Former Rodrigo R. Duterte ordered all government agencies to use digital methods in disbursing and collecting payments with Executive Order No. 170 signed in May. But this is just the tip of the government digital transformation iceberg. There are a lot more to include and consider when transforming a government.
This is precisely what is covered in the Full Digital Transformation Act of 2020 or Senate Bill (SB) No. 1793. Filed by Senator Sherwin Gatchalian in 2020, it is an “Act mandating the full digital transformation of all government agencies, officers, and corporations, including local government units, appropriating funds therefor and for other purposes”, according to the Senate of the Philippines website.
What’s laudable about this Bill is that it covers the full end-to-end scope of digital transformation, i.e. streamlining of “procedures by adopting automation and digitization of government services”; build-up of the government’s technology capabilities such as the establishment of data centers and cybersecurity facilities; harmonization of common data related to persons, transportation, and multiple domains; the use of open-source systems; investment in the development of organizational capability and staff competencies; and most importantly, the creation a Digital Transformation department (DTD) in “every government agency, office, corporation, instrumentality, and unit”.
A related Bill, the Satellite-based Technologies for Internet Connectivity Act of 2021, filed in June 2021 by the same senator, seeks to encourage and promote the “use and development of satellite-based technologies for internet connectivity”. Indeed, a decent internet coverage and speed for the whole country is requisite in ensuring that government services are delivered digitally in a continuous, almost-real-time manner. But this is already overshadowed by the previous administration’s move in May 2022 that approved the registration of Starlink Internet Services Philippines Inc., a subsidiary of SpaceX, to provide its satellite broadband to the archipelago.
With Sen. Gatchalian’s re-election, it’s still possible that the Full Digital Transformation Act will progress in the Senate. But most likely, with the changes in senate committee chairmanships, it will never see the light of day. We may need a new lawmaker in the upper house to champion the creation of government digital transformation policies.
Many countries and governments have recognized the opportunities and benefits that digital transformation brings. According to the 2019 report of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), “practically all OECD members countries have a digital government strategy in place that sets the policy objectives for the digital transformation of the public sector”. Further to the report, “regardless of the name used to describe this document (e.g., strategy, agenda, action plan), or whether it is presented as a stand-alone document or included in broader public sector strategies (e.g., public administration, digital economy, information society) the critical point for governance analysis is that such policy documents exist”; and that “these documents set out the vision and frame the national/federal policy around digital government over a given period”. A total of 29 OECD countries and 19 European Union countries participated in this study.
There are obvious benefits that government digital transformation can bring to a nation and its citizens. The OECD identified these such as increased productivity and jobs, increased efficiencies in the delivery of services, and empowerment of government agencies, industries, and citizens to do more.
While conceptually it is an achievable vision, government digital transformation is not without its challenges. Some of those identified by OECD are digital divide between urban and rural areas, lack of standards in ecommerce, lack of a digitally competent workforce, lack of cybersecurity readiness, and lack of budgets and investments.
These barriers and challenges comprise the finer details of executing a government digital transformation strategy. This may be the reason why Sen. Gatchalian did not prioritize Senate Bill No. 1793 during his previous term. If many companies all over the world are failing in their digital transformation efforts, what more if it involves a government bureaucracy that is difficult to wield.
In addition, the Philippines’ digital competitiveness ranking in 2021 is 47.16, just behind Peru’s 47.23, and slightly above Colombia’s 45.45. To benchmark, the U.S. garnered the top spot at 100 and Malaysia scored 73.29. These rankings are based on the latest IMD World Digital Competitiveness report which “analyses and ranks countries’ ability to adopt and explore digital technologies leading to transformation in government practices, business models and society in general; digital competitiveness is assessed based on three major criteria: knowledge, technology, and future readiness.”
With the Philippine’s low digital readiness, executing a full government digital transformation strategy will just be a pipe dream. That’s why in the next six years of the new administration under President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., instead of a grand digital transformation, a strategy I always promote to private organizations called ‘dual transformation’ is relatively easier to execute.
Dual government transformation is a strategic approach to reposition today’s government bureaucracy to maximize its resilience, especially during this time of economic hardship, while at the same time creating tomorrow’s new economic growth engine.
Conceptually, if we plot this in the next six years, there will be dual transformation streams — Transformation A, which is finding new possibilities for addressing existing challenges, i.e., improving internet speeds and completing the digital payment efforts of the previous administration; Transformation B, which is about creating a powerful new growth engine for the future, such as the full automation and interconnection of related agencies, i.e., Bureau of Customs, Bureau of Internal Revenue, the Department of Budget and Management, and the Department of Education.
In the next administration, other agencies and local government units can follow suit as part of a 10-year roadmap. Part of this roadmap is a methodical program of changing mindsets and skill building among government officials and employees, as well as investing in technology assets that are future-proof and standardizable.
The current administration and lawmakers should be deliberate and methodical in their government digital transformation approach. Otherwise, it’s another waste of time and resources, implementing incohesive elements.
The author is the Founder and CEO of Hungry Workhorse, a digital and culture transformation consulting firm. He is the Chairman of the Information and Communication Technology Committee of the Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines (FINEX). He is a Fellow at the US-based Institute for Digital Transformation. He teaches strategic management in the MBA Program of De La Salle University. The author may be emailed at email@example.com