Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Perils of an External IT Solutions for the State

Short title: Stradcom.

The ‘hot cars’ issue is set ablazed once again as the Land Transportation Office (LTO) and the Bureau of Customs (BOC)try to find out how these cars with blue plates got out of the freeport and got registered even without having paid the appropriate taxes. The LTO Chief, in a 07 July 2011 memorandum addressed to all regional directors, assistant regional directors and LTO-IT systems users, reiterated an earlier order issued last July 1 disabling the USB ports of computers at the agency, to prevent its unauthorized use that may alter vehicle registration records. The memorandum is issued amid reports on the unauthorized updating of the LTO-IT database using flash drives to access the agency’s records.

Recall that LTO hired Stradcom, an IT solutions provider, to set up an interconnectivity system among LTO satellite offices. Stradcom insists that it does not have any access to the database. It maintains that the actual encoding and data management remain in the hands of LTO.

But in a recent expose, it was found out that two flash disks recovered from an alleged employee of Stradcom detailed at the Caloocan LTO branch has the capability to alter vehicle registrations, according to records in the LTO main database system. The Stradcom employee resigned from the position 3 days before the agency found out.

Recall also other issues regarding the motor vehicle report in the Manila hostage crisis, interconnectivity fees allegedly added on the registration fees, and bogged databases which all point against Stradcom. While these issues remain unresolved, the credibility and reliability of Stradcom as an IT solutions provider for the State is on the line.

While it is understandable that the State must rely on external IT solutions providers for its IT needs due to resource and technological constraints, it is troubling to see it being the steady trend. The grandest scale being the recent electronic elections where the PCOS machines were provided by a foreign provider. But as we see the way Stradcom operates, is it not high time that we solve our own IT problems by creating our own IT teams catered for the bureaucracy?

It is of course arguable that an agency-based IT department will not assure us zero corruption and beautiful loophole-free database systems. In this country, it is the first fact of life in the government that we are far from being uncorrupted and loophole-free. But in policy-making, we have to look at the State institutions with the presumption of the regularity of performance of duties and functions in the ordinary course of business. It is only in this almost utopic scenario that we can appreciate how a State-owned and State-created IT solutions team can contribute to creating a more reliant and credible bureaucracy.

The most obvious advantage in a state IT system would be accountability. It something goes wrong with the system, the State can only blame itself. The problem with an external IT provider is that their erring employees designated to the government agency are accountable only to the IT provider (its employer) and not to the State. When something goes wrong, like when a provider’s employee manipulates the database and our techno-challenged bureaucrats don’t even discover the fraud until an expose explodes, the most that the State can do is probably sue the IT provider (employer) for damages on the ground of its vicarious liability in the selection and supervision of its erring employee. The high standard of public accountability that is demanded from every public official cannot be accorded to non-public officials, like IT-adept employees with corrupt tendencies.

Every year, the Government shells out millions of pesos to external IT solutions providers when our state universities give birth to brilliant techie minds who can provide the same solutions and even better. We all have an idea what the nationalism and idealism of the youth can bring to the bureacrat’s table. LTO got Stradcom to take advantage of the IT boom. It thought, and so did we, less papers means less primitive ways (corruption included). But we now see how the boom can cripple us. And it will continue to do so until we see that the evils that IT seeks to curb are still here, if not in a more sophisticated form, as a result of our passivity to harness our own IT potentials and reliance instead on external providers.

Entry # 8

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