The national government is urging local government units (LGUs) to ramp up usage of digital tools and services to better cope with the economic setback brought by the Covid-19 pandemic, even as access to ICT remains riddled with deep-seated problems.
In an online forum organized by mobile wallet provider PayMaya, Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) assistant secretary Mary Jean Pacheco said one of their priorities now is to enable small businesses to make better use of ICT.
“Digitalization of SMEs is primordial, that is a priority for DTI,” said Pacheco, reading prepared remarks from DTI secretary Ramon Lopez. “We must prepare SMEs to adapt to these models.” Pacheco said they are now in consultation with industry groups to craft a new economic roadmap for digital.
NEDA undersecretary Rose Edillon, likewise, said that one of the key pillars of good governance today is being “technology-enabled.”
One of the priority areas outlined by Edillon under the so-called Recharge PH, which is an economic recovery strategy from Covid-19, is health system improvement, food security, learning continuity, and digital transformation. “We are seeing now that the new normal is actually a digital normal,” Edillon said.
The national economy has now crashed into a recession, after going through two consecutive quarters of negative economic growth. After a Covid-19 induced lockdown that severely hamstrung economic activity, the country’s gross domestic product shrank -0.7% in the first quarter and a record -16.5% in the second quarter.
The Covid-19 pandemic raised the need for LGUs to adopt a technology-based and mobile public services to ensure continuity of local economic development. But reaping the benefits of technology isn’t as easy for many, as access remains uneven and beset with timeworn issues.
Edillon noted that LGUs are faced with challenges such as lack of modern ICT technology and facilities; poor and high cost of Internet connectivity across geographic areas; underutilized ICTs in e-government systems; and lack of private investments in expansion of ICT infrastructure networks.
Edillon said local government units “need to adapt to ensure continuity of local development, not just public services.” Strengthening e-governance systems could be one of the areas LGUs could use ICT services for. Edillon said these ICT-powered services may include mobile revenue collection office system, electronic business permits and licensing system, and a one-stop online shop linking all digital services.
Aside from being a big proponent of digital solutions, the government is also finding ways to address structural barriers such as lack of cell towers through executive action according to Edillon.
Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines (ULAP) president Dakila Cua said the countryside remains a frontier area for digital services. “There is a wealth of opportunity in going to the countryside and investing especially in the digital world. We have so many farmers who have yet to be reached by digital,” he said.
Cua, who is also the incumbent governor of Quirino province, also noted that local governments could help make their areas more viable for private investment by being the initial enabler even by making use of dated technology.
“Kailangan din talagang i-mix ‘yung not-so-current technology sa new technology to bring down the cost of infra. ‘Yan ang tulay natin ngayon to the point na mura na ‘yung new technology, then we can upscale,” Cua said. With fiber-optic cable being too costly now, Cua said they are making use of copper wires to lay down the groundwork for connectivity.
“In very remote areas, it would be very hard for telcos to invest especially in areas that are sparsely populated, so we are looking at older but still reliable tech to bridge the gap,” Cua said. “Every LGU wants it (ICT), ang tanong lang is: Can they afford it?”
PayMaya enterprise head for public sector Marvin Santos said the private and public sector could go hand-in-hand in helping ramp up digital access. “Sari-sari stores can utilize e-commerce tools and go cashless. The role of the LGU is not primarily to transform itself but also to enable its citizens,” Santos said.