The Philippines celebrated “National ICT month” last June. But unlike in previous years, the government unveiled quite a number of ICT programs and services this time around.
The ICT Office (ICTO) under the Department of Science and Technology, which now handles the functions of the defunct Commission on ICT, first launched its flagship Integrated Government Philippines (iGovPhil) Project in June 2012.
ICTO’s executive director Louis C. Casambre said the project would integrate and provide “essential core services, and the necessary protocols and standards to make feasible secure yet open and efficient interoperability among all government ICT systems.” iGovPhil was also designed to solve the problems of poor synergies and cross-project collaborations, which the 8 billion peso ($186 million) eGovernment Fund for 2003-2011 failed to meet.
Last month, ICTO introduced supporting ICT apps and services, such as the Public Key Infrastructure (PKI), a government-wide email system (GovMail), the government cloud (GovCloud), Agency Records Inventory System (AgRIS), and the government website template.
The skeptic would simply dismiss these as a rehash of the same old ICT programs that would forever remain on the drawing board. But these initiatives and the progress thus far are actually impressive by PH government standard.
For one, the government is off to a good start in addressing major concerns of security, standardization, and data management, which the public sector in this country severely lacks.
The PKI, in particular, may be the key (pun intended) to finally bolstering the use of online government services, transactions and payments.
The new government email system was activated last month and training is already underway for the government website template.
Its TV White Space (TVWS) policy, which aims to tap un-allocated television frequency spectrum to provide data connectivity especially in unserved areas, suggests that the government is willing to explore cost-effective alternatives and work with the private sector for universal access.
Efforts are also being made to make the whole program transparent, albeit they are lacking in much-needed publicity.
Limitations notwithstanding, ICTO’s initiatives have the potential to finally make ICT use more relevant while giving a boost to the ICT sector. Filipino ICT experts and advocates think so, too.
Cocoy Dayao, a co-founder of Democracy.net.ph, applauds the steps taken by government in “unifying services and professionalizing the government's platform,” but is particularly thrilled at the prospect of finally having a secure online payment system. “The government [should] take the necessary steps in developing a rational, logical, comprehensive Cyberdefense plan, and [a] serious look at real cybercrime laws including... a robust underlying infrastructure not just for the government, but for all Filipinos,” Dayao offers.
Winthrop Yu of the Internet Society PH Chapter (ISOC-PH) said his organization, which has been actively engaging government in various ICT initiatives, is most interested in the government’s TV White Space policy because of its huge developmental potential.
“Shared spectrum could be very useful at the edges of the already built-up networks, for example, in remote rural areas,” Yu explains.
Pierre Tito Galla, another co-founder of Democracy.net.ph, shares the positive outlook but thinks there is still much to improve in the state of Philippine ICT. “Outdated laws, regulations, and policies, the relatively low internet connectivity penetration rate, last mile ICT infrastructure, service quality of ICT and internet connection service providers, the cybersecurity weaknesses especially of our critical infrastructure, and so on. For the government to pursue even these smallest of initiatives provides hope that there soon will be plans and programs to develop ICT even up to the rural Philippine last mile.”
The pace and ease at which the ICTO is working are good indications that they are getting support from top leadership, the industry, and the grassroots.
It also shows that there are technically competent people in government who understand the demands and rigors of transitioning to eGovernment and implementing ICT projects.
But with the government now raring to jumpstart eGovenrment and exploit all the possible benefits of technology, one wonders how far they would go.
How do decision makers view the internet and how do they make sense of the opportunities and challenges that technology brings.
Yu, for example, cautions against the tendency “to over-regulate the internet, which has grown and is continuously evolving in an open and cooperative (rather than coercive and regulatory) manner over the past two decades.” This is particularly true when government subscribes to a myopic view, such as that ICT or the internet is a mere subset of telecommunications.
This is not an unfounded concern. And especially not when dealing with PH government.
In Congress recently, two senators—a veteran and a neophyte—filed two ideologically opposing bills on the internet. The former filed a bill pushing for a magna carta on internet freedom while the latter a bill with provisions that censor it.
Hopefully, no law would put this good (re)start to a halt and send the Philippines back to the dark ages, where the internet is feared, people don’t engage online, and the government does everything manually.