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Technology pitfalls in government

/ 10:54 PM December 23, 2013

I’ve written before of how we Filipinos have become masters at making things more difficult for ourselves than need be. A recurring theme has to do with government agencies not being able to (or in many cases, employees therein not wanting to) get into the age of information and communication technology (ICT) to be able to serve the public better. To their credit, some government agencies have long embraced the ICT age and have dramatically eased their front-line services to the public as a result. The National Statistics Office is one of the commendable pioneers in this, having made it possible, for more than a decade now, to obtain birth, marriage and death certificates online without having to visit the agency’s premises.

In a recent discussion on trade facilitation, computerization of customs procedures came up as a prominent issue. Efforts to computerize import transactions at customs and other trade-related agencies (such as those providing quarantine and safety certifications) have been underway for years. This is one of the key commitments embodied in trade agreements we are part of, like the Asean Economic Community Blueprint and the World Trade Organization, being a key element in facilitating international trade. Effective use of ICT in trade transactions has been stymied by (1) internal efforts to sabotage such moves, (2) lack of acceptance of electronic signatures in official transactions, (3) incompatibility of various software systems across government agencies, and even of systems operating within the same agency, (4) contractual provisions in the procurement of such ICT services that are disadvantageous to government and inimical to public welfare, and/or (5) plain incompetence or lack of capacity within agencies to fully implement ICT-assisted processes and systems.

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It has long been suspected that agency insiders deliberately sabotage efforts to computerize, particularly in revenue collecting agencies like the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) and Bureau of Customs (BOC). And we all know why certain people would fight moves that would make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to obtain illicit incomes from harassed taxpayers. The BIR and BOC have both gone through several efforts at computerization through the years, none of which has succeeded in lifting our revenue collection efficiencies to levels more comparable with those of our peers in the region. Unless the top leadership is sincere and intent in making computerization work, and possesses at least some working knowledge of the technology, then this problem would be nearly impossible to beat.

In a recent roundtable discussion on trade transactions, someone lamented the fact that an importer of goods still cannot transact business here without the original printed copies of shipping documents in hand. And yet, the entire shipping transaction at the origin can now typically be done electronically in paperless mode—except when the goods arrive in the Philippines. A printout of the electronic waybill received by the consignee via e-mail is not good enough. It still has to be the original printed copies sent by the shipper at the origin together with the goods, period. Hence, among other things, no advance processing to save clearance time can be done—often a critical element for business. I’ve heard of an agency that’s part of the National Single Window (NSW) initiative to make it possible to obtain all needed trade clearances online. But there, an importer is still asked to print out the electronic form he filed, and physically bring it from table to table for manual signatures by various officers, defeating the very purpose of the NSW.

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A major constraint to paperless transactions, I’m told, is that we still do not have the needed laws to make electronic signatures sufficient for official transactions, whether in business or in government. Thus, paperless official transactions still cannot be done. It’s a legal, not a technical problem—surely, technology is not the constraint, as it has reached a level of sophistication enough to address issues on electronic security. Other countries already do it, after all. This is one advocacy that both environmentalists and good governance advocates should be pushing.

And then there’s the problem of software systems that cannot “talk” to each other, therefore cannot interconnect, because of system incompatibilities. Again, it’s not a problem with the technology; software engineers can easily overcome this. The problem, I’ve learned, is more because government agencies were led to sign contracts with ICT providers that asserted undue exclusivity—sometimes even ownership of the data generated—to the detriment of the government and the public. Thus, we now have in the BOC two ICT systems that cannot even interconnect, when doing so would immensely save time and resources for shippers and government alike—not to mention curb fraud and corruption. Similar issues are involved in current problems we have in the Land Transportation Office and the Commission on Elections. In these cases, it’s not ICT experts that are needed to help government fix the problem, but legal experts who can rectify lopsided contracts.

Where the problem is government bureaucrats not being able to handle the technology, there is no excuse. In that agency that still asks the importer to print out his form and bring it from table to table, there are obviously other motivations involved. In most cases, what’s needed is to change mindsets—and that could well be the toughest challenge of all.

Merry Christmas to all!

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E-mail: [email protected]

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TAGS: Bureau of Customs, Government, Graft and Corruption, information technology, IT, Trade Transactions
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