Vanishing act: Does abolition of CICT matter?
Last Wednesday was a proud day for the Commission on Information & Communications Technology (CICT). The commission launched The Philippine Digital Strategy 2011-2016 (PDS), whose purpose is provided in the subtitle, Transformation 2.0: Digitally Empowered Nation. PDS provides a road map for leveraging technology to enhance national competitiveness, contribute meaningfully to economic development, and empower people to live productive lives.
Studies undertaken by the Broadband Commission on Digital Development—founded in 2010 by the International Telecommunication Union and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Culture Organization (UNESCO) to help accelerate progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) for the eradication of extreme poverty—have shown that Internet access significantly accelerates economic development. Implementing PDS can ensure that the Philippines benefits from that reality.
PDS is an impressive document. It is the product of extensive collaboration between the private sector, represented by the Business Processing Association of the Philippines (BPAP), the Contact Center Association of the Philippines, and approximately 200 key executives and entrepreneurs, government, and other stakeholders. It was funded by the Canadian International Development Agency, and CICT husbanded the project to its final report.
Given the potential impact PDS can have on the Philippines’ development if it is competently implemented, it came as a surprise when Malacañang announced a day later that President Benigno (Nonoy) S. Aquino III had signed Executive Order 47 (EO 47) effectively abolishing CICT, firing the chairman—a cabinet rank—and its commissioners and creating an Information and Communications Technology Office under the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) headed by an executive director.
Lowering the stature of the government agency charged with managing the nation’s digital strategy is an unusual way to demonstrate the administration’s commitment to leveraging technology to accelerate growth. Unlike the development of PDS, the demise of CICT was undertaken without consulting the private sector. Not only was the private sector not consulted, it was ignored. In June last year, 79% of respondents participating in a BPAP survey said they believed CICT should be made a full department of government.
If the timing of the announcement and absence of consultations came as a surprise, the fact that the seeming haste—a new CICT commission was appointed just days earlier—with which EO47 was drafted and signed gave rise to considerable speculation was not. To be fair, Mr. Aquino told members of the US-Asian Business Counsel during a courtesy call last March that CICT was going to be reorganized and its attached agencies—the National Computer Center and the Telecommunications Office—would be transferred to DOST. Those remarks were not widely reported, however.
Speculation generally fell into two broad categories. It was suggested that the reorganization was undertaken to protect CICT from former senator and vice presidential candidate Manuel (Mar) A. Roxas II. Mr. Roxas has said frequently that he doesn’t feel government needs a commission or department of ICT, and can’t afford one. The problem with this line of speculation is that CICT apparently needed protection from the administration, not Mr. Roxas. (Mr. Roxas assumed his post as Secretary of the Department of Transportation and Communication on Monday.)
Others suggested that executive secretary Pacquito “Jojo” Ochoa, Jr. wants to keep a close watch over implementation of the PDS recommendations, and rushed to have what’s left of CICT put under the jurisdiction of his brother-in-law, DOST secretary Mario Montejo. Why two brothers-in-law are serving in high-level positions in the administration is a question that deserves some examination. But it is unclear whether Mr. Ochoa will have any more leverage over PDS than if CICT had remained a commission under the Office of the President.
Regardless of the speculation, industry seems to feel that while it is annoying to be blindsided by the administration, the diminution of PDS is hugely ill-advised. As I was drafting this column, industry executives were moving to request that the President reconsider the reorganization, and at least one petition was circulating calling for the recall of EO 47 and restoration of CICT. Those calls are likely to be amplified in the coming days.
There’s also the issue of the legality and constitutionality of EO 47, which its author appeared to have in mind when drafting Section 7. It reads, “If any provision of the Executive Order is declared invalid or unconstitutional, the other provisions not affected thereby shall remain valid and subsisting.” It seems to suggest that the author understands that certain provisions of EO 47 will be questioned, and are questionable. If so, why was the President asked to sign it?
I’m not a proponent of big government, and frankly I’m not sure a department is the answer. I do know that CICT had done an excellent job, and made an important contribution. And that its fate should not be determined without consulting the people it serves.
Since this column was submitted to my editor at the Manila Bulletin, Senator Edgardo J. Angara has criticized the government for “flip-flopping” on its commitment to the ICT industry in a series of media statements. DOST has vowed a “leaner, meaner” ICT Office, and ICT groups continue to lobby for a recall of EO 47. Position statements from industry associations are anticipated, and a general consensus seems to be emerging that the fallout generated by EO 47 may actually accelerate the passage of legislation creating a Department of Information & Communications Technology. Where the NTC winds up is another matter entirely. And a worrisome one.
(Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand. Write him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.). Copyright © 2011 Michael Alan Hamlin. All Rights Reserved.)