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Grace Mirandilla-Santos

A Department of ICT for the Philippines, finally

The Philippines now has a Department of Information and Communications Technology. It actually came as a surprise to many when President Aquino signed Republic Act 10844 creating the Department on May 23, over a month after his term ended.

A separate ICT department never had the support of the President. In numerous occasions, President Aquino reiterated that he saw no need for such, and that his administration would not support any move to create an added layer of bureaucracy.

For a conservative, predominantly Catholic country, the Philippines signed a Reproductive Health law much sooner than it created a Department of ICT. Filipinos are known for being tech-savvy, active on social media, a fast-growing smartphone-using population, and a force to recon with in the global BPO-IT industry.

And yet, it was only in the last quarter of 2015 when Congress finally passed a bill creating an Department of ICT. The proposed law, supported by various business associations and ICT advocacy groups, was transmitted to the Office of the President only last month.

The long history of the ICT department can be traced back to 2000 when former President Estrada created the Information and E-Commerce Council (ITECC). At the time, ITECC was a small office that “loaned” its personnel from the Presidential Management Staff. ITECC was strengthened by former President Arroyo by turning it into a Commission on ICT in 2004, with the caveat that it will be the precursor to a department.

In 2011, however, President Aquino reorganized the Commission and placed it as an ICT Office under the Department of Science and Technology. That move did not necessarily make the ICTO. In fact, many e-government and infrastructure projects were initiated and progressed under the ICTO. But it did send a signal that the President was not keen on supporting a line agency to handle the ICT sector, similar to energy and transportation.

Fast forward to May 2016, a bill to create a Department of ICT was finally ratified by Congress and transmitted to Malacañang. Many had thought that the President would just allow the bill to lapse into law. Apart from his official stance, it was also well known in the ICT community that some of his trusted advisers did not want a department.

Although President Aquino signed the law, it will be the incoming president, Rodrigo Duterte, who will appoint the department’s first set of officials. Duterte, known for his no-nonsense approach in fighting crime and corruption, recently warned the local telcos to “shape up or face foreign competition.”

If this were any indication that the president-elect was a strategist, then it can be expected that his choice for the DICT would be one would address this perennial slow and expensive internet problem.

The first ICT secretary, hopefully, would be someone who not only lives and breathes technology and innovation, but is also politically astute and can make his or her way through the murky waters of government. Given that ICT cuts across sectors, just imagine the negotiations and concessions that need to be done within the government alone in pushing for ICT-based reforms that would affect the status quo.

In the private sector, the ICT secretary needs to be respected and must have the confidence of the business groups, not only by the BPO-IT industry but by the micro-small and medium enterprises which comprise over 99% of all registered business in the Philippines.

Finally, the ICT secretary must have a deep appreciation (and preferably, the experience) in using technology for inclusive development in order to lead government efforts in uplifting the lives of the poor using innovative digital solutions.