Coronavirus forces agencies to ease bureaucratic red tape

Many government agencies are still at the infancy stage of moving processes to the internet. — PHILIPPINE STAR/MICHAEL VARCAS

By Jenina P. Ibanez, Reporter

WHEN a coronavirus lockdown barred Tina Cuyugan, 60, from making the trip to a small town in the Bicol Region to pay property taxes, she reached out to the municipal office in December to find out how she could pay.

The communication consultant was told to pay via postal money order, an ancient system supplanted by online banking and newer remittance services.

A postal worker at the Paranaque City central post office helped her fill out a form, while her surprised colleagues looked on.

BW Bullseye 2020-focus“She filled it out and people who had never seen it done before crowded around her to see,” Ms. Cuyugan said in an online video interview. “Employees of the post office — the younger ones — they’d never seen this.”


Ms. Cuyugan was thrilled. She sent the checks through a logistics company and was e-mailed an official receipt from the municipality of Vinzons a few days later.

She appreciated the flexibility of a local government that had just weathered several typhoons a month earlier.

“Maybe at the upper level, things tend to be very ‘follow a kind of standard procedure’ when it’s top-down,” she said. “At the local level, people would try to cope and make systems more efficient and adapt to disasters and limitations.”

The desire to keep things moving during the pandemic is best exemplified by a congressional measure that seeks to fast-track orders for coronavirus vaccines.

A Bicameral Conference Committee is no longer needed after congressmen on Tuesday night adopted the Senate version of the bill, which President Rodrigo R. Duterte had certified as urgent.

Jeremiah B. Belgica, director-general of the Anti-Red Tape Authority, said the ideal payment process would be done entirely online, but many government agencies are still at the infancy stage of moving processes to the internet.

“At the interim, you can actually streamline or make things easy without going online or automating,” he said in mixed English and Filipino. “So it’s smart that they thought of paying through those measures.”

Mr. Belgica said the lockdown meant to contain the COVID-19 pandemic had created urgency among government agencies to move their processes online. But many have still fallen short at execution.

Fewer government workers were at their offices as they worked from home, slowing services.

Addressing red tape needs more time. Government agencies often operate in silos, he said. Multiple agencies regulate the same sector, multiplying similar processes several times over.

The government units that adapted well to the pandemic were the ones that already had plans to automate and streamline processes before the global health crisis hit, Mr. Belgica said.

The municipality of Jose Panganiban in Bicol, where Ms. Cuyugan also paid taxes, had been accepting payments through bank transfers before the pandemic.

Government agencies have moved more of their processes online as the health crisis prevented people from visiting their offices and employees working from home were no longer picking up calls to office landlines.

Carol C. Gaw, an export and import development officer at Limketkai Manufacturing, said she contacted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) by e-mail and mobile instead of calling them on a landline phone during the lockdown.

FDA processes for certificates of product registration sped up during the lockdown, taking just a month instead of the usual three-month minimum, she said by telephone.

The regulator has frequently gotten the attention of the red tape watchdog because of delays. The Anti-Red Tape Authority recently declared more than 2,000 applications with the FDA automatically approved — as provided by a law on easing business transactions — after the agency failed to act on these on time.

Meanwhile, like many agencies, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) got side-tracked by the lockdown

Applications for business permits took longer, as well as the processing of corporate disclosures.

The corporate regulator in an e-mail noted that while it used alternative methods in accepting submissions, it needed more time to process these because its offices were closed during the lockdown.

“A report submitted through courier or registered mail will take days before it reaches the SEC,” the agency said. “We will then keep the document in our warehouse for at least 24 more hours to allow for its disinfection before our personnel can upload the document to our Online Document Retrieval System and make it available to the filer and other interested parties, and process the return of the filer’s receiving copy through courier upon request.”

When its offices opened, the agency limited people who can visit by using an online appointment system to avoid overcrowding. SEC recently announced an online submission tool.

Mr. Belgica said automating processes should come with streamlining — removing unnecessary requirements and merging duplicate processes. “If you just automate or put things online, you run the risk of automating red tape.”

The Philippines ranked 95th out of 190 economies in a World Bank report on Ease of Doing Business in 2019, where it came in seventh out of 10 Southeast Asian nations.

Starting a business became easier after the country abolished the minimum capital requirement for domestic companies and made dealing with construction permits easier, according to the report. But the country still needed to improve enforcing contracts and registering property.

Mr. Belgica said regulatory reform usually takes a decade, but he thinks the Philippines could do it in half the time.

To do that, government regulatory mindsets must change. The agency he heads also needs more power to require agencies to streamline, instead of just making recommendations.

At the end of the year, Ms. Cuyugan will again pay taxes for her properties in Bicol, and she looks forward to either going back to the post office or paying the way she used to.

People who live far from these remote areas should have more convenient ways to do it, she said. “I think there should be options for doing these things from a distance.”


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