by Karol Ann Ilagan
ANY IMPROVEMENT in transparency via the newly launched Data.gov.ph may only be realized by the time the project fully rolls out. But the initial development of the website, a response to the growing open data movement worldwide, reveals a basic yet crucial concern that underscores the current information management and access regime in government.
The gap in the use and knowledge of information and communication technologies (ICT) across the bureaucracy is far and wide, making it difficult to access or even share information among agencies. The challenge also goes beyond the technical aspect of having the infrastructure to process and publish data in a timely manner. Some agencies were said to have “concerns” about providing information because it may be used against them.
These hurdles, common among citizens and journalists trying to obtain information from government, were also met by the Open Data Task Force, the group in charge of consolidating data from agencies and presenting them in accessible formats on Data.gov.ph.
“What is wrong with putting out data? This is part of government,” presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda told reporters at the Good Governance Summit held on January 16. This was his response to agencies, whom he said, had issues about providing the Task Force with information. The development of Data.gov.ph pushed through, he said, because the Task Force was able to assuage those concerns. “Let’s not be afraid of, kung sisitahin tayo ng media, because that is our work. We’re supposed to give government data to the public and it is our duty to disclose it.”
Undersecretary Richard Moya of the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) also said that some officials or agencies still find power in knowing exclusive information. Data.gov.ph, he said, adheres to the idea that if the information does not involve executive deliberation, personal data, or national security data, then it must be published. But not all agencies, he noted, think this way.
“So the best way is to put something up, make a business case for that,” Moya said. “So that people will find real benefit, hindi lang kwentong-benefit, and then from there, it’s now easier to convince other agencies to come in, also to pressure other agencies to start publishing.”
As an executive initiative, Data.gov.ph covers national government agencies (NGAs) only, which means that information from other branches of government like the legislature, judiciary, and constitutional commissions are not available.
Of over 100 NGAs, Data.gov.ph has partnerships with 30 agencies, 22 of which have provided their respective datasets on the site. The website’s data catalogue has 547 files from 19 agencies as of this writing. The infographics tab, meanwhile, carry 10 dashboards covering time-series data on budget, procurement, consumer goods, school enrollment, higher education, customs, water quality, and traffic.
“(T)he key really is to expand the ecosystem so that the stakeholders are bigger and therefore it ensures a more continuous disclosure,” Moya said. “Kasi hindi siya pwe-pwedeng executive-driven or small group kasi mamamatay siya later on (It cannot be executive-driven or composed only by a small group because it will not survive later on).”
The new Gov.ph site, published three days before Congress resumed session this year, had also caught the attention of transparency advocates seeking to get a clear push from President Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III and the House of Representatives to pass the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill, a measure that is supposed to uphold citizens’ right to information and ensure uniform access across all government offices.
Moya himself said that the FOI provision becomes relevant when agencies do not want to disclose information because the law gives certain rights to individuals to demand data.
The open-data model, on the other hand, as explained by Lacierda is supply-driven. Through Data.gov.ph, Lacierda said government is putting out data that citizens might find useful, depending on the perspective of the user. “At least it’s out there. It’s something for you to see. Now, it’s up to you to look,” he said.
In the United Kingdom, one of the first countries to publish an open data website, concerns have been raised about open data becoming a substitute for freedom of information. The danger with open data, according to UK’s Information Commissioner Christopher Graham in a Telegraph report, is that citizens only get to see what the government chooses to make available instead of government providing data to specific queries.
Lacierda said that substituting FOI with open data was “farthest from our mind.” “In fact, they go hand in hand,” he added citing the experience in the United States and the United Kingdom, two countries that both have “very strong FOI laws yet they still continue to push out open data.”
Moya, chief information officer of the DBM, for his part, said that the intention is not to put one over the other. “So it’s not an ‘or’ proposition, it’s an ‘and’ proposition… FOI is a law, and there’s a dynamic to create a law. Independent of that process doesn’t stop us from actually disclosing data already,” he said.
“If we publish everything, then it’s always best that you don’t even need to ask for it because it is already available,” Moya said. “Push is always better than pull.”
Data.gov.ph also features a community page that allows citizens to post comments or requests for information.
Moya explained that the information requests will be subject to some dynamics such as whether or not the information being requested exists or how “cooperative” agencies are in providing the data. He also said that the information might be difficult to obtain because the repository agency lacks the infrastructure to produce or process the data.
Ideally, government offices should have the back-end system to support the feeding of information to Data.gov.ph. But not all agencies, according to Moya, have this capacity. He added that agencies have different levels of appreciation for open data or the use of information available in machine-readable, reusable, and cost-free formats.
Accounts from members of the Task Force bare hints of the so-called “digital divide” within government, the same gap that prevails among Filipinos despite living in the “texting capital” of the world. Many agencies still rely on hard or paper copies instead of digital files, or prefer fax machines over email. Some government employees also do not use their government-issued email accounts. One agency is said to have handed over the Task Force information saved in a floppy disk.
The results of five e-government surveys conducted so far by the United Nations Public Administration Network from 2003 to 2012 emphasize the need for the Philippines to improve its ICT system.
In 2003, the Philippines fared well on the first round of the survey landing at No. 33 out of 173 countries, but the succeeding years saw the country falling behind the list. From 48th in 2005, 66th in 2008, and 78th in 2010, the Philippines is now at No. 88 in the UN’s e-government development index (EGDI).
The EGDI measures the willingness and capacity of national governments in 193 UN member-states to use ICT to deliver public services. It is based on a survey of the most important dimensions of e-government, covering the scope and quality of online services, development status of telecommunication infrastructure, and human capital.
In Southeast Asia, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam and Vietnam trail before the Philippines in the 2012 EGDI. South Korea leads the 193 countries followed by the Netherlands, United Kingdom, and Denmark, with the United States, Canada, France, Norway, Singapore, and Sweden close behind.
Data.gov.ph is one of several ICT-hinged reforms introduced by the Aquino government. At core here is a coherent ICT policy that should be able to support government programs as well as meet the information needs of citizens. But ICT improvement has lagged since the president decided to downgrade what used to be called the Commission on Information and Communications Technology (CICT), the agency tasked to promote and develop the country’s ICT system, to one of the offices under the Department of Science and Technology (DOST).
In 2011, right after the release of Philippine Digital Strategy for 2011 to 2016, CICT was reorganized into ICTO or the Information and Communications Technology Office under the DOST.
Since the reorganization, the government has introduced the Medium-Term Information and Communications Technology Harmonization Initiative (MITHI) that is “designed to streamline and harmonize all ICT systems across government, and ensure a systematic process for the planning, budgeting, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of government-wide ICT projects.”
MITHI is envisioned as a process that will complement the E-Government Master Plan (EGMP) that ICTO came up with in December 2012. MITHI is currently being implemented by the DBM, ICTO, and National and Economic Development Authority (NEDA).
Moya, chief information officer of DBM, said that MITHI will “fill in the void.” “This one is an initiative that is parallel (to Data.gov.ph) whose purpose is to just cull all these data and then publish at the same time,” he said.
Lacierda, for his part, said that the varying levels of information available in agencies will continue to be a challenge for the Open Data Task Force. This is why, he says, an Open Data champion is also assigned per agency to facilitate the proper processing of data. “The Task Force continues to engage them, especially on the back-end kasi mahalaga talaga ‘yun, but the commitment is there,” he said.
Data.gov.ph, along with an FOI law, is part of the commitments of the Philippines to the Open Government Partnership (OGP), an initiative launched by US President Barack Obama in 2011 that seeks to promote transparency and accountability in governance. The Philippines is one of the eight founding member-nations of the OGP, which now includes 60 countries worldwide.
The World Bank provided technical assistance to the Philippine government in the initial setting up of the website. Data.gov.ph is being managed by the DBM and the Office of the President.