Friday, September 08, 2006

On the government's role in ICT Development

Of government's role in ICT development, the Philippine ICT Roadmap has this to say:
CICT believes that the Government’s primary role in ICT development is to provide an enabling policy, legal and regulatory environment. An enabling environment for ICT development requires good governance at all levels, and a supportive, transparent and pro-competitive policy and regulatory framework.
As far as mission statements go, it's utterly unambitious and remarkable only in its passivity. In essence, the CICT is washing its hands of direct responsibility for spurring development of ICT in the country, preferring instead to let market forces take their course. The CICT justifies this approach by pointing to the liberalized structure of the local IT industry and citing its inability to adequately fund large initiatives.
But in view of the present liberalized stature of the ICT industry which resulted to the entry of numerous players in the past, the government’s role on ICT infrastructure roll-out should have to be limited. Relatively, with government’s prevailing financial woes, where programs on education, agriculture, health, debt servicing among others needs to be prioritized, it should instead play the role of an “enabler”.
Government policies are ultimately fluid. It's a position which works when it adapts to the common needs of its citizens; but the underside to this is the influence of lobbies which favors the interests of one sector over others. Particularly in the case of ICT, government cannot be merely an enabler. Government is itself one of the biggest customers of ICT, financial woes notwithstanding, and therefore has to make purchasing decisions which best reflect the interests of its people.

Furthermore, the CICT roadmap displays an utter lack of confidence in government to be an effective agent of change. Later in the document:
Initiatives and projects to develop the ICT sector will have a higher chance of success and sustainability if these are market-led, rather than government-led.
A liberal environment does not guarantee that market forces will fairly address the needs of the country, either. Market forces follow economic opportunities. Where demand far outstrips supply, market forces will cater first to high-profit, high-margin, fast-turnover sectors. This does not bode well for sectors currently underserved by ICT; it is these sectors that government must pay special attention to if it is to realize its goal of a “people-centered, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society."

ICT projects need not be costly. Througout the country there are several success stories of local government adopting simple but effective ICT solutions. In Siquijor, farmers are improving their knowledge of modern agricultural techniques by means of the Farmers IT System. In Manila, CHITS is improving the delivery of health care at the barangay level. Neither do they have to be cost centers: a barangay in Pardo, Cebu, for example, achieved high realty tax revenue collection by remote connection to the Cebu city hall system; its value proposition was simple: make it easier for citizens to pay.

And yet note: in none of these environments would existing market forces find any interest. If market forces had their way, the farmers, the health centers, and the barangays would be playing Ragnarok.

There are several projects such as these happening throughout the country through the initiative of local governments and non-government organizations. Already the reality runs counter to the principle espoused in the roadmap.

As a counterproposal, I say that government should make use of its organizational muscle to recognize, formalize, and replicate existing successful initiatives. At the same time, it should provide avenues by which innovative projects can see the light of day. Finally, an agency like the CICT should ensure that the purchasing and implementation decisions of local governments are sensible, efficient, effective, and above-board.

See also Value creation through the transformation of information