The average age in the Philippines is about 25, and this shows in its government.

“We have a younger population, a younger electorate who are demanding, and we also have younger leaders,” says Emmanuel ‘Manny’ Caintic, the Assistant Secretary for the Digital Philippines initiative at the country’s Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT).

Local government, in particular, is a fountain of youth, and that has translated into dynamic, innovative city governments. GovInsider spoke with Caintic about the state of digital government in the Philippines, and the brightest spots for the future.

Towards a digital government

Digital services in the Philippines are currently “dismal”, Caintic notes. How does DICT measure success? Services that are delivered in the “the most effective and efficient manner,” he replies.

National government agencies must prioritise digital services, he continues, to increase accountability, efficiency, and a better citizen experience. “A constituent will be able to have a timestamp of when they went to the agency and have proof that ‘I was here that day at five o’clock and for three days, it still hasn’t moved’,” Caintic says.

Local government is spearheading the way ahead, he believes, with younger government leaders being visibly tech-savvy. “That’s a very good thing because we don’t have to sell to them – it’s like preaching to the choir.”

The municipal government of Boac in Marinduque Province, for instance, has used an open source GIS software to plan land use better, and monitor hazards more effectively. Meanwhile, to tackle poverty and boost productivity, the provincial government of Bataan has built an online platform that helps job seekers and improves the ease of doing business.

Other notable local governments include the provincial government of Compostela Valley, which developed a dashboard to monitor the blood supply in four provincial blood banks. With the system, patients’ doctors no longer have to track down blood transfusions for their patient. The municipal government of Mina in Iloilo city, on the other hand, has built a customised platform that links up farmers with buyers, so that they can produce agricultural products on demand.

Feeling API?

In Caintic’s opinion, the most pressing tech issue facing the Philippine Government is the lack of an API gateway – which DICT hopes to build by this year. APIs set out certain rules for how two systems can package information and share it with each other, allowing them to interact seamlessly.

“Until we get those APIs out, there’s no interconnectivity between agencies,” he points out. “We want an open standard environment where agencies are able to interface with each other. Share the data, share APIs.”

This will unlock many possibilities within the government, he continues. Law enforcement agencies will be able to share data securely with courts. Likewise, an API gateway will enable a healthcare information exchange between the health department, hospitals, insurance companies and pharmaceuticals, says Caintic.

“We will create a switchboard where the intended recipients will be able to get it securely, only the data that you need to share,” he goes on to say.

A digital society

A digital society and economy are also part of DICT’s vision, where people are “comfortable with telemedicine, telecommuting and everything”. All these will be underpinned by “cheap, reliable internet” – connectivity in the less developed areas of the country is still poor. “It’s a no brainer. Once there is this connectivity, there’s going to be a whole new economy that will flourish,” he says.

A digital society will also prioritise digital payments, Caintic continues. “We want people to be comfortable using digital payments.” There has been some progress in this area: in 2017, the city government of Makati introduced the Makatizen ID card, which can also carry out financial transactions, creating a secure and convenient way for citizens to use government services.

Meanwhile, large cities in the Philippines are famous for their traffic congestion. A regular commute could take four hours there and back. That is four hours of lost productivity, Caintic remarks. “We cannot solve the traffic problem in the Philippines but at least with telecommuting, people will be able to work at digital workplaces, which we will build,” he says, taking inspiration from coworking spaces.

Building up skills and capabilities

DICT’s vision, as led by Secretary Gregorio Honasan II, has a final priority – to ensure that the government has the right skills and capabilities to lead digital transformation, and that each government body has strong “digital leadership”. The department will set up a centralised Digital Academy to train CIOs, systems analysts, and project managers. These trained individuals will then be transferred out to various ministries and agencies, according to Caintic.

Meanwhile, DICT is looking at Singapore’s SkillsFuture initiative, for instance, to design a skills development programme for citizens. “Our job is for those without work, to have work, and those already in work to be able to upgrade their skills and scale up.” This extends to the education system as well, and ensuring that ICT is embedded into the curriculum via “digital classrooms”, Caintic explains.

There is still much work to be done before the average citizen will enjoy the benefits of Digital Philippines. But there is determination to keep the momentum going, and make things happen. The DICT is only a few years old, but has an all-too-important mandate to build a digital future for the Philippines.