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Celebrating Public Service

It’s Civil Service Day in the Philippines tomorrow, and I wanted to add a few words of my own to this public celebration of the contribution of Filipino public servants.

I have always found the Philippines to be a heady mix of legislative logjam, tightly circumscribed agency responsibilities, threadbare public finances, directed by a polity that is unencumbered by ideology, mission or conviction.

To add extra spice, efforts to leverage ICT within the public sector have taken two steps back, and only one step forward with the disbanding of the Commission on ICT, which had previously taken the lead in driving the country’s e-government endeavours.

Combine all of the above with a beautiful but messy geography that hinders economic development, which is prone to a never-ending sequence of natural disaster – well, I think you will agree that the men and women of the Philippines’ public sector deserve their day each year, and much more besides.

And still they perform wonders. In spite of all I’ve described (perhaps because of it), the Filipino civil servants I know shrug their shoulders, giggle self consciously, and rise to the occasion time and time again.

Just as Filipinos are used to having to pick up the pieces after each typhoon, landslide, flood – so do Filipino civil servants after each abrupt policy shift, judicial intervention and leaky budgetary allocation. Look at what they have achieved.

Alongside India, they are world leaders in e-voting. Their Bureau of Internal Revenue (the tax man) is home to one of the most sophisticated business intelligence operations in Asia. Their national home development fund, Pag-IBIG, runs one of the world’s largest SAP databases, and is also at the leading edge of deploying kiosk-based services throughout the country. Back in the days of King Nokia, the Philippines public sector was the world leader in mobile government – and as smart phone penetration rises there, I wouldn’t bet against them being world leader again.

As my Nana used to tell me (normally before clipping me round the ear), ‘necessity is the Mother of invention’. Did ever less promising circumstances result in such incredible public sector innovation?

Lest I be accused of being hopelessly partisan, I believe that the special achievements of the Philippines’ public sector find their echo throughout the region.

This is the reason I travel – so that I can see at first hand how Hong Kong’s Immigration Department handles the incredible volumes of visitors across their land border with mainland China; how Malaysia’s MAMPU embraces rapid prototyping to mobile app development; how Australian agencies have grown accustomed to the cloud; how Indonesia’s Ministry of Finance is consolidating financial management across its fractured public sector; and how little Singapore commands the heights of e-government rankings with its robust, transactional service delivery.

None of the above is a technology success – it’s a civil servant success. Civil servants made these projects work. Civil servants put technology to new and better use. Civil servants made the difference.

On behalf of the FutureGov team, happy Civil Service Day to you wherever you live.


On 18 September 2013 Noreen Boots Gocon-Gragasin wrote:

Hi James. Thank you for giving a special thought and space to the Civil Service anniversary. All over Asia and the rest of the world, the civil servants provide that invaluable contribution to nation building. Of course, we know that they can also put their respective nations to damnation. Be that as it may, with efficient and effective civil servants, a lot of public sector confidence is restored and they might just make that huge impact on people's lives. Let me also take this opportunity to thank FutureGov for featuring technological innovations in the area of service delivery.

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