Some of my friends disagreed with my last column. Not on leadership, no argument there, but on creating a Department of ICT (Information Communications Technology). And not, I’m glad to say, for the non sequitur reason that there are already too many departments. There are, but that isn’t, or shouldn’t be, the issue. If there are too many, is a DICT the least necessary? As I argued in my last column, decidedly NO. There are departments of far less use that can go.
Their argument is that government involvement creates problems instead of solving them—all governments, I hasten to add, not just this one. Well, I certainly can’t disagree with that, as shown by the way the Department of Environment and Natural Resources has sounded the death knell for mining in this administration (a column on that soon). But the solution isn’t to do without a department, but to ensure that it operates properly. And the first thing to put in the law is that the secretary and undersecretaries must all be IT experts.
A properly run DICT I consider essential. The industry needs standards to adhere to. It needs someone independent to set those standards. Left on its own, industry will do what’s best for profit. Industry players need to work together, albeit in fair, open competition. They won’t if they aren’t forced to. They’ll muscle the other players out if they can.
We take it for granted that all electrical equipment uses the same 220-volt plug. Imagine if they didn’t. As it is, the standard differs from country to country, with Singapore having perhaps the most ungainly overdesigned plug I’ve ever tried to use. But it highlights a point: If there’d been the globalization then that we have now, we’d have the same plugs worldwide, as we do for 12-volt plugs into cars. We’d even have the same voltage and frequency. A universal, sensible standard. Well, IT needs, and will increasingly need, common standards.
I venture to suggest we have not even begun to understand the revolution that is occurring. Just look at where we are now versus a short 10 years ago. Then, we were using chunky desktop computers with cathode ray tube monitors two feet thick. Smartphones didn’t exist 12 years ago; they’re in their third or fourth generation now. Technology is speeding into our lives at an increasingly fast rate. It needs national guidance (I’d say “control,” but that may, rightly, raise the hackles of many fearful of government going to excess). The answer is, not the uncoordinated mishmash of controls we have today, but a department that unifies everything in a sensible, intelligent manner.
The Philippine Development Plan (2011-2016) calls for the creation of a DICT. Are we now to ignore that plan and discard it for no sound reason? It said, in part: “The DICT should result in a thorough implementation of the national e-strategies cutting across other critical sectors such as e-education, e-health, and the country’s representation in international and regional ICT bodies.” Are we now to discard the PDP?
A DICT will also do another most important thing: ensure continuity and consistency of government policies and programs. The current situation is a glaringly negative example of this. By a simple executive order, President Aquino moved it to the Department of Science and Technology. Maybe it’s better, maybe it isn’t. The problem is, what will the next president do? You can’t develop business when the business environment changes every six years.
In a recent presentation, John Forbes disclosed that more than 80 percent of countries have separate ICT administrative agencies. In Asean, six countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei and Vietnam) do, and four (Cambodia, Laos, Burma [Myanmar] and the Philippines) don’t. Guess which group comprises the successful countries. Australia has a Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy that developed a plan outlining the strategic priorities and future direction of the industry. Pakistan established a Ministry of Information and Technology in 2002. Earlier, it was like us, with only a division in the Ministry of Science and Technology. Are we to be left behind again?
The Philippines ranks 65th (among 144 countries) in the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness report, from 85th in 2010. Its ranking has been improving under President Aquino, but it should aspire to be in the top 25 percent of countries surveyed. This will not be achieved if it doesn’t grasp the wonders of ICT for its own. To help get there, the DOST has, or should have, more than enough to do to develop the sciences we can so excel at. ICT will just dominate for too much of its time—if ICT is to be properly developed.
Then there’s cybersecurity. This is truly scary. It can ruin many of us—just watch your credit card race into the stratosphere or your bank account disappear, and salivate over the exposed shenanigans in some government office (on second thought, maybe that’s a reason not to control cybercrime). The National Bureau of Investigation, or whoever, can attempt it, but that’s not its expertise, and it can’t provide the interdepartmental cooperation necessary. A dedicated department can.
President Aquino’s “digital” strategy has this vision: “A digitally empowered, innovative, globally competitive and prosperous society where everyone has reliable, affordable and secure information access in the Philippines. A government that practices accountability and excellence to provide responsive online citizen-centered services. A thriving knowledge economy through public-private partnership.”
A Department of ICT is a must in achieving that goal. It took Congress 10 years to pass a DICT law, but it’s done it. Now the government has the opportunity to enact it; all it needs is the President’s imprimatur. Can the President please rethink his stand? This is too important to be sidelined.