NOW that the dust is beginning to settle from the disastrous attempt by the Bureau of Internal Revenue to compel Filipino taxpayers to use a largely useless online tax return filing system, the government should be taking a hard look at the state of its information technology competence.
As many news outlets reported – and not without a little glee – last week, the online filing program used by the BIR is only compatible with later-version Windows operating systems (Vista, 7, 8, and 8.1), which excludes nearly half, about 47 percent, of computers in the country which use older versions of Windows, Mac OS, or some other system.
BIR Commissioner Kim Henares’ breezily dismissive reply to the multitude of complaints about the tax agency’s confusing, faulty system was a suggestion to “just go to an internet café,” which displayed not only a shameful callousness towards taxpayers simply trying to meet their civic obligations, but also a stunning lack of understanding of basic data security.
The problems at the BIR seemed spectacular because they affected a great many people at a critical time, but they were, unfortunately, not that unusual for a government agency in the Philippines. The usefulness of online systems – even a component as simple as an informational website – used by government agencies is inconsistent at best, and the security of government systems is frequently exposed by hacking attacks. Fortunately, those security breaches have largely been limited to malcontents making a political statement, or simply showing off their hacking skills. One would be foolish to think that a much more serious attack is not inevitable, if improvements are not made.
Problems in government IT facilities are not limited to the public sector, either. One of our own Times columnists recently related a tale of attempting to set up his smartphone with his bank’s mobile banking application, only to learn that it would require a visit to a local branch to submit a written application – an exercise that seemed to defeat the very purpose of online banking, in his view.
And of course, the volume and bitterness of customer complaints about the poor quality and high cost of digital services from the Philippines’ telecommunications providers has by now assumed almost legendary proportions.
As we noted in an editorial last Friday, President Aquino has made improving infrastructure a key priority for his administration – again – which, in spite of misgivings about how development will proceed, is still a welcome intention. But what was completely absent from the ‘wish list’ of proposed projects, which included highways, bridges, airports, seaports, and water systems, was any mention at all of IT infrastructure.
Ignoring IT is not only unrealistic and will cause the country to fall further behind its more forward-looking regional neighbors, it is also grossly unfair to citizens who rightly expect that the basic services their taxes pay for should work properly. It is grossly unfair to tax filers, for instance, to oblige them to use a system that may cause them additional expense and put the safety of their confidential private data at risk. The BIR electronic filing system literally accomplished nothing – as a solution, the BIR permitted filers to file their returns the old-fashioned way, on paper, and file the electronic version later, an idea that anyone would recognize instantly doubles the amount of work and risk of errors for everyone concerned.
For a country that likes to position itself as a leader in business process outsourcing and as one of the world’s up-and-coming economies, IT infrastructure is not optional, no more optional than roads or airports. The Philippines’ continuing to be a showcase of technical haplessness is not only embarrassing, it is going to have increasingly harmful effects on the economy and the public if it is not addressed with at least the same fervor as the aspiration to build more conventional infrastructure.