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Twiddling your thumbs (Part 1)

Action. That’s what we need: action. This is a country where action is talked about, but too rarely done.

If you look back at what I’ve written over the years, you’d realize that much has happened and that, sadly, far too much more hasn’t.

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The things that were promised then (is the Philippines, not Israel, the “Promised Land”?) remain promises today. Let me give you just one little example. In 2006, the Philippines and Australia agreed to a Status of Visiting Forces Agreement (Sovfa). In 2007, the Australian government signed it. In 2012, the Philippine Senate is discussing it. Six years to do what another country can do in six months.

So the most important promise President Aquino can make in his State of the Nation Address (Sona), which is what I’m going to talk about here and in my next two columns, is that this coming year will be one of action. This is a country that too often believes that when something is said it’s considered done. The promise is achievement enough.

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Last year, the Sona was just that: a state of the nation. History is interesting and necessary to remember, but we’ll be living in the future. We need to know what to expect. So in the coming Sona, the President should list things to do—and make sure they’re done. His Sona next year should be able to declare a 90-percent success rate. Here are some suggestions on what he can get done.

First, clean up the government. You can’t grow an economy, create jobs, etc. if the bureaucracy blocks your every step and bribery hounds your every attempt to get things done efficiently. The President’s focus on corruption is the correct thing to do and should continue unabated. More of the “big boys” need to be caught, but the small guys, too. Corruption is institutionalized in the Philippines and will not be easy to eradicate, yet it affects almost everyone.

One way to eliminate it is to computerize all government services. You can’t bribe a computer. Passing a brown envelope under the table at lunch just doesn’t work; computers don’t go out to lunch. So computerizing all government services should be at the very top of the agenda. But the systems must be integrated and interconnected to each other with compatible systems. The Bureau of Internal Revenue and Bureau of Customs both have good, working computer systems, but they are different systems. So the name of a smuggler doesn’t automatically show up in the BIR system as a likely tax evader, as it should. Tied to that is a national ID system: It makes eminent sense, unless you’ve got something to hide. There’s no fear of “Big Brother” (unless you’re hiding something), the government has all the data already—on your birth certificate, marriage license, driver’s license, National Bureau of Investigation, Social Security System, and PhilHealth cards, etc., etc. So it’s all there, but on half a dozen different cards bulging in your wallet. There should be just one.

The volume of transactions in government can’t be handled manually anymore. Computers are essential. They can do in minutes what can take weeks by hand. And paper is saved. Trees remain in the forests (or what’s left of them). And tie it all into the cell phone. The Philippines is the world’s leader in imaginative use of cell phones. Let’s be the leader here and provide access to government services by cell phone. To do it in the next 12 months needs focused attention. A Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) is needed. Congress agrees, and it should be out soon. For some unexplained reason, the President doesn’t want it.

Here we have the fastest growing sector of the economy heading toward being the biggest sector of the economy, and there isn’t a department with the seniority, budget, and dedication this sector deserves. There should be one if the country’s leadership role in call centers is to extend into the other IT fields, as it’s beginning to. Let’s hope the President agrees. If he’s unconvinced, he should talk to experts in the industry, to analysts and businessmen. He’ll find almost universal support for a DICT.

Similarly, too, with mining. You need a body solely focused on the environment and the protection of it, not distracted with the need to support and encourage an extractive industry. Promotion and support of responsible mining should fall under the Department of Trade and Industry. The Mines and Geosciences Bureau and Minerals Development Council should be there. The DTI is well-experienced in supporting business activities. Focus the Department of Environment and National Resources on protecting the environment and regulating those extractive industries.

We also need “one-stop shops.” No government service should require going to more than one agency. That agency should be able to accept the application and process it through all other involved agencies. It should not be the task of the applicant. Whatever it is you need from the government, you’ll only need to go to one place, twice—once to file your application, once soon after to pick up the approval. The government will be responsible for forwarding the request to the other government entities involved and ensuring the action required is done, and comes back to the originator office to give to the applicant. As much as possible, it should all be online so even the two trips will not be necessary.

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The International Finance Corp.’s Doing Business survey indicates that it takes 15 procedures and 35 days to secure business permits in the Philippines. Getting construction permits, in particular, requires 30 procedures. The construction firms have to wait 85 days before their permits get cleared. In Australia it takes two days and two procedures. To be continued

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TAGS: Benigno Aquino III, Government, Like It Is, opinion, Peter Wallace, SONA 2012
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