Information Technology for Good Governance: Transparency to Curb Corruption

Home Tech Information Technology for Good Governance: Transparency to Curb Corruption

With various scandals involving government agencies, such as the recent pork barrel scam, it’s high time we turn to information technology solutions to help promote transparency and curb corruption all at the same time. The national government recently launched an open data portal and cashless transaction program on its efforts to fend off graft and corrupt practices. But, will these be enough to keep erring public officials from messing with the government’s pot?

Open Governance

The real battle, either interstate or intrastate, will always be won by the one who’s got the advantage – information, that is – which is why the government is determined to win the long struggle against the country’s systemic corruption by way of transparency. The President did the honors of introducing data.gov.ph, which is geared to “foster a citizenry empowered to make informed decisions, and to promote efficiency and transparency in government” by way of making public datasets “searchable, accessible, and useful.” Hopefully, it gets to keep the state and its people right on track in line with the administration’s “Daang Matuwid” campaign.

Data.gov.ph is not an overnight project. Dubbed as an “ambitious commitment” to Open Government Partnership (OGP) undertaken along with 11 other nations including Canada, South Korea, and Moldova to create their respective action plans, the project was the brainchild of the Open Data Task Force chaired by Secretary Edwin Lacierda.

As the ultimate platform of government data, the website is affiliated with various executive agencies such as the Department of Interior and Local Governance, Department of Social Welfare and Development, Department of Agriculture, Metro Manila Development Authority, Commission on Higher Education, and several others. There’s a wealth of data at the website pertaining to economics, labor, traffic, transport, health, education, budget, tax, geography, and geology presented with the aid of handy infographics to make the content not just easy on the eyes but easier to digest as well.

What’s in it for you?

While the open data portal is a great tool for the government to give back to its people by way of making public data available in a few clicks, it’s also an excellent means for people to observe participatory governance which is in consonance with the mandates of democracy embedded in the 1987 Constitution that state, “sovereignty resides in the people and all government authorities emanate from them.”

Data.gov.ph is a timely remedy for the endless recurrence of tragic political events, which constitutionally provided checks and balances fail to cure.

Former Chief Justice Reynato Puno, in his speech during a briefing on “Crowdsourcing: A New Constitution for a Better Philippines,” even pointed out that the state-prescribed friction between the executive department and the legislature has been “pure romanticism and at worst, is damaging to the democracy.” Whether or not changing the constitution is the ultimate solution to some epic failures in governance, perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to bank on a well-informed citizenry.

The right to information along with the right to Internet use, declared to be basic human rights, entail responsible usage. Getting data available online is one thing, making it useful is another thing, and it is very important for the process to take its course to optimize the opportunity of having public datasets on hand. Yet, citizen empowerment through participatory governance will not be completely realized with the Freedom of Information Bill still lagging behind in Congress hardly with any support from the government.

Cashless transactions

If money is the root of all evil, then why not take cash out of the equation through the advent of Cashless Purchase Cards (CPC) Program that looks to eliminate check transactions by 100% and reduce cash transactions by 80% by the end of 2014. The government believes that the use of purchase cards will not only make public transactions easy to manage but specifically easy to monitor. It’s a no-brainer that illegitimate transactions are sealed through the “money talk” where no other thing could speak other than cash slipped in and out of one’s hands traceless.

President Noynoy Aquino said it himself, “A recent study identified that one of the major financial risks remaining is the high volume of cash advances in [government] agencies. The risks in this kind of system are obvious: the presence of large sums of cash in offices can pose a temptation to even the most honest employee — not to mention those who would willingly take advantage of such a situation,” as he delivers his speech during the Good Governance Summit.

The purchase cards work like credit cards but come with some restrictions on their use to increase efficiency and prevent abuse. They are, according to the DBM, “low-value payments of a restricted number and type of goods and services.” The CPC program is also expected to expedite procurement and accounting of government materials and supplies to save time and effort. Also, the program will come useful in data gathering to help the treasury determine expenditure trend to aid in making financial decisions.

Although the program seems promising to protect public funds from corrupt government officials, it may not keep them away from taking private funds to promote third-party interests. Fact is, almost all financial transactions in the country are cash-based while almost half of government dealings have already been made cashless with three pilot agencies which include the Department of Budget and Management, Department of Defense, and Armed Forces of the Philippines. Still, it cannot account for bribery and extortion which may put into compromise functions of public officials and integrity of the office.

Common drawbacks

Despite noble intentions, there is skepticism over the integration of information and communication technology to manage government data. The quick-paced industry could easily turn one innovation into an obsolete technology once another version comes out – one that is more efficient and more secure. What’s unfortunate is that the government may not be able to keep pace since upgrade doesn’t come in a single click considering the bulk of data involved.

Another drift faced by government-initiated IT systems is the lack of competitive manpower pool with talented professionals preferring to work for private companies due to tempting work benefits and compensation packages. Tapping contractors’ expertise, however, may not suit most public offices to adopt foreign solutions developed from an outsider’s perspective. In the United States, this was particularly raised by some subscribers to the Army’s Enterprise Email program bothered by several glitches when it comes to accessibility and efficiency although it might have been the best compromise to keep communications within the Department of Defense ultimately secure.

More than accessibility and efficiency, is the state ready to be at par with global web security standards? Many episodes of hacktivism perpetrated by Anonymous Philippines have been observed last year which revealed security vulnerabilities that disrupted web operations. At the end of the day, credibility of government data will always be at risk should concerned agencies fail to work on tightening security measures.

By no means should the Philippines stop trying to achieve a more competitive government by initiating necessary reforms to sustain favorable ranking in the Global Economic Freedom Index for 2014 with eight-notch leap landing on the 89th among 186 countries. Moody’s Analytics also forecast that local economy may surpass growth posed by its Asian neighbors with the World Bank claiming that 6-7% growth will be realized over the next five years regardless of weak peso to be taken in the government’s advantage.

Reforms in the form of IT solutions might as well come in handy to buffer effects brought about by natural disasters. It is also about time to heed the call of NEDA to fortify agriculture against devastating calamities which swept away the harvests of local farmers in Eastern Visayas. Government borrowing has reached Php5.6 trillion in November compared to the same period last year following the onslaught of super typhoon Yolanda.

Small milestones have already been realized upon establishment of “next wave cities” outside Metro Manila with their ICT hubs to support the ever growing BPO sector. The government is also looking to add more and more Community eCenters (CeCs) in municipalities under the CeC program initiated back in 2007. All this happens to be an essential part of the Philippine Digital Strategy toward eGovernance development.

DOST has popularized an IT project to bring healthcare solutions closer to remote areas across the country. There’s the so-called RxBox designed to bring teleconsultation to doctorless areas through teleconferencing between health experts and patients. This way, locals from far-flung areas can get a share of medical expertise even from a distance.

With many challenges in its midst, the government may want to get all the help it could get from IT solutions to optimize public functions and services. But, the state should better be ready for it is set to face another great hurdle when erring government officials learn to use computer innovations for their own personal interests. Unless systems are properly guarded from unlikely intrusions, corrupt minds can always prey on them to defeat noble ends.

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