March 6, 2004 (STAR) By Alma Buelva - When President Arroyo signed Executive Order No. 269, entitled "An Act Creating the Commission on Information and Communication Technology," last Jan. 12, there was little guessing as to who should head it.

Virgilio Peña, executive director of the Information Technology and E-Commerce Council (ITECC), was the obvious right choice. As he transitions from being an undersecretary for ICT of the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) to become the first-ever chairman of the Commission on Information and Communication Technology (CICT), Peña took one afternoon to discuss with NetWorks the new commission’s first targets.

NetWorks: What are the CICT’s pressing targets before the elections?

Peña: The first item in the agenda that we need to complete as quickly as possible is our implementing rules and regulations (IRR) because these will essentially put the commission in effect. That work is ongoing now. I have a small task force that is putting the IRR together. Hopefully, we can finish them by the middle of April.

Then we have to attend to the transition plan: from where we are right now as an integral part of the DOTC to a separate body represented by the commission. It’s a transition plan that may very well extend beyond the term of the President as it may take a little longer (to finish). In the meantime, we can start integrating some of the ITECC activities into the existing organization, without having to necessarily wait for the commission to be completely put in place.

NetWorks: How many government personnel will be affected by the realignment of their old IT offices to the CICT structure?

Peña: Roughly about 6,000 government employees will be affected as the CICT absorbs the ICT offices and personnel of the DOTC, National Computer Center, Telecommunications Office (TelOf), National Telecommunication Commission (NTC) and Philippine Postal Corp. It’s a question of realigning these people to the structure that we will eventually put in place with ITECC.

TelOf itself has more than 4,000 employees and it is regionally structured. There’s a TelOf in every region of the country, operating the networks which are still owned by the government. The NCC has several hundred people and within the DOTC, there are some 50 or so personnel who will be affected by the move. TelOf is an integral part of the CITC, whereas the NTC is just an attached agency that will continue to enjoy its quasi-judicial personality and its interface with the CITC is purely on the policy direction standpoint.

NetWorks: How significant is the CICT creation in the history of IT development in the country? Is it more significant than the passage of the E-Commerce Law?

Peña: It is most definitely more important because this becomes the realization of a cause that the IT community has always been fighting for: the recognition of IT as an industry that warrants focus from government by way of a government body responsible for ICT. To me, it’s a major milestone as far as the IT industry in the Philippines is concerned.

NetWorks: Do you think there is a chance for a Department of Information and Communication Technology by 2005?

Peña: I would think so. The fact that there is already a commission makes it easier for a department to be created because a lot of the preliminary work would have been completed already. It’s almost just a question of renaming it as a department.

NetWorks: What happens to the ITECC now?

Peña: In the last ITECC meeting, we had the decision made by the President that there will no longer be a need for the ITECC because there is now a commission. The ITECC will effectively be replaced by an advisory body made up of the private sector. The main rationale behind the existence of the ITECC is essentially to have the leadership of the President and the involvement of the different Cabinet members and the private sector. The commission essentially elevates it to a position where it has a direct relationship with the President and peer level with the other Cabinet secretaries. The only ingredient missing is the private sector, which we want to introduce through an advisory council or board.

NetWorks: What’s helping push for greater ICT focus in government?

Peña: I think it is the presence of forward-thinking senior government officials. In addition to the President, I’d like to also acknowledge and recognize Budget Secretary Emilia Boncodin who has been very supportive in terms of providing the much-needed funding for e-government. With the availability of that fund, we have more resources to implement our strategies as far as e-government is concerned.

NetWorks: How much was the fund and how was it spent?

Peña: The initial (2003) e-government fund was P4 billion. I have to admit that part of it was spent for the Comelec computerization project. About P1.8 billion was for the 12 or 15 ITECC-endorsed e-government projects. There are a few hundred million pesos left of the 2003 budget for the pipeline of projects still being evaluated.

There was an inclusion of a billion pesos in the 2004 budget. This is also a milestone because in 2003 the e-government fund came from reserves and savings, but for this year, it was actually a line item in the budget submitted by the government. In a way, it sets the tone that there should be an e-government fund set aside. This P1-billion e-government fund will transition from the ITECC to the CICT. Incidentally, we are asking for the equivalent e-government fund that we got in 2003. There’s a good chance that we will get it as Secretary Boncodin is fully supportive.

NetWorks: The industry has gone through several unfulfilled national IT blueprints. What should be the country’s IT roadmap in the next couple of years?

Peña: Our plan right now is to come up with an e-government strategy to identify critical government services that address the requirements of citizens and businesses. These are what we used to call government-to-citizen and government-to-business systems. After they are identified, we hope to fund them from the e-government fund. One of the projects we funded out of the 2003 appropriation was the development of a single e-government portal where all government services could be accessed nationwide.

Hopefully, we can come up with at least a strategy before June. I think that’s realistic… My thinking is so long as we follow the ITECC roadmap, then that will already lay out the master plan as far as the development of ICT (is concerned since the) ITECC roadmap addresses all the elements of ICT development for e-government and human resources, for example.

The ITECC also has an information infrastructure roadmap that aims to provide broadband Internet access to our rural communities. The strategy we are putting in place to deploy them is through community e-centers, which are public access points which we hope to deploy in most of the barangays. It works out quite well because, on one hand, you are developing content which is e-government and human resource development and, on the other hand, you are laying out the network for citizens to have Internet access.

I’m also trying to push for an E-Government Law to be passed. That’s one of the priorities the commission will undertake. In terms of best practices, the E-Government Law in the US has two elements which I find very attractive in terms of having them here in the Philippines. One is institutionalizing the role of the CIO where all departments of the government should have a high-level CIO and they will all be part of a CIO Council. Among themselves, they will integrate the systems of government, which is a major need as far as the Philippine e-government is concerned. The second significant element of the E-Government Law is it institutionalizes the availability of an e-government fund which again will be used to implement the integrated systems that will be put in place by the CIO Council.

NetWorks: Are we finally in the right track?

Peña: I think so. The move to have a CICT puts us on a par with our neighboring countries and should also move us as fast as they can in terms of developing ICT. Personally, I’m excited with the changes… The big challenge now is to get things moving in spite of the coming elections.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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