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Grace Mirandilla-Santos

Philippines Department of ICT makes sense

In this age of cloud computing, BPO and e-“everything,” having a separate Department of ICT (DICT) should make sense. But, in the Philippines, where proposed legislation to create one has been dragging for nearly a decade, this logic is still being challenged.

Last December optimism began to build when the Lower House approved the bill creating the DICT just seven months after its filing. In September the Upper House also introduced its version, which was unanimously passed after five months. A conference to reconcile the two versions was scheduled on March 14, but postponed the last minute “at the request of the House.” With Congress busy with the impeachment trial of the Chief Justice, some say the DICT discussion might have to be rescheduled when session resumes May 7.

This scenario is all too familiar: A DICT bill is introduced in Congress by “ICT champions,” gains momentum, and gets strong backing from government, business and civil society, only to lose steam in the end.

When Gloria Arroyo became president for a second term in 2004, she created the Commission on ICT (CICT), elevating it from a mere council to a “transition measure” to a DICT. Before stepping down, Arroyo certified a DICT bill as urgent. The bill died with the closing of the 14th Congress in May 2010.

President Benigno Aquino III concluded his first year in office by abolishing the CICT and downgrading it to an ICT Office (ICTO) under the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), during National ICT month at that. Whether this was his administration’s way of “distancing itself from the ancien regime” is anybody’s guess. As expected, ICT stakeholders were shocked and worried about the perils of such a downgrade. Hope was pinned on the 15th Congress’ new DICT proposal.

Why does a DICT make sense? The answers are simple.

Everybody’s doing it. ITU’s members list shows that almost all East Asian countries have a ministry-level ICT body. India, the Philippines’ toughest BPO competition, has had a Ministry of Communications and IT for years. Even Bhutan, a small country of 800,000 people, has its own ministry. Why not the Philippines?

The time is ripe. Telecom and ICT are the most dynamic sectors in the Philippines. Mobile phone subscription outnumbers the country’s population. BPO is a booming industry, earning billions of dollars annually. A highly literate and English-speaking population, supported by reliable ICT services nationwide, can create limitless opportunities.

The economy can support it. Countries with less per capita income, like Pakistan and Viet Nam, have a dedicated ICT ministry. Such is absent in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Timor-Leste, countries whose per capita incomes are at least two times lower than that of the Philippines.

What difference would a DICT make? For one, the bills clearly define the “ICT sector” under DICT’s jurisdiction, including telecom operators and internet service providers. The Executive Orders that created the CICT and ICTO did not have this definition. Their existence are also easily challenged and changed.

A DICT will allow for a focused steering of telecoms and ICT sector development in the country instead of the current piecemeal tasks scattered across several offices. The BPO sector, which relies heavily on ICT services, will be one of the main beneficiaries of that scenario.

An executive department will have more stability and leverage in terms of budget and technical resources. The former CICT had lost and regained its attached agencies, on presidential whim. The current ICTO has a measly budget of 1.2 billion pesos ($27.9 million), most of which goes to financing the Telecommunications Office (TelOf) alone. A DICT will abolish and transfer the ICTO, TelOf, and National Computer Center under one agency with the autonomy to put funds, personnel, and assets into more meaningful, targeted use. The Philippine Postal Corporation and the much coveted telecom regulator, National Telecommunication Commission, will be attached to DICT for policy and program coordination.

So, if a DICT makes sense, can benefit ICT development, and make governance more effective and efficient, why has it not happened yet? The answers may not be that simple after all.