Needed: A bureaucratic revolution

By: Peter Wallace - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | December 09,2021 - 11:55 AM

“Government shall include providing a climate of minimum government regulations and procedures and specific undertakings in support of the private sector.” Don’t you just love it. Those words should be inscribed over the entry portal of every government office. It is, believe it or not, in the preamble to a law (Republic Act No. 7718) amending the build-operate-transfer law (RA 6957), meant to recognize the value of including the private sector in public projects. Would that the provision be now inscribed in the heart of every public servant, too.

The Anti-Red Tape Authority (Arta), where I sit on the board of advisors, has done an impressive job in the past three years since it started. Jeremiah Belgica, with his small staff, has achieved remarkable progress. But this is just for business dealings. There’s ever so much further to go, as anyone who has dealt with government can attest to.

What is needed is to go beyond just the business dealings and cover every aspect of government service. To do that, a foundation has to be built that is a solid, cohesive, holistic IT platform upon which all government agencies can build their own IT system. One that is unique to what each agency needs, but is integrated with all other agency systems. So, for example, a customs duty evader will automatically show up as a probable tax evader, too, and be investigated.

The world is giving little option on this, and COVID-19 is accelerating the shift. It brings to the fore what I’ve long highlighted — the importance of the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT). So it’s disheartening that the President hasn’t appointed a new secretary to lead this crucial department.

The next president needs to appoint a visionary person steeped in a life of IT to lead the department. A secretary who is supported by a cadre of young IT geeks, and administrators who know how the bureaucracy works — and how to beat it.

Arta is showing the way for business dealings with government. The DICT now needs to expand the program into all government services. It’s a massive undertaking that will take years to accomplish, and will be in continuous flux as technology develops, so no law or regulation should be set in stone, but instead should be able to adapt as technology changes. What can be done today was inconceivable 10 years ago or five years ago. Change is accelerating at an increasing rate. Artificial intelligence is in its infancy. It will be the core of most transactions a few years from now, bringing with it massive change in the way everything is done. The virtual world will meld into the physical.

Public sector workers need to be trained, their skills upgraded to be competent in handling the new system. Recently, the DICT, in partnership with Microsoft, launched the Workplace Learning and Development Platform, an online learning portal that provides free ICT lessons and modules for public sector employees. It’s a good beginning that needs to be expanded to create IT-savvy graduates throughout society. A major overhaul of the education system is needed, focusing on developing the ICT skills of the youth. The Department of Education, Commission on Higher Education, Department of Science and Technology, and DICT need to collaborate on developing IT curricula for kids.

An important building block in this transition is an ID for everyone. You need instant, specific identification of the people the bureaucracy is dealing with. So I’d like to hope this government can completely roll out the national ID system before it bows out of office. But as it now stands, it may need some expert help to achieve this, given the difficulties it seems to be encountering. As of Nov. 24, a commendable 42 million Filipinos have completed Step 2 or the biometrics registration for the national ID. However, only 3.5 million Filipinos have received a physical ID card. The Philippine Statistics Authority has attributed the delay in the delivery of cards to logistic problems brought about by the pandemic and the prioritization of low-income households. But after three years, even with these delays, this is too slow. So it’s also possible there are some glitches in the system itself that need ironing out.

As for the bureaucracy, we need a minimalist government — one that has not only digitized all operations, but has also simplified them to the absolute minimum needed. We don’t need a law to cover every aspect of our lives. And we don’t need complex procedures to follow just to get approval on a transaction with government.

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