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Airport lines and ICT woes

By: Cielito F. Habito, PhD

Sometimes it seems as if we simply can’t move forward without taking a step or two backward at the same time. On a brief trip abroad last week, I was pleased to see how we no longer need to fill out those pesky immigration forms. One wonders why it took so long, when we’ve had machine-readable passports for years. And unless one has something to declare, there’s also no need to fill out a Customs form upon arrival. Welcome (and overdue) forward steps indeed.

But at the start of the trip came the downer: It’s now a greater hassle to pay the Department of Tourism’s P1,620 travel tax, necessary if you bought a ticket online—which a great number of us do nowadays. On some strange logic (unless they think waiting in line is part of the fun of being in the Philippines), the DOT people at Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia) Terminal 3 had the bright idea of making people line up twice for the process. The first queue, some 30-people long when I was there, was just to check your papers and to issue you an “Authorization to Receive Payment” slip (an unnecessary expense of paper, and trees, if you ask me). After lining up about 15 minutes for that, you’re asked to move to an even longer queue for the cashiers sitting right beside the checkers you just lined up for, in order to pay the tax. (Picture yourself already at the counter, having to walk back again some 60-80 feet away from it to line up anew behind 40 people for that same counter, only this time for the cashiers.) Total time spent: 30-45 minutes. What made them change the old setup, where you lined up to have both steps done in one go, simply escapes me.

I wrote some time back about how international passengers leaving at Naia must line up 9-10 times before flying off, when one typically does so only 3-4 times elsewhere (“Needless queues and competitiveness,” Opinion, 11/13/12). Since then, the DOT people at Naia (at least in Terminal 3, where I departed from last week) still managed to add yet another queue to all that, congratulations. I would have expected them to be at the forefront of getting those queues reduced! In welcome news, the Department of Transportation and Communications recently announced that agreement has been reached with international airlines to integrate the P550 terminal fee into the price of the tickets starting October. That would mean one needless queue less. But again I ask, why couldn’t we have done it years ago, as other countries did? And why October still?

Why can’t the DOT reach similar agreement with the airlines on the travel tax? Don’t tell me it’s because not all passengers need to pay the tax; in this information and communication technology (ICT) age, surely there’s a way to handle that. And why didn’t the DOTC and the DOT just negotiate with the airlines together? Don’t we have enough coordination and teamwork in this government to have thought of that? How I miss President Fidel Ramos’ constant demand for UST (unity, solidarity and teamwork) and CSW (complete staff work) from his Cabinet during his time.

We pride ourselves in being the texting capital of the world, in being tech savvy, and in having excellent ICT and computer professionals, many of whom we export to other countries to propel their own ICT sectors. And yet our government has lagged sorely behind in using ICT to strengthen governance, streamline public services, improve revenue collection, and reduce the costs of doing business. Part of it traces to our leaders’ seeming lack of appreciation of the critical and overarching role ICT plays in modern society. Many of us have long argued for a Department of ICT (DICT) to upgrade the former Commission on ICT (CICT) and subsume the communications functions of the DOTC (whose transportation functions would in turn be best merged into the Department of Public Works and Highways). Instead, the current government moved in the reverse direction, downgrading CICT into a mere office under the Department of Science and Technology, led by an executive director with no clout to implement a government-wide strategic and integrated ICT system.

CICT, created through Executive Order No. 269 by former president Gloria Arroyo in January 2004, was tasked to “manage, coordinate and implement ICT-related plans of the government,” and “to harmonize the country’s ICT agenda.” But in June 2011, just days after CICT had unveiled its Philippine Digital Strategy 2011-2016 as the country’s medium-term ICT roadmap, President Aquino surprised many by issuing EO 47, downgrading CICT into the ICT office. Did ICT become a casualty in this government’s seeming penchant for undoing anything done by its predecessor, bad or good? Or was it merely a “sidestep” to pave the way for the creation of a Cabinet-level DICT, as some wishful thinkers initially thought? Well, three years later and given persistent negative signals from Malacañang, it seemed wishful thinking indeed.
Meanwhile, the Bureau of Customs wants to do away with face-to-face contact with importers and have paperless transactions by next year. Indeed, government agencies in general need to do away with paper forms to speed up transactions and curb bribery and corruption that face-to-face contact with the public abets—and to save our trees to boot. For this, we need electronic signatures to finally be accepted in government transactions, which I’m told continues to be inoperative even as the E-Commerce Act of 2000 mandated it 14 years ago! A DICT could have made that happen by now.

Surely, the less we need to show up in government offices and the less we all have to line up to get things done, the better off we would all be.

6/24/2014