Much has been said about the tepid growth of the Philippine information and communications technology (ICT) sector (Rappler) but rather than point fingers, I would like to use this blog to recommend some clear actions the incoming 2022 administration can take to help our country catch up with our neighbors. Don't get me wrong, the Philippines has a deep bench of highly skilled, internationally recognized technology professionals who can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their counterparts in first-world countries. Many have left the country out of frustration, but given the right environment, these technocrats, working together, can help catapult the country to a leadership position in Asia.
1) Governance - IT is merely a tool albeit a very effective one. Done well, ICT has the power to transform organizations and in turn, societies. And while "digital transformation" has been bandied about as the be-all-and-end-all solution, the operative word here is not "transform" but something more primordial and implicit - and that is "govern". ICT, like any tool, when governed well, can do mighty things. And any tool, used haphazardly, can cause harm.
What then is "governance"?
Many definitions exist but one that resonated with me very well is "ethical decision-making to achieve goals". This is a high-level definition but it shows the key elements such as ethics (which is rooted in character), decision-making (which includes selecting leaders who have the power, mandate, and will to invest major resources), and achieving goals (which includes strategic planning, project execution, and optimizing performance).
I prefer not to provide any more details because it might scare off the future president who will have the mandate to govern. To keep it simple, Mr (or Ms) President 2022, you are accountable for the development of ICT in the Philippines. Yes, you can delegate this to your Secretary of DICT who takes responsibility, but the buck stops with you. Choose your secretary very well and be brave enough to replace him/her if s/he fails to deliver.
2) Architecture - If your house contractor goes to you and says give me 2 million pesos and I will build you a house, would you shell it out? Probably not. For starters, is the building a bungalow, a two-story house, or one with a basement? Does that price include the lot? Will there be monthly expenses in excess of the two million? Is the house sturdy enough so you can add more floors above it later on? Does the price include after-sales support and warranty? Where is the blueprint? While the intent is good (help you get a "house" at the end), the process is very dubious, to say the least, and it is because of a major flaw in the proposition: there is no transparency.
This is why we have certified architects who know the technology and the ethics of architecture. They come up with a blueprint that serves as a reference point for all stakeholders to be involved in the project. After an interview with the owner to understand the vision and desires (including the budget), the architect goes to the drafting board and returns with a drawing (in blue paper with blue ink thus the name blueprint) with the intent of showing stakeholders a plan they can both see and understand. And that is exactly what a blueprint is: a plan of how the house might look like after it is finished. It is a very powerful tool because it gives a single transparent unified view of what is to be built. Since it is on paper, it is easy to make revisions like moving stairs to different parts of the house or adding or removing rooms, toilets, garages. You can even put your future dreams drawn on the blueprint and just have the higher floors constructed later confident that the foundations to hold them are already factored in. If at all possible, these aspirations are best drawn as early as feasible on the blueprint.
But ICT systems are even more complex than houses and buildings thus making blueprints more important in this domain. They are more likened to cities. And if there is no clear city plan (that is, no ICT blueprint), just wait a few years and you won't even know how to start solving the problems of organizing all the crisscrossing electrical lines, leaking water pipes, and seeping sewage that come with a rapidly growing population. An ICT blueprint, or an enterprise architecture, is a key enabler for a well-governed, justly financed, transparent ICT system. Without it, any ICT project will be shrouded in doubt - suffering from reputational loss even before it can meet its objectives. The enterprise architecture is so important that it must be formalized through a sign-off by the owner, in the case of national ICT systems - the President. The leader of the country's ICT affixes his/her signature on the plan and this commences its construction.
Governance and architecture are not expensive activities. For governance, it can be as simple as coming up with just laws and policies. It can be as easy as meeting the right principals regularly to gain consensus and support prior to making major decisions. It is just what good leaders are supposed to do. For architecture (which is more technical), we need to spend for the services of professional and certified enterprise architects, and doing so helps prevent the wastage that comes from a poorly governed and non-architected ICT solution. After one group of architects completes the design, another group can help monitor the construction ensuring that all components of the blueprint are being built as planned. And yet another group of architects can certify completion. Corruption is eliminated if the blueprint is published and accessible to all. I do not have statistics of how much has been wasted in ICT projects. If we can just get 5% of these funds, that should be able to fund the government EA practice. In fact, if we did spend the 5% upfront at the start of every administration, we may not have wasted the 95% anymore.
In summary, whoever becomes the president, all s/he needs to do is take ownership and accountability for ICT in the country. S/he sets up a governance structure, asks them to publish a transparent enterprise architecture visible to all stakeholders, and assign agency chief information officers (CIOs) responsible for every ICT project of the government. Governance and architecture come together like two sides of the same coin. Governance alone without architecture is hot air. Architecture without governance is just a drawing.
The ICT stakeholders are already waiting and ready to participate in the national ICT construction.