The failure of decentralization: justifiable cause for Charter change

Issues that national dailies report and we debate about are mostly symptomatic of local governance failures. Implementation of laws and policies, transparency and accountability, human resource development, solid waste management, electrification, employment, urban management, rural development – these are all the duties and within the authority of Local Government Units. But thanks to misleading surveys of the SWS and Pulse Asia, it is being implied that gross failures of LGUs are collectively the failure of just one personality, the President.

National government role in governance, in the light of decentralization, is, to name some, legislation, direction setting through policy and strategy formulation, and quality assurance through standards setting, monitoring and evaluation.

Local Government Units – at the region, province, municipal or city, and barangay – implement national policies, strategies, and standards by taking into account nuances in the localities.

Among ourselves, the general and popular complaint is that we are “masyadong magaling (too clever)”. It can be traced to our penchant for prolonged and unnecessary debates over national laws, policies, strategies, and standards. Such arguments, it is said, should have been done during deliberation and not after adoption. Thus Filipinos are said to be too clever in debates and argumentation but very weak in implementation or action.

When I was in full time community development work, it was routine to attend council meetings, barangay and town levels, as I/NGOs are allocated a seat. I didn’t relish the task. What I did was I went in at exactly the hour I was scheduled to present my piece and after having facilitated the council’s commitment to the project or program I took my leave. My point is, decision-makers are wasting much time arguing what, for instance, sustainable development is – I mean, goodness, isn’t its definition established a long time ago? There must be something terribly wrong if decision-makers in the business of making sustainable development work don’t know by now what it means. I’ve a normal blood pressure but I found that being in the midst of these “too clever” debates can elevate it to an unhealthy level. It behooves me how local public officials can stay in their seats and not explode from sheer stress – these people must be made of really unique stuff!

Implementation and action. On this, a trustee of AGAPP, a PPP scheme for the building of 1,000 kindergarten classes, in an orientation-discussion with DepEd on the training for K-12 teachers, had this advice: just do it. When you know the decision is good and right, go ahead and act on it. The topic that time was the failure of LGUs to implement and broaden the coverage of ECCD. The failure apparently is due to arguments among the LGUs regarding jurisdiction, that is, which LGU has territorial or administrative jurisdiction over which ECCD activities. We non-government folks were, goodness, doesn’t the law make it clear that all LGUs should establish an ECCD program? Shouldn’t an LGU be thankful that ECCD activities of a neighboring LGU covers some of its communities? Shouldn’t this be the starting point for a partnership between the two? Instead, they pound each other. And in the process they deprive the children.

“Too clever,” indeed.

And then there are local chief executives who do not care for nor respect the planning process and instead direct their staff – whoever catch their liking, not necessarily the agriculture officer – into drawing up, say, a plan for organic agriculture to be implemented in so-so barangays, regardless of whether organic agriculture is technically permissible in these villages. Planning in reality is very straightforward.

Localities with CSO presence and UN agency are better off than those without and there are many of the latter still. In the former, at least, having been educated in development paradigms, citizen participation is encouraged and goals such as Child-Friendly Schools, Towns, and Cities are known and adopted. But many LGUs still retain autocratic rule despite this country being supposedly a democratic republic. They are able to retain this rule because of (a) the absence of an accountability system in place, between national government and LGUs and between LGUs and local citizens, (b) the silence of local citizens and civil society organizations, (c) too much focus (by media and survey groups) on one personality – the President – thereby taking away the responsibility of LGUs and serving to disincentivize LGUs from doing their job. In short, they are able to hide behind the President and thank him, actually, and silently, for taking the bullets in their place.

In the private sector, this is a no-no. Each department, division, or section of a company is expected to do its job or else – well the consequence is clear. If a section head bungles up once he or she may be given another chance; twice, it’s off with the head. So really there is no other option but to know the rules of the company, abide by them, do your job, and do it well.

There’s nothing of this in LGUs. Or for that matter there is no national government sanction on LGUs who are sleeping on the job. National government has all the authority to metaphorically speaking unleash its fury on LGUs who insist and persist on sleeping. The authority comes from the fact that it has decentralized the power to rule or govern. If one has the authority to render something then it has the same authority to take back what it has rendered.

The country has reached the point where decentralization has to be evaluated against the intended outcomes as per the 1991 Local Government Code. Autocratic rule and sleeping on the job have no place in a democratic republic and neither in an economy whose roar is getting the right attention from the rest of the world. These questions, difficult though these are, must be answered and brought into the public: What added value did regional structures contribute to decentralization? The added value of provincial government? The municipal and city government? If decentralization hasn’t produced the kind of localities the law has envisioned these to become under a decentralized rule, what is now our decision? The low percentages of illiteracy, skills, and landlessness in the localities have produced autocrats and tyrants out of the local ruling class – is a decentralized rule therefore the appropriate model given these? Is a decentralized mode of governance the appropriate model for Filipinos given our current value system? What is the alternative better model? Or, perhaps national government just need to stop the practice of pork barrels and instead start LGUs on a more professional route to doing their job?

I’m against the tinkering of the Constitution especially when there is nothing fundamentally wrong with it, but if it is to introduce an alternative better model of local governance I may go for the change. I think that post-EDSA I there was too much enthusiasm over the country’s newly-gained freedom that no one then thought of asking whether a decentralized system is actually the appropriate one given that despite the new freedom at the national level the same-old situation still festers on the ground. Nonetheless, the change should not be started until an evaluation of the current system is done and implications of results deliberated on.

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