IT competence is not optional

5

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.

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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.

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5 Comments

  1. Topping the problem is the ‘callous’ attitude of the BIR Commissioner who showed no compassion to the plight of ordinary taxpayers, Like his boss in the aftermath of typhoon Yolanda, she seems not to care at all.

  2. jesus nazario on

    When the BOT awards for major IT projects for 4 government agencies (LTO, LRA, NSO and DFA) were made some 20 or so years ago we thought the Philippines has finally and seriously entered the information era. There was also the Bureau of Customs computerization project which was rolled out around this time. The BIR World-Bank-funded computerization project was started back in 1994 and before the year 2000, the integrated system must have been in full stream. Now, 21 years after we had this disaster on a non-complex function such as income tax filing ! Lalayo pa tayo, look at our automated election system. Sabog na sabog din despite billions having been spent on it. Even the automated voters registration project is still an unfinished opus 12 years after it was started. We still have an uncleansed voters list database system still containing an unknown number of replicate registrations despite the award of the Automated Fingerprint Identification System in 2009 which should have cleansed this database in about 18 to 24 months thereafter. . These are just samples of the mess happening in the public sector IT efforts ! This is simply unbelievable ! What is happening ? Are we retrogressing instead of progressing ? This is indeed terrible given the recognized competence of Filipino IT professionals worldwide. What seems to be the trouble ? This must be investigated preferably by an independent and competent audit company pronto.

  3. Vicente Penetrante on

    Information technology is taking over individual rights and privacy. Soon, there’ll be no need for judgment day, all of us will be transparent.

    • Aside from the fact that your comment isn’t too related to the editorial, you’re watching too much Judge Dredd.

      As an IT professional, I believe that privacy can still be preserved by both the end-user and the service provider. We can continue this discussion if you can cite an example why you believe in dystopian transparency, and I’ll give a counter-example.