By the Ateneo de Manila Department of Political Science

(Second of an eight-part series)

THE FIRST TWO WEEKS of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic have unraveled the fractures of an already fragile relationship between our national and local governments. This is notwithstanding the fact that the current administration’s response to the crisis has been framed as a whole-of-government approach, with the national government exercising general supervision, and the local government units (LGUs) implementing the stipulations and guidelines coming from the national, albeit with differing capacities in implementation. As such, understanding the government’s response to the COVID-19 situation could most fruitfully be pursued by parsing through this national-local divide; governing the pandemic would anyway necessitate the coordination between these two levels of government.

In their book Public Choices and Policy Change (1991), Grindle and Thomas argue that a situation becomes a crisis when policy makers perceive it as one, and when consensus among policy elites is achieved to acknowledge the crisis, the pressure to not act on it immediately would lead to disastrous consequences. This explains why the time it takes for different countries and local governments to act on the pandemic is varied.

Aside from timing, the stakes of policy making is also different. Policy options are normally filtered through these four lenses: technical feasibility, the bureaucracy’s absorptive capacity, political support, and international pressure. During a crisis however, because the policy elite’s reputation is at stake, external factors weigh more than internal ones, particularly regime maintenance or political legitimation and international pressure.

A crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, ironically, is a great equalizer. It threatens both the powerful and the weak, the wealthy and the marginalized. It is borderless and it does not care about ideologies. More importantly, it poses an opportunity to implement policies that would instigate radical and innovative reforms as opposed to incremental ones that would not have been possible in a politics-as-usual environment. Unfortunately, however, the content of this “radical” reform will depend highly on what policymakers believe that they can get away with, in the event that these fall short of the expected gains.

The policy of enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) amplified what many of us already know: the stark divide between those who can afford to stay indoors with good enough space for each household member, and those whose living quarters are cramped with barely enough resources (most especially, food) to get by each day. The declaration of the ECQ caught many LGUs off-guard. Nevertheless, they did — and continually are doing — their best to respond to the social and economic consequences of such. The LGUs as such were also serving the frontlines, tasked with delivering localized solutions in the most effective and efficient manner as possible.

What we have been seeing lately, however, is an effort by the national government to maintain its relevance by centralizing control as much as it can. Doing so lessens or even stifles the ability of LGUs to decide what is best for their localities, given the unique conditions that they have. This runs counter to the principle and spirit behind devolution, enshrined in the Local Government Code (LGC) of 1991.

Devolution is unapologetically political. It is a critical part of deepening democracy since its primary goal is the increase of citizen participation in local decision making. Devolution as such makes the LGU more accountable and responsive to the needs of the people it serves.

What re-centralization of decision making does is that it takes away the power of local governments to deliver sound, prompt, and localized responses. Inadvertently, re-centralization makes the LGUs more dependent on whatever decisions are made by the agencies and elites at the national level. In doing so, LGUs are now evaluated based on their administrative performance and loyalty to the national elites (i.e., simply following orders from the top, regardless of whether these directives make sense in their own contexts) rather than their political acuity, entrepreneurial character, and responsiveness to the demands of the people they serve. Many of the LGUs who have received the brunt of the national government’s ire in the early stages of the ECQ are those who, ironically, found creative ways of doing their job based on what little resources they have.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a wicked problem that requires not just broader, but more importantly, deeper ways of understanding both the problem and the solutions. To be able to collaborate better and not compete against each other, both national and local governments must strategically find themselves in the complex web of the policy environment of crisis. They, too, must understand that they are not the only players in the policy process. There are other stakeholders that must be accounted for to ensure that the policies generated are inclusive.

Not all LGUs are created equal — in terms of both the supply (i.e., bureaucratic capacities, ability to generate and to analyze data, communications strategy, etc.), and the demand (i.e., critical citizenry engaged in demanding transparency, accountability, and quality service from public officials) sides of governance. What makes a local government stand out compared to others is not how much resources it has at its disposal, but how its leadership is able to make strategic choices, even in the face of political opposition and uncertainty in the next round of elections. For this kind of leadership to thrive, it needs the backing of local institutions that are: strong — able to resist capture of local predatory powers; flexible — not afraid to innovate administrative routines to make it more responsive to the demands of the time; and modern — professional, well-trained local bureaucracy able to generate evidence-informed and proactive policies at all times.

Procedural policies have long-term substantive consequences. The National Action Plan (NAP) along with other national and local resolutions will continue to have an impact on the ways by which the national and local governments relate to one another beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. It will also affect how we will look at and appreciate public goods: health, education, housing, transportation, social security, just employment, and food sufficiency, to name just a few. The one good thing that this pandemic arguably has caused us is that it has flattened our curve of individualism and has forced us to think and behave collectively.

How the problem is initially defined critically shapes how solutions are designed.

In the short term, what we need is access to correct information based on verifiable and reliable data. The amount of misinformation and disinformation circulating impacts the way we behave as a community, which in turn affects how public policies are made and are being made. Moreso, disinformation fuels the unnecessary tension between national and local policy elites. It also has become an opportunity for local political elites to discredit one another for political gains.

In the long term, we need to rebuild and strengthen our national and more so our local institutions so that they will continue to supply effective public policies, even in the presence of strongmen and populist politics. Rebuilding institutions means that we, the people, must reclaim the power by demanding more from our government, and holding them accountable when they fall short of our collective expectations.

Beyond inputs, we would like to know exactly what activities are expected to be created (output) and, more importantly, whether these have improved the conditions of those affected by the crisis (outcomes). Hence, it is not enough to know that the government is allotting P200 billion in aid for poor families. What activities will this fund, for whom, and will these ameliorate the lives of those in the receiving end?

Unfortunately, the current articulated public policies concerning this pandemic fall short in terms of moving towards measuring what matters most. Beyond the presence of strategic leadership and strong local institutions, what will push the national and local governments to carry out their responsibility is how well-organized our engagements are as a collective. A fragmented and incoherent demand will never gain the attention of those who control the policy agenda.

For it is only when we have the power to determine what is true and what is false information, to decide how much power must be given to the government, to understand what makes policies effective, and to demand that all politicians should be made accountable without impunity, that lives can be saved — pandemic or not.