery plan reaches the marginalized and low-income Filipinos. I did not raise this idea at the webinar, but I had been advocating, ad nauseum, the creation of a multi-stakeholder commission involving the relevant government agencies and the private sector working hand-in-glove to develop a digital economy masterplan and overseeing its implementation. Our ASEAN neighbors have formed similar organizations such as Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore. The commission would report to the NEDA Board which is chaired by the President and backstopped by NEDA.

National ID

Key to attaining the attributes of a digital economy is the creation of the National ID because only then can digital technology permeate every aspect of our existence: governance, education, labor, health, commerce and industry, agriculture among others. Indonesia completed theirs in 2011-2012 registering over 100 million people in one year. In contrast, RA 11055 was signed by President Duterte establishing the Philippine Identification System in August 2018. On May 23, 2016, RA 10844 was signed by former president Benigno Aquino III creating the Department of Information and Communications Technology. In sum, it seems as if creating DICT first was placing the cart before the horse.

Private sector support

Secretary Chua will be spearheading the implementation of the National ID system or PhilSys. I am confident it is in good hands. Nonetheless, he has enormous challenges ahead of him to meet the objective of issuing IDs for all Filipinos, about 100 million — before the end of President Duterte’s term. His immediate target is to register five  million heads of households who will be beneficiaries of the government’s social amelioration program by the end of the year. The project consists of five components with four already awarded and the last one – system integration – hopefully contracted out by August.

The registration has been complicated by the COVID-19 and the need for social distancing.  Registration will require gathering of biometric data – fingerprint, iris, or facial scan – and they are still figuring out how to do this, especially with the idea of 1,000 registrations per day per registration center. I suggested to the secretary that he consider enlisting the private sector in the registration process. For example, by outsourcing them or equipping companies to register their employees or utilizing banks or convenience stores. He said he has been thinking about it and will conceptualize how that can be done.

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