By Kurt Dela Peña, May 4, 2022; Philippine Daily Inquirer 

MANILA, Philippines—An engaged citizenry will make the government more responsive.

This was stressed by Dr. Sherwin Ona last Thursday (April 28) as he said that the next administration should make digitalization a “priority,” not only to make services faster but as a “tool for inclusion, innovation, resilience and good governance”.

“We really need to think of our way forward,” Ona, who is political science and development studies associate professor at the De La Salle University, said at an online forum organized by the think tank Stratbase ADR Institute (Stratbase ADI).

“If we create open spaces, new things will flourish, we can engage more. We can stamp corruption out. Services will be more efficient, more transparent,” he said as he presented the findings of his work—the “Digitalization Agenda 2022: Towards a Resilient Philippines Through Digital Transformation and Inclusion”, which is part of the Stratbase ADI series of papers.

Digital is what’s new

Ona said people, especially the young, will start to ask “why we do what we do”. He stressed that “if we fail to respond to their demands […] chances are we’ll be left with nothing”.

He said data from the World Economic Forum (WEF), World Bank and the Asian Development Bank already highlights the “trend” on digital transformation, saying that the COVID-19 crisis even “served as a watershed moment for digital transformation to blossom”.

WEF said that in 2020, the year when COVID-19 hit, more than 25 percent of consumers used mobile devices for purchases for at least once a week. A 20 percent increase in telemedicine is likewise expected from 2020 to 2024.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Ona said, is a hot spot for digital development and that it already leads the world on some “indicators,” like internet and social media use.

However, he stressed that digital transformation should always come with its “most important aspect”—the ability to present a coherent vision.

“What do we want? How do we get there? What is the technology that we can use?” he said.

Ona said the government should first address digitalization in these sectors: public health, micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), and education, saying that these are the “high impact” areas.

“If we’re going to invest in digital transformation, then these three sectors can really push those investments forward, and we will have benefits which we can immediately reap,” he said.

‘Double-edged digital sword’

The COVID-19 crisis saw the rise of digital platforms for shopping, financial transactions, and virtual work arrangements. This, Ona said, has allowed the continuation of economic activity and the fostering of social cohesion.

“New practices in learning and tele-health have allowed economies to avoid the severe effects on productivity and wellbeing, thus allowing essential interactions to continue without the risk of infection,” he said.

Data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development showed that in the ASEAN region, small package delivery services are expected to grow by 12 percent by 2025.

However, technology, he warned, can also hurt people, saying that Filipinos have seen the spread of “fake news” which resulted in disinformation and undesired actions from people.

Ona likewise said that the COVID-19 lockdowns exposed the Philippines’ lack of a long-term digitalization strategy and its failure to invest in digital infrastructure. He said these were the problems:

“If you’re a government, digital transformation is about listening to citizens and knowing their demands,” he said.

The Dx agenda

In his paper, Ona proposed the operationalization of the Digital Agenda 2022 to these: digital transformation, digital inclusion, and protection of the digital infrastructure.

Digital transformation in government, he said, highlights the ability of the government to transform its services to an integrated, cross-organizational platform that is citizen-centric.

Digital inclusion stresses the significance of addressing societal deficits concerning the digital divide.

These technologies, Ona said, should be used to address the concerns of marginalized groups, especially because the COVID-19 crisis is still here: “This should be a tool to address inequalities.”

Finally, the protection of the country’s digital infrastructure proposes a shift from the current cybercrimes perspective to cyber defense.

“We must protect our infrastructure. We cannot adopt all of these things without being conscious of how to protect privacy, protect citizens in particular, and of course our digital infrastructure in general.”

Is PH ready?

In his presentation, Ona said digital transformation is “reshaping today’s public sector,” however, is the Philippines ready for this?

Data from the World Bank showed that 60 percent of households in the Philippines still lack access to the internet. Likewise, the Philippines remains an analog economy with 7 Mbps speed for 3G and 4G when the ASEAN region’s average is 13.26 Mbps.

Constrained by low broadband penetration, the World Bank said the Philippines has the 4th highest cost of mobile broadband—$6.30/month.

But Ona saw a light of hope from the “digital native Filipino”.