Measuring what matters

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    ROWEL S. Barba, one of the undersecretaries of the Department Of Trade and Industry must be (I reckon) this administration’s selfie king. More than SenSap Bong Go, Usec Rowel (as I will refer to him because of the Filipino penchant for titles) dutifully selfies his way through his assignments – especially foreign travels – thus giving us (and his wife) near complete photo documentation of his activities, both official and personal. Look at his Facebook profile and try to chart his meetings in a month and it would be easy because of his penchant for selfies.

    Talk about being transparent in a 21st century way!

    I’ve known USec Rowel ever since we were young political science students at UP Diliman in the early 1980s. We both were members of the Association of Political Science Majors, where he was the org’s main heartthrob. A Boy Scout and a KB leader from Marinduque, he moved on like most polsci graduates do to law school, after which he joined PECABAR and then JAKA before finally ending up at RFM. At RFM he worked under Ramon Lopez, now the secretary for Trade and Industry.

    Sec Mon Lopez, incidentally, was one of three CabSecs hailed for their hard work – and part of Sec Mon’s success is due in turn to the hard work of those reporting to him, with Usec Rowel as one of the examples.

    It was Usec Rowel’s untiring work (as documented by his selfies) that I had in mind when I read through the 2019 Global Competitiveness Index of the World Economic Forum. In this latest edition, the Philippines fell to 64th out of 141 countries measured (Top 64!) behind fellow ASEAN members Singapore (#1), Malaysia (#27) Thailand (#40) and Indonesia (#50) and Brunei (#56). We are a hairbreadth ahead of Vietnam (#67) but significantly ahead of Cambodia (#106) and the Lao PDR (#113). Of the ten ASEAN states only Myanmar is not part of the WEF global assessment.

    (Interestingly the WEF Competitiveness Index mirrors the 2019 World Competitiveness Ranking covering 63 countries and published by the World Competitiveness Center of the Switzerland-based International Institute for Management Development. The IMD ranking lists Singapore as #1, Malaysia as #22, Thailand at #25, Indonesia at #32 and the Philippines at #46. Brunei, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are not covered in the survey.)

    In the WEF Index, Singapore at #1 is actually up one rung, displacing the United States which fell to #2. Malaysia is down two rungs from its 2018 position at #25; Thailand is also down 2; Indonesia is down 5, while Brunei is up 6.

    The Philippines is down 8 rungs from its 2018 rank at #56.

    And Vietnam? It has the best 2019 global ranking improvement, up 10 rungs from its 2018 position at #77.

    The Global Competitiveness Index should be a good measure of the impact of the policies and programs that a government is instituting, because national competitiveness is much more than the untiring efforts by the DTI to conduct trade fairs and provide market briefings. The index focuses on “total factor productivity” and aggregates 103 individual indicators organized into 12 pillars: institutions; infrastructure; ICT adoption; macroeconomic stability; Health; skills; product market; labor market; financial system; market size; business dynamism and innovation capability. Country performance is rated as a “progress score” on a 0-100 scale with 100 being an “ideal state where the issue ceases to become a constraint to productivity growth.”

    And so if the “score” is a progress score, then our score of 61.9 is a fair score that we should continue to seek to improve even more, given that in 2018 our score was actually a higher 62.2 and that in 2019 the scores of our neighbors are 84.8 for Singapore, 74.6 for Malaysia, 68.1 for Thailand, 64.6 for Indonesia and 62.8 for Brunei. For Vietnam it is 61.5, an improvement of 3.5 from its 2018 progress score of 58.

    Of course, it will matter that our government accept and adopt the pillars that the Competitiveness Index has identified against which it measures progress. There are scores worth cheering: in the area of “Skills of current workforce” we are ranked 19 out of the 141; in “Critical thinking in Teaching” we are ranked #24 (are some Senators noting this?), and in “Soundness of Banks” we rank 17th with a score of 81.8.

    But don’t look at “Reliability of Police Services” where we score 33.4 and are ranked 124th out of the 141 countries in the Index. “Top 124,” as some might proudly say.

    Clearly our friends at the DTI need to keep plodding on, selling the Philippines to the world.

    But until and unless we focus as well on other measures, then we will remain in the middle of the pack globally and, I fear, slowly slip into the lower half of the ASEAN 10 especially with Vietnam’s single-minded focus on development.

    What are popularity surveys as a measure of success, if we are falling globally in competitiveness indexes anyway?

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