Why doesn’t the COMELEC trust Filipino IT professionals? by Gus Lagman

The last time I checked, all members of the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) are bona fide Filipinos, as they should be, according to the Philippine Constitution. Yet, from the way they made decisions in the past two years, one would think they were not. Their major decisions have mostly favored foreign companies, which led us to think that they don’t trust Filipino IT professionals. Let’s review some of those decisions:

First, the COMELEC chose a solution that was completely foreign – foreign hardware, foreign software, foreign integrator/implementor. On November 12, 2008, we presented to the commissioners a local solution which, at its most elaborate version, would have cost the taxpayers only a third of the P11.3 billion that the COMELEC spent on the automation of the May 10, 2010 elections. We presented this PC-based solution to the commissioners, not as vendors, but as a group of Filipino IT professionals who believe that should the COMELEC espouse this solution, it can then simply source the PCs locally and outsource the implementation to local systems integrators. (A significant benefit is that all the purchased PCs can be donated to public schools after every election, while at the same time avoiding the costly warehousing of the equipment in between elections.)

After our presentation, Chairman Melo remarked, “This is a good solution; if we don’t get the budget we’re asking for, we can use this.” Our jaws dropped upon hearing that remark. At that time, the COMELEC was still asking for a budget of more than P20 billion. The solution we presented would only cost P3-4 billion. We all thought that if they believed our solution was good, then why even bother asking for such a huge budget.

Second, TIM, at one point, wanted to back out of the joint venture for the reason that while they would own 60% of the joint venture company, control would mostly be in the hands of Smartmatic, the foreign company. Instead of rectifying this anomaly, the COMELEC prevailed upon TIM, the Filipino company, to accept this arrangement, or be brought to court.

Third, Section 12 of Republic Act 9369 says, “Once an AES technology is selected for implementation, the Commission shall promptly make the source code of that technology available and open to any interested political party or groups which may conduct their own review thereof.” On the other hand, Section 9 says, “The Committee shall certify, through an established international certification entity … not later than three months before the date of the electoral exercises, categorically stating that the AES, including its hardware and software components, is operating properly, securely, and accurately, …” (Emphases supplied)

What these two paragraphs in the law mean is that the source code of the Automated Election System (AES) technology should have been made available for review by Filipino IT professionals (who were going to review the code free of charge), through their political parties, as early as July, 2009 and to an established international certification entity not later than October 9, 2010 (allowing for a four-month review), thus favoring the locals, timing-wise.

But what did the COMELEC do? It awarded a P70 million contract to Systest Labs, an American company, in October, 2009, and sent word to the locals that they will have to wait until Systest finishes its review and submits its report, before the COMELEC would make the source code available to the locals. To add insult to injury, while COMELEC made all the necessary documents available to Systest for their intensive review in their US offices, it would only make the documents available to the locals under a controlled environment. Rightfully, the locals eventually boycotted that review.

Fourth, the COMELEC recently asked the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), yet another foreign organization, to audit the manner by which automation was implemented in the last elections, while denying the Center for People Empowerment on Governance (CenPEG), a U.P.-based organization, documents that it needs to do a comprehensive evaluation of the the same elections. Saying that the COMELEC probably wants an unbiased opinion as the reason for its asking a foreign organization to do the audit, does not hold water; in fact, it is a naive, yet insulting statement. What made it conclude that IFES is unbiased and CenPEG is not?

So, what’s with the COMELEC and why doesn’t it trust Filipino IT professionals? Doesn’t it know that this attitude sends the wrong message abroad? For the last thirty years, Filipino software companies have been spending much of their capital in marketing their services to companies in the western world. To assist these companies, the software industry has been asking the government to contract out its large IT projects to local systems integrators in order that the latter could use the experience in marketing abroad. And the government has responded positively to this plea. Government agencies such as the LRA, SSS, DFA, BIR, and many others, have contracted out most of their major development work to local systems integrators.

Except the incumbent COMELEC.

This COMELEC effectively awarded the election automation contract to a foreign company which has no experience in an election exercise of this magnitude, that uses paper-based ballots. This inexperience, many IT practitioners believe, could have been one of the reasons for the major problems the project encountered during the election process. But thanks to our COMELEC, this foreign company was given its first experience in this kind of system – experience that it can now use to market the same services in other countries, like Indonesia. (Perhaps, as a friendly neighbor and co-member in the ASEAN, we should warn Indonesia about the many problems that were encountered in our May elections.)

And by the way, yet another reason why the COMELEC should not even entertain thoughts of purchasing the PCOS (Precinct Count Optical Scan) machines that were used during the May, 2010 elections is that the Philippines would forever be hostage to the foreign company which owns the Intellectual Property Rights to the software that runs each and every unit.

This article appears in the Opinion pages of the September 21, 2010 issue of BusinessWorld.

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