The Manila Times – The pandemic, digital transformation and voter registration

By Lito Averia | The Manila Times

THE Covid-19 pandemic leaves government agencies and the business sector no choice but to innovate, using information and communications technologies. Government agencies must change their ways if they are to efficiently deliver services to citizens. Businesses must change if they are to survive and continue delivering services to their customers. Change is already happening, and it is defining the new normal.

Digital transformation was not just a craze that more progressive information technology heads were raving about and promoting in their respective organizations. From merely being a buzzword, digital transformation has become essential to the survival of a business as new and emerging technologies were quickly changing engagement with suppliers and customers.

Historically, automation of business processes started some four or five decades back. Routine and repetitive tasks were computerized. With the introduction of robotics, manufacturing was thrown into the 21st century. The introduction of the internet into commercial use in the 1990s started to revolutionize supplier and customer engagement, first through static websites that simply provided information. Then came Web 2.0 and social media which made supplier and customer interactions more engaging. The development of smartphones made connections more interactive anywhere, anytime. Businesses soon realized that vast amounts of information were being generated. Those that recognized the potential soon focused on digital platforms to experiment with doing business the digital way.

Government agencies were called upon under the Anti-Red Tape Act of 2007 to reengineer their systems and procedures to remove unnecessary steps and reduce service time. This could have been the perfect opportunity for government agencies to go fully digital.

Then the pandemic happened. It has been such a disruptive event that government agencies and businesses were forced to change their way of doing things in just a short period of time. Those organizations that had jumped on the digital transformation bandwagon were clearly ahead. Those that did not faced challenges of being confronted by changes in the workplace. Doing things the way they had always been done will simply not work in an environment that required physical distancing.

Alternative work arrangements — skeletal workforce, four-day work weeks, shifting schedules and work-from-home — were resorted to. These work alternatives, however, hardly make a dent into digital transformation but made management look into systems and procedures where technologies can be leveraged. It introduced the workforce to use technologies for the first time but not without challenges.

IT organizations within government agencies and businesses were put in the limelight, challenged to deploy authorized devices, allow the use of personal devices that have not yet been properly vetted, review and update security policies, and ensure that remote workers adopt cyber hygiene practices which pushed the security perimeter to wherever remote users are. IT organizations have been stretched to provide technical support to employees working from home.

There is now higher demand for a scarce or limited resource called bandwidth. Speed and reliability of the internet connection are crucial for delivering services away from the office. Just imagine if you are in the middle of a virtual meeting and suddenly your connection gets cut off. Happens all the time with the current state of our internet.

The services of internet service providers or intermediaries such as those running payment systems can crash anytime.

There are threats to privacy of personal information and security of systems and devices. Hackers ranging from script kiddies to cybercriminals and nation-state forces are always ready to exploit known vulnerabilities if they remain unpatched, uncover heretofore unknown vulnerabilities and launch a zero day attack on systems, commandeer devices which are organized into a botnet to carry out distributed denial of service attacks, or simply initiate BEC (business email compromise) attacks, phishing, or simply distribute malware, including ransomware, for the purpose of collecting personal information, intellectual property, and state secrets or freeze databases in exchange for ransom.

With the current state of things, government agencies and businesses must adapt and learn how to operate in an environment constrained by the pandemic.

And so must the Commission on Elections (Comelec) as it recently announced the resumption of registration of voters starting Sept. 1, 2020, even as various areas in the country are in different levels of quarantine. The poll body assures the public that it would implement anti-Covid measures in local Comelec offices. The registration process encourages registrants to download the application form from the poll body’s website and personally appear at the Office of the Election Officer.

But imagine if the whole registration process has been digitally transformed where registrants are allowed to fill in the application form and file the same online. Personal appearance can be met by establishing a secure video call between the applicant and the election officer and the applicant’s photo, biometrics (there are smartphones, laptops and tablets that have built-in devices to capture fingerprints), and electronic image of his signature can be captured at the time of the call. Of course, this process is not meant to exclude those without access to technology. The registration process prescribed in Comelec’s Resolution 10674 should still be implemented and operationalized.

Perhaps House Bill 7063, which proposes to allow electronic filing of voter registration applications, should also propose to allow personal appearance by electronic means, amending for the purpose the Voters’ Registration Act and the Mandatory Biometrics Law which still require personal appearance of the applicant. Follow the lead of the Supreme Court, which resolved the requirement for personal appearance when it issued its rules allowing the use of video conferencing technologies in court hearings and remote online notarization of paper documents.

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