Reform should start at the national level

Question (posed in Infra Dev class): Currently , review and accountability for planning, construction, operation, and regulation of sanitation infrastructure are dispersed among DPWH, water district, DENR, and LGU’s. Would it be helpful to set up a dedicated department/agency within BLISTT to lead the sanitation and sewerage reform sector?

My thoughts:

1. Sewerage and drainage (like water and transport) should be seen in the broad context of development planning, and development planning, in the 1991 Local Government Code, is decentralized to Local Government Units. In the context of physical planning, a spatial plan should shape development (among these, sewerage and drainage networks). And investment planning should outline the financing of development initiatives, not only from one source (i.e. Internal Revenue Allotment) but other financing modalities and instruments that LGUs, in their role as development managers, are given adequate independence to explore and do. But 20 years of decentralization and everyone’s still learning the basics (or not yet there?). The “solution” may seem like the creation of a single agency or body to lead or manage but that agency, to me, is already the LGU. Direct service provision is outsourced, in this case, to the Water District but the LGU, through its policy, financing, monitoring, and regulatory functions, and within the broader context of accountability in ensuring quality of life for its citizens, should ensure that the service is up to quality standards and targets. Some may say ‘but this is the ideal’, but the better word I believe is ‘accountability’.

2. There will always be conflict (resources in a growing world are getting scarce) but what’s essential I believe is communication and willingness to resolve the issue and come to a negotiated agreement (I’ve heard development managers mention ‘humility’ and ‘creativity’ as the new skill set to bring into today’s negotiation boardrooms). With personal relationships, the severance of communication lines or when both sides are unwilling to find a common ground signals the end of the relationship. So with agencies of government. Redundant functions could be resolved, if they so want it. Humans built the structure and the system and it is humans who could reconfigure these, if they so want it.

3. LGUs, in order to deliver on their role and functions, need to be in the know. Unfortunately this is not the case for most especially at the barangay level. My own development experience and studies in basic social services show LGUs are ignorant of their own responsibilities, the laws, etc. There are many factors, a major one being low levels of education and functional literacy at the barangay level, where, being the base of the hierarchy, is supposedly the strongest. Take the DRRRM Law. It takes a certain degree of functional literacy gained from education and experience to comprehend legalese and English (despite our love for the spoken form, many don’t understand the written language), on which this law and others and policies (including drainage and sewerage) of the land is written and disseminated. Still, national government allows elementary and high school level citizens to be on top of these. Is there a hierarchy in stupidity now? Honestly, it’s unfair to expect Barangay LGUs given their limitation to understand and enforce laws or to assemble sophisticated non-IRA financing schemes, but it is also unfair to the governed to be “served” by public officials this way. If the government is serious to make this nation a “strong republic” and globally competitive, I’d say national government should recruit the cream of the crop into public service, raise the bar for public service entrance requirements, and start on a phased scholarship of currently serving Barangay LGUs at premier learning institutions such as AIM (and for goodness sake, disallow LGUs from appropriating public funds in Boracay where an entire LGU has briefly relocated for the weekend to do development planning and after having told locals the LGU didn’t have the funds for sewers and drainage. These people should be hanged (metaphorically)! The funds used in Boracay could, for one, send them to complete their schooling so they’d know and behave better.) Why not? The level of regard that national government gives to its base leaders reflects its seriousness of pursuing good governance. To continue acceding to the shocking gap in knowledge, skills and attitude between national and subnational government leaders and local especially barangay LGUs is to move into the future, chained. But with a strong educated base, the face of public governance and administration will substantially change.

4. Apart from education of local officials, another major barrier in implementation is the lack of good data and information at the administrative level to guide decisions. Related to this is the lack of a performance system in place, wherein targets are set (vis-a-vis baseline data), monitored, and evaluated. In most local development planning, no one could tell you whether, say, the target of “100 toilets” will be built from a zero baseline or some other base number in order to calculate rate of desired change or progress over the planning years. And there is no information system in local LGUs holding important data for planning or if there’s one lack of real understanding of the use of data. One wonders how targets were arrived at in local development plans and how priority lists reflect local realities.

5. At the metropolitan level, Metro Manila is geographically divided with the MWSS as the administrator but service provision leased to private holding companies, Ayala and Benpres. There are other models besides this and what could be done is know the lessons (one is, these companies could only do so much improvement on the metro’s sewerage given that the built environment is fully developed but given a clean slate of land they could build a better sewer system so lesson is make a good physical plan at the onset) from these models and see what’s the emergent model in the context of BLISTT.

6. Overall what I’m saying is, there are strategic issues that if addressed would already include the address of redundancy and reform in sewerage and drainage without necessarily creating another oversight agency or body.

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