Aside from an acronym that can be the basis of a whole generation of Facebook memes, one thing that is worth pointing out about the Philippines’ new Department of Information and Communications Technology is that it’s a startup.
And like any startup, the founding team will play a crucial role. The DICT’s founding team needs a secretary, 3 under secretaries, and 4 assistant secretaries.
Who should they be?
Let’s start with the DICT is supposed to do. Section 6 of Republic Act 10844 – the law that created the department – lists the following powers and functions as its mandate:
1. Policy and planning: creating national ICT programs, promote ICT in education along with the DepED, CHED, and TESDA, and optimize all government ICT resources.
2. Public access: creating rules for the establishment of ICT services in underserved areas; provide for free internet access in government offices and public areas.
3. Resource sharing and capacity-building: harmonize and coordinate ICT initiatives across government agencies, develop an integrated government ICT infrastructure, and assist in providing technical expertise to government agencies.
4. Consumer protection and industry development: ensure privacy rights, support investment promotion in ICT, and form international and local partnerships to drive ICT.
These are huge tasks. #3 alone hurts my brain, just thinking of the amount of work involved. The sheer magnitude of bureaucracy, national and local needs, vested interests, fragmented technical resources, and a technology landscape moving at hyper speed make failure intrinsically built into the job.
And this is why we need only the best to be leading the DICT. Though it would be hard to pin down exactly who the best person for the job is, I can wager a bet on who should NOT be even considered.
First, no lawyers. We have enough lawyers in government. If you look at the details of the DICT’s mandate, a huge portion of its success relies on strong collaboration and coordination with a multitude of organizations: telcos, technology providers, service providers, other executive departments, local government units, quasi-judicial agencies, and international bodies.
The DICT secretary will have to balance the competing tensions of a tech environment moving faster than the starship Enterprise traveling at warp 9.9 and the slow, lackadaisical way the average local leader makes decisions. Any entrepreneur who tried to selling to Filipino organizations knows this.
I have a lot of smart lawyer friends. The smartest ones play to their strengths and know what they are not: effective managers at scale. The DICT secretary should essentially be a manager who knows how to get things done through people. His output is the output of other people.
Also: the fine print. The DICT involves the reorganization and merger of existing agencies from the DOTC (which will be subsequently renamed simply as the Department of Transportation). The DICT needs manager who has done post-merger integration work. And as any human resources chief can attest, this is no small feat.
Second, should it be a telco person? I’m torn. Though it may be tempting to think that an alum from any of the two telcos could do the job, I’m leaning that the DICT secretary probably shouldn’t be a telco alum. Providing free internet access in government offices is a tremendous and expensive initiative alone. We wouldn’t want even the slightest perception of a conflict of interest. See the rabid reaction to Mark Villar’s appointment to the DPWH as a case in point.
Also, the NTC will become an attached agency of the DICT. And with the President’s drive to force the local providers to speed up the internet, we’d probably need a DICT secretary who can be tougher, more provocative, and more strong-willed to get things done.
Gerry Ablaza and Polly Nazareno, for instance, are both genuinely nice guys; the former is the ex-CEO of Globe (and currently runs Manila Water) while the latter just retired from Smart. But since both are above 60, I wouldn’t wish on them the grueling grind of working 80-hour weeks to get the DICT established and fully functional. They’ve both had stellar careers and they deserve an easier life. Let’s simply get them as advisory board members.
Which leads me to this part of the negative list – the DICT secretary shouldn’t be a sunset leader in his 60s who thinks this is a just a ceremonial post. At the risk of sounding ageist, we wouldn’t someone who can’t routinely work 15-hour days. There’s gonna be a lot of intense shit going to get this job done that it’s gotta be taken as seriously as a first year associate entering McKinsey or Goldman Sachs does.
But seriously, it should be someone who intuitively understands the innovation economy.
S/he must speak the language of the internet’s infrastructure, platform economics, net neutrality, cloud computing, and big data, among others.
S/he must be student of technology history, and how nations made the leap through technological advancement.
S/he must have spent time in the Valley. Or studied the technology trajectories of Japan, Singapore, Korea, or Taiwan. S/he must have witnessed the dawn of the internet in the Philippines. S/he must know the reasons why the future of the digital economy in the country rests with small businesses, not the big conglomerates. S/he must know who Ada Lovelace is.
The local fashion industry likes to use the word “peg” as a term to describe a look, style, or palette to imitate. So in a nutshell, here are 5 quick pegs on which kind of leaders we’ll need at the DICT founding team.
Think Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. This is the uber-manager who is both a captain and soldier, a strategist and tactician, a general and a diplomat. The Operator gets things done not just within a small team, but with a vast array of often conflicting constituents in pursuit of a common mission.
The Product Visionary
This is the young gun who boldly goes where no one has gone before. That is my 2nd second Star Trek reference in this post, so I’ll just stop right there. But seriously, this is someone like Chris Hughes, who helped create the technology backbone of the Obama campaign (and a Facebook co-founder).
The Product Visionary gets digital media and has an intuitive understanding of how users interact with technology to make their lives better. S/he has a design & user experience background, and can for instance, design easier ways to file taxes online, or renew drivers’ licenses, or apply for passports.
The Platform Builder
Think Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who spent a more than decade building platforms such as Maps, Gmail, Chrome, and Android.
A Platform Builder running the DICT would bring a step-change in how e-government works. For instance, imagine a one-stop Singapore-style online portal for business registration. Doing so would require integrating the back-ends of various agencies involved in the process, from the SEC, BIR, and DTI to LGUs, PhilHealth and SSS.
The Data Guy
This is the country’s chief data scientist, tying together all the data-related initiatives of the government such as Data.gov.ph, or helping Comelec prevent another data leak. Think someone like DJ Patil, the chief data scientist of the United States. S/he can help predict and counter emerging cyber security threats.
This is the career executive who has spent decades working in tech. S/he started in engineering, then moved up the ranks in management to lead teams with an ever increasing scope and complexity, and eventually becoming responsible for an entire platform.
Someone like Minerva Tantoco – the Filipino American CTO of New York City and who spent many years in the technology side of financial services – would be perfect for this. The incoming DICT team should definitely have her on their advisory board.
Bonus: An army of Bertram Gilfoyles. Yeah, the DICT would likely also need an army of guys who can get shit done without caring for the politics-induced BS that comes with the territory. And guys like that won’t work for the kind of guy rumored to be angling for the post.
What kind of leader should be DICT secretary? Chime in below.