Government has had difficulty delivering the social amelioration money to recipients. We have seen photos of local executives happily posing with huge piles of cash on their desks ready to be delivered by hand in a world suffering from an epidemic.

The distribution system we have available is pathetic. In this age of digital communications and artificial intelligence, we should not be distributing cash to millions of beneficiaries by hand.

The sad situation underscores the intolerable gap between what technology has made possible and what the bureaucracy has been incapable of doing. Our bureaucracy is, in the main, reliant on paper and paper pushers. It does not have the means to rapidly respond to a quickly unfolding crisis such as this pandemic has been.

Much of the social amelioration money is being delivered using the existing lists of the cash transfer program. That means that those who have not been enrolled in the cash transfer program basically do not exist.

In the present crisis, social amelioration funds need to be delivered to a much wider section of the population: day workers, those displaced by the shutdown of transport services, recently unemployed workers, PWDs and the elderly. There is no database for them and none that could be built rapidly.

The backbone for such a database that enables government to keep track of its citizens is a national identification system. That exists in law but not yet in fact.

In the mid-nineties, instituting a national ID system was pursued as policy. It was strongly opposed by leftist groups as a violation of the right to privacy. Communist groups are so conscious of conserving the anonymity of citizens before their own government. They perversely romanticize some 19th century image of clandestine movements working beyond the purview of state authority.

During that time, I advocated packaging the ID system as a “people’s access card.” This is, after all, it greatest value. It enables our citizens, especially the poor, to gain easier access to government services.

With an “access card”, citizens may open bank accounts easily, get social security cover, demand health care and, as we see in the present situation, draw amelioration money. The card will displace all other IDs we carry: SSS/GSIS/Pag-IBIG cards, tax identification numbers, senior citizen/PWD card, voter cards and even OWWA cards. 

The database that could be built using this system becomes the basis for a reliable, internationally recognized electronic passport. Sometime soon, the world will shift away from paper passports to electronic cards. We are not quite ready to do that because we are just getting started with a primitive national ID system.

An electronic identification system will enable us to isolate travellers coming in from areas hit by epidemics. This is important now because we foresee a future where epidemics could break out intermittently. Of course, on the law enforcement side, it will enable us to track fugitives moving from port to port.

When then President Fidel Ramos tried to begin a national identification system by way of an executive order, he was challenged before the Supreme Court by leftists guised as human rights advocates. They won that case. The Court ruled that a national ID system required a law to be initiated.

Because of sustained resistance from leftist party-list politicians, the initiation of a national ID system was trapped in Congress for two decades. Even then, the politicians saw to it that the ID system was weak and virtually useless.

Over two decades ago, I advocated the use of advanced laser cards to contain the person’s information. Apart from the person’s biometrics, I proposed that the card contain cross-reference to social security accounts, basic medical information useful in emergencies such as blood type and allergies, possible organ donation and a few other things. The card that was prescribed by the recent law contains only the biometrics.

Since the mid-70s every Filipino issued a birth certificate also received a serial number. That serial number could now be converted into a bar code or, even better, a QR code. The law, having gone through the legislative wringer, does not provide for that. Instead, the cheap and ancient magnetic strip card will have limited information and limited uses. It cannot function, for instance, as a debit card through which social amelioration funds could be downloaded in seconds.

Among the principal instructions President Rodrigo Duterte gave new NEDA chief Karl Chua was to speed up the national ID system. But the nature of the law renders the national ID card virtually useless in the face of all the technological possibilities for its effective use.

In the US, stimulus funds were quickly delivered through checks issued to the bank accounts of citizens in need. The country has a virtual national ID system using the social security number. The money can then be drawn from ATM machines. This could not be done here. Over 80 percent of our citizens are unbanked.

Last week, the Indian government ordered the nation’s banks to allow citizens to open bank accounts even with zero deposits. This is a vital step to dramatically expand financial inclusion. The poor needs financial inclusion the most.

We should be using our banking system to download amelioration funds. That will be a thousand times more efficient. But we have not put together the e-government policies needed to make this simple thing possible.

As we evaluate our governance weaknesses after all this is over, we need to empower the national ID system to include at least mobile numbers and bank accounts as part of the basic information.