A digital Manila, soon…

THE CORNER ORACLE - Andrew J. Masigan - The Philippine Star

Since its heyday many decades ago, the city of Manila has spiraled into blight, squalor, chaos and disorder. It is spoken of worldwide as a failure in public administration. As the nation’s capital, Manila represents our culture, achievements and aspirations as a people. This is why every Filipino has a stake in its wellbeing.

Last week, the country received the welcome news that Manila (and Butuan City) were named among the 50 finalists in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ 2021 Global Mayor’s Challenge.

Bloomberg Philanthropies is a global advocate for humanitarianism. It launched a competition last year to determine which global city has the most innovative plan to positively impact its citizens in four aspects: economic recovery & inclusive growth, health & wellbeing, climate & environment and good governance. 630 cities from 99 countries submitted proposals from which 50 countries were chosen as finalists. The cities of Manila and Butuan were among them.

Manila (and Butuan) advances to the championship phase of the competition. This means that by October, they will have to resubmit their refined development plans for another round of evaluation. Fifteen of the 50 cities will win $1 million to implement their plans. The city with the most compelling plan will be proclaimed the winner in 2022.

In 2019, Mayor Isko Moreno Domagoso inherited a broken city – decrepit and almost unlivable. Its infrastructure and basic services were painfully inefficient, administrative processes were still done manually and corruption was rife in all levels of the bureaucracy. 200,000 businesses moved out of Manila for better managed cities. Unemployment and poverty rates were at an all-time high, as were criminality and environmental offenses. Former mayor Erap Estrada mismanaged the city to its breaking point and Mayor Isko had to pick up the pieces.

There was a lot to do. The economy needed to be revived and the city’s financial deficits had to be re-balanced. Mass housing, health care and social services needed to be reinforced. Infrastructure needed modernization and investments in urban renewal had to be made. Investors need to be wooed to generate much-needed jobs. On top of this, corruption needed to be controlled.

The challenges were daunting, even for the best of mayors. But as we have all witnessed, Mayor Isko met the challenges head on, and forged ahead with the city’s holistic rejuvenation.

From day one, Mayor Isko was determined to transform Manila into a livable, efficient, green city, teeming with business opportunities and zero incidences of poverty. To achieve this, sweeping and successive reforms needed to be made to address the city’s problems.

Having trained in Harvard and Oxford University, Mayor Isko knew that intelligent reforms could only be formulated if they were based on timely and reliable data. And here lay the problem. Manila’s database was antiquated. Its last housing survey was done in 1993 while its last social, economic and environmental audit was done in 2006. This explains why, under Erap and past mayors, governance was palliative, piecemeal and bereft of a long-term view.

Dead set on implementing data-driven reforms, Mayor Isko launched a program called “Go Manila.” In a nutshell, Go Manila is the city’s digital data backbone. It uses the latest technologies to collect, curate and analyze data relating to Manila’s population, the housing situation, economic statistics, environmental compliance, health care, disaster readiness, etc. Also included in the Go Manila program is the digitization of the daily functions of City Hall, including the issuance of business permits, tax assessments and collection. In education, the program calls for the upskilling of Manila’s indigent youth towards digital literacy. This will allow Manila’s emerging generation to leapfrog into the digital century.

When Go Manila is fully implemented in 2023, statistics relating to Manila’s operations would not only be up to date, it will also be updated automatically in real time. This will allow the city’s leaders to formulate policies in an intelligent manner whilst allowing timely and relevant decision making. It will lead to the better use of funds, more efficient operation, better social services and less red tape. More importantly, it will cut corruption since face-to-face transactions will be eliminated.

Go Manila promises to turn the nation’s capital into the country’s first digital metropolis. In effect, it will transform the city’s management from its core. Its benefits will transcend future generations of leaders, way after Mayor Isko. The beauty of it all is that Go Manila’s template can be replicated by other cities across the country.

What is the status of Go Manila today?

Admittedly, Go Manila’s implementation was interrupted by the pandemic. However, the program is coming back to full swing with many parts of it already implemented. Among them is the digital upskilling of indigents. Last year, 136,000 disadvantaged youth were trained on how to use computers and are now being schooled over the internet using their own devices provided by the city. 11,000 teachers were upskilled and provided with computers too. Online city services (for permits and taxes) are already on beta-run, with some 200,000 financial transactions completed. Time spent in conducting business with City Hall has been slashed from 2.5 hours in 2019 to just 30 minutes today.

We salute the City of Manila for its transformative program and for making it to the top 50 of Bloomberg’s Mayoral Challenge. Bloomberg’s affirmation shows that even the most mismanaged economies can be quickly reversed if competent, intelligent leadership is applied.

No one can deny that Mayor Isko has accomplished more than we expected in just two years. This is because he manages Manila like a professional CEO of a private enterprise, not like a traditional politician. He is purpose-driven, strategic, data-driven, cost-conscious and long-term oriented. More importantly, he does not let politics get in his way.

After decades of having traditional politicians as mayors, the City of Manila finally has a professional manager at the helm. Mayor Isko came in the nick of time to save the city from irreversible decay. Now it is on its way to becoming the well-managed global city it has always been destined to be.

For its progressive and timely plan, the Bloomberg board deemed Manila’s plan deserving of a spot in the top 50 of its Mayor’s Challenge. Mayor Isko has given Manila (and the entire country) reason to be hopeful, especially now that everything is looking bleak across the land.

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Email: andrew_rs6@yahoo.com. Follow him on Facebook @Andrew J. Masigan

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