Exclusive: The non-technical digital transformation champion from the Philippines

By Sol Gonzalez

The Philippines’ Securities and Exchange Commission Chairperson, Atty. Emilio B. Aquino, a lawyer by profession, shares his journey driving digital transformation in his organisation to improve efficiency.

Atty. Emilio B. Aquino received GovInsider Festival of Innovation 'Dare To Do' Award for his work in driving digital transformation in the public sector. Image: GovInsider

Growing up in a family dedicated to public service with a sense of duty and leadership instilled into him from his days as a boy scout, it is no surprise that Emilio Aquino has become a pioneer in digitalising the Philippines’ public sector.

Under Aquino’s leadership, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Philippines has been among one of the first government agencies to embark on digital transformation.

The Commission registers and oversees companies, securities and the capital market in the Philippines.

Since Aquino assumed office in 2018, the SEC has launched several digitalisation initiatives to support his vision of making business easier and paperless by digitalising the entire process.

In a discussion with GovInsider, Aquino shares what it takes to walk the digital route and drive impactful initiatives.

During his visit to Singapore last week, he received GovInsider’s Festival of Innovation Dare To Do Award for his work in challenging the status quo, overcoming failure, and persevering in his efforts to deliver innovative services.

The fruits of digitalisation

SEC’s Digital Transformation and Technology Roadmap is one of his flagship initiatives focused on “the supervision and adoption of digitalisation and sustainability” within the organisation’s systems, Aquino explains.

The roadmap covers the digitalising of company registration, payments and transactions. Automating these operations has led to more efficient processes for clients and freed up time for officers to better address consumer protection concerns, he shares.

Additionally, digital transformation has enabled more sustainable practices by reducing paper, energy and fuel consumption as clients no longer need to travel to physical offices to submit printed documents.

SEC’s new digital services have improved the ease of doing business and increased the Commission’s competitiveness compared to other public sector agencies, Aquino notes.

Increasing trust and transparency

One area where digitalisation is playing a key role in SEC’s operations is ensuring that organisations remain compliant to transparency guidelines.

In 2021, SEC introduced beneficial ownership regulations, which improve the transparency of corporate ownership and play a key role in combatting money laundering.

When SEC-registered corporations submit regular corporate reports, the system collects necessary personal information to ensure the company is abiding by these regulations.

“We are the ones enforcing beneficial ownership in the Philippines only because there’s digital tools to capture all the data we require,” Aquino notes.  

Digitalisation has increased public trust by reducing face-to-face interactions, which often lead to corruption cases, he says. Tracking all operations and interactions through data eliminates the chances of secret activities occurring behind the scenes.

“Now all the offices are asking for our data,” he says. The Commission has adopted technology that allows to break down data silos and facilitates collaboration among teams, something that other agencies lack.

Although the SEC has “a full plate”, other agencies are requesting its digital capabilities. The next step is to assist these agencies in adopting digital solutions, Aquino says.

To meet the demand for services, the Commission looks to recruit more people equipped with the skills to regulate digital markets and assets moving forward.

To have skin in the game

To encourage trust and adoption of digitalisation, Aquino believes change must start with the person in charge. Digital leaders must understand the impact of change on people, he says.

Emilio B. Aquino emphasises the importance of investing time and capital to embrace digitalisation. Image: SEC Philippines

“I’m a lawyer, I don’t pretend to be a techie. [But] we have to provide an environment that will allow technology to foster.”

To “walk the talk” of going digital, he spends time studying digitalisation, he adds. SEC has also made it a point to upskill its officials to better facilitate the implementation of digital programmes.

Leveraging technology for financial enforcement is something that has been adopted by other agencies in Asia, like Singapore’s Financial Intelligence Unit. Aquino mentions that the S$3 billion money-laundering raid in Singapore was supported with digitalisation tools.

Public officers in the SEC must acquire the skills and tools required to emulate these efforts and reap similar benefits, notes Aquino.

The SEC sends its officers to FinTech workshops and events such as Singapore FinTech Festival and London Tech Week to strengthen their capabilities in digital tools, he adds.

The key to make it work

“It was never a walk in the park,” Aquino says, recalling the initial attempts to go digital in 2017.

He lists employee resistance to change, a lack of acceptance from clients, and overall unpreparedness as the reasons why the SEC failed to digitalise before.

The technology to automate company registration systems was dated, leading to slow processing times and loss of applications, he says.

After two years of what Aquino calls “palliative solutions”, the pandemic arrived as a “silver lining”.

The public received digital initiatives with open arms, preferring remote operations over physical appointments, he recalls.

“We tried to avoid each other, so clients had to proceed though the digital platform,” Aquino says.

He highlights that digitising the company registration process increased the number of registrations every year since 2020, with over 46,000 new companies registered in 2023 alone.

From then onwards, investment in digital programmes has been a top priority for the commission, Aquino says.

With evolving technology and increased demands for efficient services, the challenge is to sustain the investments to continue updating the digital and automated processes.

“We cannot afford not to take this route…if you want to stay in the race, you have to go digital,” he adds.

The vision of the Commission is to achieve zero face-to-face transactions moving forward, Aquino adds.