E-governance: Prospects, application and challenges in the Philippines

E-governance: Prospects, application and challenges in the Philippines*

-Erwin A. Alampay & Cheryll Soriano

*Paper presented on March 7, 2007 at the FOSS conference at the EDSA-Plaza Shangrila Hotel, Mandaluyong City, Philippines.

Prof. Erwin Alampay

Understandably, some people are intimidated by the term “electronic” in e-governance. Many people, not only in government, but even in the academe, and the private sector, have difficulty in embracing new technologies that are commonly associated with e-governance and the information society. Some out of fear of the technology, some out of fear about losing their jobs (Estuar, et.al. 2005).

Some people may even be in denial, and argue that e-governance is just another fad that would go away soon, much like I guess how the “internet bubble” somehow “burst”. Some would rather ignore it altogether, hoping that the techies or computer people would take care of it. Others while not fully understanding it, already embrace it as the end-all to our problems in running our government. Faster, more efficient, more convenient, more accessible, more transparent…in other words..BETTER GOVERNMENT.

What I will discuss today is some form of leveling off. First, I would like to define what e-governance exactly is, why it is important in governance and argue that it is here to stay. Second, I will discuss what are the things we, as managers and administrators in government, or NGOs, should be concerned about with respect to developing e-governance or ICT4D projects. Last, I will discuss the foremost issues in making it succeed. Obviously the point being is that there is no guarantee that it will.

E-governance

Some see the use of information and communication technologies as an extension of the industrial revolution, that enables us to rethink and redesign the processes that we do (Ling 2006-forthcoming). Why it matters to government and everyone, for that matter, is because in the conduct of governance and running of government, we deal with tons of information everyday: how many children need vaccination? How many textbooks do we need to order? How much is galunggong? Where’s the nearest hospital?

Everyday questions, require information. Everyday transaction, require information. And in this day and age, where information technology makes everything “google-able”, obviously, it makes a lot of sense that ICTs can make our lives, in the context of communicating and processing information, a lot easier.

In reality, e-governance is just another step in the constant evolution , reinvention or some would say reform of government (Heeks 2001).

From e-government to e-governance

Commonly, people tend to interchange the concept of e-government and e-governance. For instance, in Wikipedia, e-Government is defined to refer to “government’s use of information and communication technology (ICT) to exchange information and services with citizens, businesses, and other arms of government. e-Government may be applied by legislature, judiciary, or administration, in order to improve internal efficiency, the delivery of public services, or processes of democratic governance” (Wikipedia 2007).

However, common distinctions between the two exist. Heeks (2001b), for instance would simply say that e-government deals with the internal workings of government, while e-governance deals with the government’s external dealings in governance. Further, UNESCO would define e-governance as “the public sector’s use of information and communication technologies with the aim of improving information and service delivery, encouraging citizen participation in the decision-making process and making government more accountable, transparent and effective (2007).” E-governance, in other words, encompasses e-government.

The information chain and models of information interchange

Both the government and its citizens must be able to access data and assess them if they are useful and applicable to their situations before they could act upon them. (see Information chain figure). This requires economic, social and other “action” resources to become possible. Economic resources include money and technology. Social resources include motivations and trust in the system. Action resources include other infrastructure such as roads, access to credit and electricity, and skills to make use of the information (Alampay, et.al 2003; Heeks 2001).

In governance, communication flows can go through various avenues. As such, the primary delivery models are described as Government-to-Citizen or Government-to-Customer (G2C), Government-to-Business (G2B) and Government-to-Government (G2G) (see slide __) .

An example of a G2C application is the BIR’s electronic TIN application which allows citizens to apply for their Tax Identification Number online. The TIN can then be used by a person for all taxation –related activities from date of application until retirement. An example of a G2B e-governance project, is the SEC’s iRegister, a web-based Company Registration System accessible 24×7. An example of a G2G system is the National Government Accounting System (or NGAS). Likewise, some applications, like the national government portal, is meant to be used by everyone, business, government and citizens alike.

Infrastructure, content and skills

The most important thing to take out from this discussion, however, is to move away from the idea that when we talk about e-governance, we’re actually talking only about information technology. What is important, is to consider viewing it as a system, an information system.

What is also important about the term e-governance, is not so much the “e” as it is the governance. Without good governance, e-governance can not succeed as well. This means, looking at the technology, together with the people that use it, and the governance applications and processes that come along with it.

As such, governments’ throughout the world, just like the CICT, look into three main areas of concern:

1. Infrastructure—providing access to the technology, looking at access to ICTs (e.g. teledensities, internet penetration, the number of cellphones in the population, etc.). Examples of initiative like these are the development of public calling offices in the past (Telepono sa Baranggay) and at present telecentres in the Philippines (e.g. The Last Mile Initiative; DOST-Telecentres; Cebu); provision of computers to schools (e.g. DTI);

2. Content & Application—providing the needed programs and software to run through the infrastructure whether internally or through the internet (e.g. Online services; RPTS systems; Free and open software (FOSS))

3. People—building the needed skills and capacity for people to survive in the new economy (e.g. e-skwela; OWWA’s email training) and using the technology to enhance local knowledge (e.g. PAFID and participatory GIS)

These three are all linked. As such, no ICT strategy or program can reasonably succeed without viewing the problem as having an integrated solution.

For example: telecenters. The realities in many of our local governments is that:
- They do not have landline connectivity, no public calling station and no access to the internet.
- Employees of the local government unit (LGU) have to travel to the provincial capital just to send or receive fax messages.
- Residents with OFWs have to go to the business district to make oversees calls.
- Students have to commute to other towns to access the internet for their research.

For telecenters to succeed it is not enough to simply provide the needed computers and internet access. It should also take into consideration the communities’ needs and use for it as well as programs have to be put in place to build the needed skills and capacities of people to take advantage of it. Some examples of these can be seen from the last mile initiative.ph: In Manolo Fortich, they used the telecenter for helping people find employment in Taiwan, In Sogod, Cebu, the telecenters were use to aid teachers’ capacities for developing educational materials, in Ifugao it was linked to their Eco-tourism; and in others, VOIP was integrated in order to reduce the cost of linking families with their relatives working abroad as contact workers.

Another example of this is Naga. Content that is available online is also provided in the vernacular. This encourages locals who won’t go online because they have nothing there relevant to read.

In Naga’s case, in fact, they refer to their program as i-Naga (stress the I): to refer to information openness (which is actually more central to the program than the e); inclusive governance (which means everybody has the opportunity to participate); interactive (which means communication is two-way); and lastly innovative (which essentially means rethinking how we do things given that the technology now allows us to do things differently). For me, however, I would still like to think of the “I” to refer to mean ‘integrated”: one that looks at the information needs of the entire community, and allows them to participate in the design of new systems for improving the delivery of needed services.

However, these are easier described than successfully implemented. There are a couple of reasons for this.

Success and Failure

Rationality-reality gaps

Reform initiatives are likely to be conceived according to an objective and rational model…. BUT…an organization or community’s behavior are not necessarily rational
As such, we are never really sure how people will embrace a technology or a reform initiative. Example: Open source is easy to use and more secure…but why are there not too many users if it is a better product?

Our conception or objectives may be rational, but the behavioral and political realities in an organization may not be. For Example: Number Harmonization, from a PA perspective makes sense and may be ‘rational’, but definitely not from a political sense, where people are wary of privacy issues and state control.

Another example, are projects like telecentres which are known to be provided by government. It is more difficult to sustain financially because people feel a certain entitlement to government services and would not pay for it. Hence, financial projections aren’t followed in reality, and projects end up being subsidized.

Another example is the assumption that government agencies will rationally cooperate to build a flagship e-government project with a promise of benefiting millions of people, in the case of one particular project, the Overseas Filipino Workers. In this ‘POEA– e-OFW Link Project’, the major difficulty encountered is securing the cooperation of all 11 government agencies necessary for the Project-Phase 1 to work. OFWs are a priority of POEA, but OFWs are only some of the clients of other agencies (DFA, NSO), and therefore could not offer the same level of interest. Add to this are the difficult realities of interconnecting dispersed government databases and data security restrictions.

The problem with rationality is also its over reliance with formal information flows (Heeks 2001), such that the logic of information projects that reside within the minds of the leaders are often lost with them. A good example of these are some of the e-government projects that comes to a standstill once the proponent leaves, even as the finding is already there. This illustrates the poor knowledge management systems in some government agencies which leads to projects being years delayed (e.g. DTI Philippine Business Registry System, Machine Readable Passport and VISA of DFA, NLRC Case Management System, and DILG’s Public Safety Information System).

Private-public gaps

It is hard not to compare government services to that of the private sector. A lot of us wish that government could operate more like private organizations. However,
government has different objectives, with wider accountabilities and different expectations from its broad constituency.

One reality in government service, especially when one speaks of ICTs, is that it often lags behind the private sector in its application, and often, it also does not have the capacity/skills available in the private sector. In fact, if it does build that capacity, there is often the danger of that capacity moving over to the private sector.

As such, we have many ICT projects that are often contracted out to the private sector whether wholly (as in everything is run by them), or simply in terms of programs being developed. But there may be problems in fully outsourcing e-governance projects to the private sector, especially if there is no ample briefing of government operations and if government agencies are not able to retain sufficient control over the prioritization of project activities and schedule of deliverables. For example, difficulty is experienced (NLRC Case Management System, POEA E-OFW Link) in getting the commitment of the solutions provider, after delivering the hardware component, to the timely completion of the information systems promised — the heart of the project. Some agencies are wary of hardware becoming obsolete even before the information systems are completed.

[This is just FYI – According to POEA PM, they are encountering a big problem with having fully outsourced the project to ‘Leverage Systems, Inc.’ The problem is that the private sector ran the project differently from the specs agreed in the contract. POEA PM was saying they would have done things differently, and would have prioritized the project activities differently, but the solutions provider runs the programming of activities on their own (even differently from the agreed contract). For example, the workstations should have been delivered later, but the hardware and workstations have been delivered prior to the information system which will make use of the stations. The hardware, apart from the server, has been sitting idly at POEA for more than 3 yrs now. Another example she cited is to talk to all agencies involved at the same time, as all project components are interrelated, but solutions provider insists on doing it on a piecemeal basis – which delayed project further. She suggests, that it should be emphasized that government should try to retain full control of e-governance projects, even when outsourced. The NLRC encountered the same problem– all hardware are there, but no system built since Dec 2003. NLRC intended to file a case against the solutions provider, but have apparently later agreed on a settlement].

Furthermore, there is sometimes the tendency to adopt an information system designed for the private sector – and tailor it to public sector realities. An example is the DBM eBudget System, which is viewed as having simply automated already existing processes of information sharing and exchange within DBM, but lacking in the necessary reengineering to “do things better”, such as linking the system with other offices which are also heavily involved in the budgeting process, i.e. Congress. (Info from Dir. Juli Ana Sudario, Head EGov Fund Review Committee).

Another example is the e-LGU project, especially RPTS systems, on its face, seems so basic. How difficult is tax collection anyway? How different is it from collecting purchases? If one city or municipality can do it, these should be no different from other cities or municipalities. Sadly, the programs that the e-LGU project were meant to deliver, were never developed or implemented on time. One reason, of course, is that the programmers needed to be familiarized with how the LGUs’ processes, and secondly, there was greater disparities in how tax collection was implemented as a result of the Local Government Code (Alampay 2006).

In fact, because of the delay, some LGUs, were able to develop their own systems from in-house capacities (i.e. Cagayan de Oro). The lesson we can take from this is that local expertise about internal systems is always helpful in the creation of successful systems.

On the other hand, some projects are designed without the full grasp of the costs entailed to develop a particular e-governance application, resulting in under-budgeted projects or inadequately developed systems that are difficult to offer to private solutions providers – and resulting in problems in coming up with competitive and successful biddings.

Country-context gaps (and within country context gaps)

We are often told that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. And often, this is our attitude with so-called “best practices,” whether from here or abroad. What we forget, however, is how different the situations may be.

For instance, one of the Philippines’ contributions to the rest of the world is our use of SMS. We are the texting capital of the world. So we have “bantay-usok”, bantay-kalikasan, text GMA, text-resibo (Alampay, et.al 2002). Different mobile services that take advantage of our propensity to use SMS. While deemed “successful”, I doubt if it can easily be adopted in places like Thailand and Korea where not only is the langauage different, but also are the fonts they use and their culture.

Opposite to that, Korea is celebrated as one country in the Asian region that has successfully developed Internet Banking (Lee & Lee 2006). Again, copying their model to the Philippines is easier said than done, especially when one looks at the disparity in Internet Access, and in credit card penetration between the two countries.

Hence, while best practices are worth emulating, one can not just take everything as it is without making it fit into the realities of the organization or society that will use it. As Gomez & Casadiego (2002) recommend, we need to “localize gobalized communication” by building on what exists and making it firmly rooted in people’s realities.

A good example of why it is important to take context into consideration is PAFID’s experience with indigenous peoples and the use of GIS systems (de Vera 2006). A foreign funded project that cost millions of pesos using the most up-to-date GIS technologies lead to the creation of a wide expanse of protected area in the north (see picture). What it failed to take into consideration however, was the social realities that these technologies fail to uncover. The policies it helped create, effectively made illegal the social practices that indigenous people had been practicing the area from time immemorial (see picture).

What lies ahead? (see ITPOSMO diagram)

Given this, what should we do? What are the lessons that need to be learned?

First, we must recognize that gaps do currently exist with respect to the knowledge of administrators, development workers, and managers as to the possibilities and potential benefits that ICTs can bring. Some of these gaps include the lack of knowledge about the real costs of these services (which sadly, I myself am quite ignorant about). The good news is, that the price of ICTs are going down, while their capacity and speed is also increasing. Another good news is that there are more and more people who have the skills for developing the needed software. The problem, with them, however, is that they are equally ignorant about the inner workings of government and of development work.

It takes time to bring these two together. This conference is a good starting point to reduce this gap. We have techies, taking time to understand the needs of public service and development work, and we have public servants taking time to understand what the technology has to offer.

Hopefully, thereafter, the techies/computer programmers and public servants can then sit down together in developing an integrated and innovative ICT projects that works well in the context of contemporary Philippine realities.

The message, therefor, is to bridge the knowledge gaps between the IT professional the manager and the staff. In the end, successful e-governance is also not just about information, but also more about integrating these with the existing knowledge of how an organization and society operates.

References:

Alampay (2006) ‘Incorporating Participation into the e-LGU project’ presented in the UNESCAP-UNDP-APDIP experts meeting in Bangkok, Thailand.

Alampay, E. , R. Heeks and P.P. Soliva (2003). Bridging the Information Divide. A Philippine Guidebook on ICTs for Development. AMIC, APDIP-UNDP, IDRC and APNIP.

De Vera, Dave (2006) Mapping today and the future: Participatory mapping and planning with the Talaandig in Bukidnon, Mindanao, Philippines. Presented at the Conference on Information Revolution and Cultural Integration in East Asia, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, January 25-26, 2007, pp. 92-104 of conference proceedings.

Estuar, M.R.; Hechanova, M.R.; Grozman, E.P. and Que, J. B. (2005) Managing Computer Resistance, in Hechanova, M.R. & E.P. Franco (Eds) The Way We Work: Research and Best Practices in Philippine Organizations, Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Gomez & Casadiego (2002) ‘Letter to Aunt Ofelia’ IDRC.

Heeks, Richard (2001) Reinventing Government in the Information Age: International Practice in IT enabled public sector Reform. Routledge.

Lee, C.L. and J.H. Lee (2006) ‘IT Development and the Changes of Bank in Korea: The Success Story of Internet Banking in Korea.’ Presented at the Conference on Information Revolution and Cultural Integration in East Asia, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, January 25-26, 2007, pp. 13-33 of conference proceedings.

Ling, R. (2006-forthcoming)

UNESCO (2007)