Grassroots & Governance

Finally, after two years on the job, in his third SONA, Rodrigo Roa Duterte has delivered a statesmanlike speech, managing enough discipline for almost an hour with no obscenities. I am almost convinced that he is sincere in some of his intentions, even if we do not agree with his methods. Hopefully, as he goes further into the Presidency, he will also become more law-abiding and civil in his public behavior and statements. Who knows, he might even reverse himself on his challenges for someone to prove to him that God exists. He might even become kinder and more chivalrous toward competent women in leadership positions. Hope springs eternal.
I also got the feeling that despite survey findings indicating that the citizenry are not in favor of such a radical shift in governance, or are ignorant about it, President Duterte is dead set on a shift to a federal form of government. And now, with former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in charge of the House, she is likely to push hard for the shift. Apparently not content with her ten years in Malacañang, the new Speaker seems likely to work toward running Parliament; now that, by a sudden miracle, shazam, she no longer needs a neck brace, nor a wheelchair. This, despite no news of her traveling to Germany for her “life-threatening” rare spinal illness, certified to by her cardiologist (!).
A federal government is an appealing concept, and makes sense for an archipelago of people with so many languages and cultural idiosyncrasies. It also makes it possible, if we can get it right, to bring about more equitable access to national resources and opportunities. It also happens that the outlying provinces rightfully complain about what they refer to as “Imperial Manila.” Competition for investments among various autonomous regions might push us toward greater excellence and efficiencies across the country. Federal governments such as those of Malaysia and the United States seem to have fared better than ours. But let us remember that both countries actually united existing independent and self-governing states. We want to create new regional governments from a national government put together by colonialists who mobilized a country out of little island barangays. The colonial governments created municipal and provincial governments from tribal groups and islands, little communities, or really, almost from scratch.
After twenty years under an authoritarian government, President Corazon Aquino shifted swiftly from a revolutionary government under which she could rule by decree, to the new democratic Constitution of 1987 and lost no time in ensuring elections for the Senate and the House; followed by local elections. Four years later, she pushed for greater local political and fiscal autonomy, and signed the Local Government Code of 1991. This certainly energized the provincial areas, and enhanced local capacities in governance. There has been much improvement in the economies of provincial areas, particularly in the cities such as Cebu, Davao, Cagayan de Oro, and Iloilo in the Visayas and Mindanao areas which had erstwhile been languishing in underdevelopment.
However, I think that rather than proceed to a radical shift in governance structures this early in the game, we should take a look at how we can enhance and strengthen local governments. There is still much room for improvement without shaking up the whole system.
The way I see it, there are three things that can help improve governance at the local levels: one is to increase LGU share in national budget appropriations. Why do national agencies have to plan and build barangay roads, health centers and irrigation systems? Second, strengthen and professionalize the civil service all the way down to local governments. The third is to lessen frequency of elections, and lengthen terms of office of local chief executives from the current three years to six years. As it stands now, local chief executives and their key people (who tend to be replaced with each administration) spend their first year learning the job, and the second year getting things done, and the third year campaigning for the next election. If there is a change in governments, the cycle is repeated.
National government agencies get to hire the most competent and well-prepared technocrats. They are paid more and get priority access to overseas training and post-graduate grants. The National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) which administers foreign-assisted training grants keeps the grants for its own people; which is why NEDA technocrats tend to be more highly trained than ordinary bureaucrats.
Civil service regulations have not been seriously followed so that both national and local governments tend to have shaky and unstable bureaucracies in terms of policy continuity and competence. Civil service professionals should be protected from political instability. Whoever is in political power, the bureaucracy should be stable and dependable. This will help ensure stability and continuity in development initiatives and programs.
As in the case of the Presidency under the current Constitution, local government executives should have six-year terms with no succeeding re-election. They may run for the same posts after a hiatus of one term. And if they have done a decent enough job for their communities, they are likely to get elected once again.
Frequent elections cause instability in policy and governance; they are also expensive and is probably one of the likely causes, if not the number one cause of graft and corruption.
Now that the Bangsamoro Basic Law is about to be signed by the President, we have one model to learn from. We will learn how national and regional governments should work together, and how regional and local governments can coordinate. There are also issues on budget authority and allocation of resources. We will have to see if we can prepare local civil service executives to handle the increased autonomy that regional governments are supposed to get under a federal government. How do we motivate national government civil servants to move to the regional and local governments? How do we make adjustments in pay scales to enable equitableness? If we do not handle this well, we are likely to foment a great deal of restlessness and low morale, making governance and development difficult.
There are too many management issues to be addressed. This is not just a matter of formulating the legal frameworks. This is not just a job for lawyers. Can we make it work? Will things indeed be better for our people?
Again, a federal government seems like a good idea; but if we rush into it headlong, aren’t we risking disaster? Shouldn’t we first prepare our civil service and our politicians for this, under the present Constitution and the Local Government Code of 1991? This will probably mean less time needed for a so-called “transition period” which is a key issue to be tackled when the radical change is resorted to.
Teresa S. Abesamis is a former professor at the Asian Institute of Management and an independent development management consultant.