The proposed DICT: Is there really a need for one?By Niceto S. Poblador
Senate Bill S. No. 2546, which seeks to establish a separate Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) in the country, continues to generate intense debates in both the private and public sectors. First filed in August 2008, the bill seeks to achieve a number of specific goals—23 to be exact. These can be conveniently collapsed into three major objectives:
1.) To develop the ICT capabilities of the country for enhanced productivity and global competitiveness;
2.) To provide ICT solutions to government agencies and private entities; and
3.) To exercise jurisdiction over intellectual property rights relating to ICT.
Few will question the validity of these broad objectives. Except for the last one on the list (about which I will have a word or two later in this essay), I, too, believe that these goals are worth pursuing.
My basic question is this: Could there be more effective or less costly ways of achieving these goals short of adding yet another agency to our already bloated and cumbersome—some would say, inefficient—bureaucracy?
In addressing this basic question, let me look at a number of specific issues.
There certainly is a role for government in building up the country’s basic ICT infrastructure—often referred to as the national information superhighway—by installing the basic facilities that are needed to store massive amounts of data and to facilitate the free flow of information within the country and with the rest of the world.
But do we really need a new executive department for this purpose? To my mind, this task, along with that of servicing and maintaining these facilities once installed, could very well be undertaken by the Department of Science and Technology. The DoST can also serve as the nerve center and super monitoring agency of the huge and complex network of highly interconnected industry players in both the public and private sectors. In addition to its usual role of formulating national policy on science and technology development, in general, the DoST can also do so for ICT policy in particular. The needed expertise and technical skills are already in place in that agency. The economies that can be realized from a strategy of expanding the role of the DoST in lieu of creating a separate Department of ICT could be quite considerable indeed.
A major problem that I foresee is how to delineate the boundary line between the proposed DICT from the existing DoST. In today’s digitally driven world, all—and I mean ALL—technologies have C and IT components.
Let me drive home my point with some illustrative examples. The automobile three or four years from now will be a virtual communications and information center that will link its passengers to the rest of our digitally interconnected world. In military technology, weaponry, logistics and ICT are intimately interwoven. In bio-medical technology, miniaturization and digitalization have dramatically transformed diagnostics. Given these realities, the boundary line between the proposed DICT and the DoST will be hopelessly blurred, and turf battles between these agencies are likely to be serious and damaging to both institutions and to society.
Senate Bill S 2546 also envisions the proposed DICT as a service provider by developing ICT solutions for government agencies, business enterprises, educational and research institutions, and other potential clients. To be effective in this role, the proposed DICT must develop the necessary expertise and capability in terms of human and physical capital in order to be competitive with a large number of global and local service providers, which include such iconic names as IBM, Cisco and Oracle. It is doubtful that the proposed DICT can hack it in this arcane and intensely competitive business.
An important concern, one which is easy to overlook, is the issue of territoriality. Once the proposed DICT is formally created, its mandated goals are specified, its internal governance mechanisms are put in place, and its personnel are recruited, its culture will start to evolve. There is nothing wrong with this, of course. Organizational culture is the unifying force that binds together the members of an organization and gives it a sense of commonality of purpose. The downside is conflict of interest, or what economists call “Agency Costs,” between the new organization and the other agencies of government, notably the DoST. All too often, the interests of the organization—and those of its individual members—prevail over those of society itself. The loss to society from this anomalous situation in terms of economic value foregone could be quite staggering.
As a matter of professional bias, I am totally averse to the legal protection and control of patents and other forms of intellectual property rights. In my way of thinking, property rights apply to land and other forms of physical and financial resources. They are not applicable to information and knowledge, the communal ownership and use of which, contrary to conventional thinking, enhances rather than destroys their value. To my mind, the legal protection of patents, and to a lesser extent, copyrights, stifles the innovative and creative process which, in today’s knowledge-driven world, requires extensive collaborative effort and free access to information.
Let me leave this contentious issue at that.
In any case, I don’t think that the proposed DICT should have any jurisdiction over intellectual property relating to ICT. This is a matter that is best left to the Bureau of Patents of the Intellectual Property Rights Office of the Philippines.
(The article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines. The author is a former professor of management in UP Mindanao. Feedback at email@example.com. For previous articles, visit <map.org.ph>.)
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