Federalism as an organizing philosophy: some practical lessons

There are benefits to a federated structure which federation members need only to recall when they first federated: (1) wider reach; (2) greater access to funding; (3) recognizable brand; (4) stronger voice; (5) greater impact. On the other hand, federations in contrast to single-structure organizations are more complex given inherent dichotomy in governance i.e. shared and at once independent as well as geographical, ethnic, and socio-political differences among members.

This setup highlights challenges in role delineation among members and the value added role of the central office. On the latter it needs to be understood that the central office is not the federation which is the network of member-associations. The central office ts a separate member of the federation whose typical role in the network includes convener and facilitator. Current management arrangement however in which projects are proposed and managed by the central office and implemented by central office staff in the members’areas, all in behalf of members is a continuing source of confusion among members and antagonism between members and the central office.

Moreover, educational backgrounds and literacy levels of the federation board limit them, individually and collectively, from fulfilling their complex role and responsibilities. Consequentially, strategic management sits squarely with the federation manager.

(The federation) facing scheduled phase out of donor support is at a crossroad in its development…these anticipated events pose continuity concerns for the federation…

The above statement is part of the 25-page document on organizational development which I wrote in fulfillment of a negotiated agreement before my turn over. I had handed the proposal over to my then boss (he had qualms about it but I assured him to just do it) who then gave it to our donor who was in the conference hall with us.

I had purposely written the proposal in a format different from donor requirement which basically asked for simplistic statements preferably bulleted which in effect filtered out in-depth and holistic analysis. I nonetheless had the version conforming to the required format all typed up ready for submission, but only after the donor had read the first document.

The proposal was a product of late nights at the office back when I was the OIC. Then, though I appreciated that board members were worried about me keeping “unhealthy” hours I would’ve appreciated it if they actually stayed up with me. Once, I wanted to humor a board member when he made the comment if he could be so kind garud to make me coffee. I didn’t of course. But I did say in my exit interview with the Board Chair and my then manager that I’d never felt so alone in my entire working life as I’d been during those “unhealthy” hours (translation: where were you, Board?).

I had been studying the federation in those hours. As OIC I felt it was imperative on me to know “the monster” suddenly thrown into my hands (to which a former boss would’ve said, seriously? that should’ve been done yesterday). From 8 to 5, I worked at my jobs – OIC as well as M&E. From 7 to midnight, I studied the federation.

The federation was part of the umbrella of federations in the country’s North and within this group my the federation though the oldest, is the weakest. Crisis after crisis has colored it’s history. In fact, it could be said crisis is it’s name. I wanted to know why this was so. (I once texted a lawyer-friend about another crisis happening to which he replied: (name of the federation) is always in a crisis so what’s new? That momentarily eased my stress and made me laughed out loud, to the surprise of colleagues. But I also understood his unspoken message- you’re working on a hopeless cause why are you still there? But I was already deep in my search.)

I pored over members’ legal documents, strategic plans and results, evaluations, and lessons learned. I took note of implicit knowledge shared to me- accounts by the board, staff, and volunteers. Beyond the office I met with members’ boards, one of the first things I did as OIC.

I had gathered considerable information. Still, the answer eluded me. What I needed was the right framework for analysis.

Then one afternoon in spring this year just when the concern was farthest from my mind (there was already a new manager), I came across a document on the federation model of nonprofit organizations. Excitedly, I turned to the first page. The first sentence immediately struck me: one must look at a federated structure differently from the usual organization of nonprofits in order to manage it accordingly. I realized at once that this was the breakthrough information I didn’t know I’ve been waiting for.

The unexpected discovery led me to reading up on the federalist system as an organizing philosophy, the various federation models, and some lessons learned from managers of the models. I had tapped into a whole new world of governance! Or, not really because we were actually in such a one and didn’t know it. Everybody in the organization has been saying “we are a federation” in meetings with potential partners but nobody understood what ‘federation’ really is about. We’ve been carrying an incredible “weapon” all these time and weren’t aware of it. Incredible! Puzzle solved. Lights off.

I’d like now to refer to this experience of ‘federalist system’ or ‘federation’ at the organizational level in drawing up parallel elements relative to Congress’ proposal for a federalist political system.

Constitutional Standing and Separation of Powers. Decentralized unitary systems such as the Philippines’ also feature separation of powers but what distinguishes a federal system is,

when there is a layer of institutions between a state’s center and its localities, when this layer of institutions features its own leaders and representative bodies, and when those leaders and bodies share decision-making power with the center (Valerie Bunce)

In the federation, it’s six members are separate and distinct as provided in their CBLs, each with it’s own board and supposedly an executive (who members have not hired since the beginning.. The General Assembly, the highest decision making body of the federation, is comprised of those elected by the federation members from among their ranks. The Assembly identifies relevant policies and approves all decisions and actions emanating from the federation board. The federation board, accountable to the General Assembly, is comprised of elected representatives from members’ boards. It provides strategic oversight to the federation. A manager is hired by the federation board to implement approved policies and procedures. The federation office or central office, comprised of the manager and technical and administrative staff, supposedly provides leadership and technical assistance, acting as coordinator-facilitator between and among members and the federation board.

The members’ constitutional provisions fulfill the federalist requirement on legal standing and separation of powers. But there are two things that remain unresolved: (1) considering that a federation is “not an organization but (rather as earlier mentioned) a network of member-associations which provides a vehicle through which the members, separate and distinct from each other, can achieve their purpose and goals as a national (or, regional) movement through collective action and collaboration” (source: A Revised Framework for Success for Nonprofit Federations, Linda Mollenhauer, 2009), it’s registration with SEC as an organization is flawed (quite a lengthy discussion this which I’m not inclined to write about but suffice it to say that a study of actual models of federated structures e.g. INGOs (example here) will point one to this. On the other hand, in order that public laws can be more relevant to newer organizational models the current Corporation Code of the Philippines needs to be reviewed the sooner the better); (2) there is no central office to speak of in the legal sense. The federation or central office is not organized and registered as a separate and distinct entity. Without a legal identity, the federation office is a floating structure or an informal clearinghouse of sorts. Yet, the federation office is convinced that it is the federation, resulting to much role confusion within the federation as I’ve mentioned in the first part of this post.

The practice of separation of powers in the federation is something else. The locus of power are with the federation board and the federation office. Into this enters the external influence (of the donor) which almost always overpower even well-meaning decisions of the two sub-structures. Nobody else in the federation has say. The General Assembly is practically non-existent. I was stunned that, preparing for a special GA meeting, the federation board didn’t know how many or who the GA members were. Clearly, the twin federalist elements of shared rule and territorial self rule are abrogated. There is no system of checks and balances, a danger sign in any organization or system for that matter.

These issues bred a culture of encroachment within the federation- of members on the central office, central office on members, the majority on the minority. This in turn led to deep feelings of betrayal, distrust, and resentment of one another. It dawned on me that even if they all went to therapy one year is inadequate to heal such deep-seated wounds.

This brings me to the question, has culture a significant influence on a political system? If yes, what is the structure or system that best fits the Filipino? Then again in asking this, one needs to first answer who is the Filipino?

Cultural factors in organization. In the context of the federation, the Filipino is multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, and so multi-cultural. Across program areas, even across villages in a given province, even among the educated, the people are deeply divided in their values, beliefs, and world views. The divide goes back to their tribes’ histories. In meetings, there was always this palpable tension that the groups brought along with them as if anytime someone from a group would just up and clobber the other. In one such meeting, coming to an impasse over an issue, the donor representative called on me to stand in and facilitate. “You’re neutral,” she said. I later learned that ‘neutral’ meant I wasn’t affiliated with any of the tribes represented there and being a relatively newcomer there was no bad blood with anyone yet. These qualities alone pacified the groups.

But the root of this tension, from my observation even before, stems from indigenous people’s “natural” resistance to organization (of the formal kind). Were they not successful at resisting colonization? On that note, the disturbing lack of initiative I found in the federation could be viewed as active protest to organization. How does one break this resistance down was what I often thought about and experimented with.

Influence of external powers on a people’s initiative. In talking with and listening to the boards, I came to understand the deeper reason for this attitude. They had enthusiasm and initiative in the early stages of the federation, they said, but this had come to naught when the “more powerful hand” stepped in. Ah. Who is this “more powerful hand”?

The first time we discussed about this passivity, it was in my meetings with the boards. The second time was in a more public setting, in a workshop among federation members and donor staff. One of the questions asked of the groups to discuss was, what were the factors that hindered your organization from attaining program goals? Federation office staff were assigned to facilitate in the groups. I had not much difficulty with mine as group members bared it all (even without much probing on my part). They just talked and talked, like dams bursting. I listened and didn’t censure because the discussion was done in the context of learning. At reporting time, the other groups presented the usual things everybody talked about openly e.g. conflict in schedules among participants, inavailability of trainers, the incorrigible weather etcetera. When my group’s turn to report came, silence gradually fell upon the room. The reporter presented things everybody knew about but nobody wanted to talk about in the open. The silence was broken by a federation office. What do you mean by blah blah blah?, he demanded. This woke up the audience who reacted all at the same time. The presenter did his best to parry with the questions. But the “more powerful hands” were determined to undermine him. (It needs to be pointed out here the groups are in the members’ boards at the same time peasant farmers with low levels of literacy, limitations that were being taken advantage of in the ensuing debate.) I knew that I should remain neutral, I was aligned with the central office after all, but how could I seeing that basic and universal principles of development work were thoughtlessly flung out of the windows? I felt compelled to be involved. I waited out the debate and then said the last words. It was something about respecting the experience in the localities, to refrain from imposing tehnocratic knowledge on their experience, and instead why not use that (technical expertise) to improve their experience (of us) so that in future reports, we’d all hear a different story. Nobody said anything more. I was also one of “the more powerful hands”.

The incident offers a glimpse into the power structures at play within the federation. If colleagues at the federation office or even donor staff reacted negatively to my words it would probably trigger another round of argumentation this time between and among technocrats and in front of constituents (which has happened by the way) who I imagined would’ve wondered whether these power plays they had been witnessing had anything to do at all with the development of children and young people and their communities.

The Judiciary. The event also reveals an important element in federalist systems, that of umpire. Who manages the process of conflict management and dispute resolution and how? In the federation, member-level issues are addressed at member level following it’s own system of resolution (which the members didn’t have). On federation matters, the federation board is seen by members as responsible but is also itself overcome by ingrained loyalty to tribe and pressure from “the more powerful hand.” On a break during a meeting with the donor, I reminded the Board Chair that he has the option to say disagree or present an alternative when such is in the best interest of the federation. You understand, don’t you? I said. He nodded. But as it happened, he did not understand when face to face with the donor.

In the nation-state analysis of federalism, when the more powerful does not or will not self regulate, it is the role of the judiciary to uphold the rule of law, to be the light that guides ships in dark seas toward safety. This judiciary is present in each of the subnational governments as well as at federal or State level (i.e. the Supreme Court). It has to be an independent judiciary (when in the mood Philippine judiciary is that so why not do it more often as in make it a habit?). Failure of judiciaries to take on these qualities inadvertently weakens the system if not to it’s collapse.

Executive Leadership. Still on who is the Filipino? It has been my experience and observation that collectively Filipinos expect their leaders to be “strong” in the sense that he or she exhibits Hitler-ish tendencies. We have a love-hate relationship with the strongman or woman. Where is this coming from? Was it the datu-alipin and council of elders hierarchies from before and afterward reinforced by colonizers? Such expectation defeats the rationale behind a federalist system wherein powers of persuasion as opposed to authority are key to getting things done among independent governments.

Financial Independence. Finally, for this venture of a federation to run, it needs money which brings up the subject on financial autonomy. Revenue allocation and formula is among the contentious issues faced by the federation. There’s none to speak of, on paper or in operation. This despite members’ constitutional provisions toward that. The situation has led to unnecessary squabbles, spats, and turfing (or, what staff likes to call self interest-based leadership) among members and between the federation office and members. Precisely why, too, federation members, in disobedience of their constitutions, are donor dependent and consequentially surrendered their will to “the more powerful hand”.

Primacy of Self Interest (for the individual) and Economy (for the nation-state). In the end economics always trumps politics. Money rules the world and I say this from a pragmatic point of view. It’s just a matter of approach- to be crude or sophisticated about it.

One of the first things the board communicated to me during my OICship was that I allow provision for or increase of whatever “incentives” they currently were receiving. I evaded the suggestion at first because (1) I couldn’t believe they actually asked for it considering the federation’s financial situation, and (2) didn’t they know the legal provisions pertaining to boards of nonstock nonprofits? But when the request became insistent I decided to square with them. The gist of my words was, if they could bring in more money then why not but as it were which they already knew as I was just starting to know that federation coffers had almost nothing of our own money in it. I uttered these quite sharply which effectively silenced them. At another time, in an open forum in the area, a board member asked if they would be paid a daily wage for their work in an internal evaluation on program effectiveness that I, also in M&E, was spearheading. Fifty pairs of eyes bored into mine, many of which were board members as well, waiting for my reply. I felt betrayed. But I also recognized that it was a challenge of some sort. I took a moment to think. The way the boards have been pushing that they be financially rewarded, for me, indicated that they were coddled in the past. Yet what had they to show afterward? The federation was a mess. Anger energized me. I decided to be as brutally honest. No, I said finally, boards are not, should not be compensated. If you volunteer for the work it is I presume because you decided to volunteer and not because you hoped to be paid. Only the hired enumerators will be paid a wage. The faces before me looked shocked. I guess that was the reaction of people who were before fed a string of promises (without there being an intent of fulfilling them). I decided to throw them a lifeline before their jaws locked in permanently. I assured them that nobody was going to work on empty stomachs, that there was enough food for all who were part of the evaluation. At yet another time, a board member and I had been discussing another crisis situation that looked like there was no immediate solution available to us. And then from somewhere behind her she brought out bundles of vegetables she said she had harvested from her farm and if I could buy them? Well, fuck me. Didn’t I look stressed enough? (I bought them. What could I say? My kids and I could probably use some fresh produce on the table.)

Political ideologies are easily and conveniently put away into compartments the moment money talks. This  “invisible hand” is given more far reaching influence with the globalization of national economies. Noam Chomsky’s interview on the subject, international capital: the new imperial age published in his book Understanding Power sheds light:

…there was a great article in the London Economist…about the fact that Eastern European countries have been voting Socialists and Communists back into power. But the basic line of the article was, don’t worry about it because as they said, “policy is insulated from politics” – meaning, no matter what games these guys play in the political arena, policy’s going to go on exactly the way it is because we’ve got them by the balls: we control the international currencies, we’re the only ones who can give them loans, we can destroy their economies if we want to, there’s nothing they can do. I mean, they can play all of the political games they want to, they can pretend they have a democracy if they like – anything they please – so long as “policy remains insulated from politics.”

G.A.T.T. is a fine example of an international agreement that is heavily biased against protection of agriculture in certain countries proposing instead that local markets open their doors to (cheaper) imports. I remember the time prior to the GOP signing of the agreement. There were rallies here and there for national government to renegotiate for protection of Philippine markets. But what? No amount of banging by the people on the doors of Malacanan or Congress could reverse a made decision.

A strong and vibrant national economy has a stabilizing effect on politics. The economy, not politics, is the recognized medium of exchange that can buy a country real negotiating power beyond it’s borders. Right now, our politics is essentially dictated by dependence on global markets, the MNCs e.g. BPOs (where many of our young graduates are) as well as international financial institutions i.e. the World Bank, IMF. This was what I meant writing a previous post, that for significant change to happen here, first get the economic equation right and the rest will follow. (Even drug use follows the basic demand-supply formula: it is as much fed by opportunism and poverty i.e. exploitation of an idle population mostly with low literacy levels and bleak economic prospects as it is by wealth and innate gifts to create great works of art.)

What’s the Pitch? ‘Federalism’ in Greek means covenant. Covenant essentially operates on mutual trust and respect and common goals. One will not into a covenant with another whom one doesn’t trust, undeserving of respect, and has nothing in common with you. Constituents of the federalist system trust that each will honor it’s word. Honoring one’s word is the source of system balance. And this system is built on consensus. Have we these essentials already?

Russia is a federalism under a Communist Party. South America countries follow federalist systems of organization not necessarily under democratic rule. African nations as well. Then there’s the G7 countries. Congress must provide a compelling reason for switching to federalism and what model. To be able to do this in clear terms, it has to stop muna it’s broadcast of rambling suggestions because it creates more confusion than anything, as for instance:

Constitutional Convention (Con-Con) and Constitutional Assembly (Con-Ass) both have their pros and cons. Ang maganda sa Con-Con, you have freedom of debate and you have representatives na iyon lang ang trabaho nila. They do not detract from the work of Congress. Kasi sa Con-Ass, it can sometimes detract from your legislative duties because you’re concentrating on the amendments to the Constitution. Ang maganda naman sa Con-Ass, it’s guaranteed to work very quickly because you have a fixed term so you must achieve your goals within a fixed amount of time. The Con-Con, on the other hand, is not bound by that time unless the law creating it puts a time limit for them.

I don’t know if we can say Charter change is inevitable but certainly it will get a big push because of the support of the president and from the fact that it is being done in the first half of the Duterte administration where there is no suspicion of any type of term extension which is historically, or in the last two decades, has been the obstacle to pushing any kind of Charter change.

– Senator Angara’s Statement on Charter Change, 5 July 2016

Congress instead to consolidate their thoughts on a discussion paper – a green paper if you will – that is based on research or analysis of Filipinos i.e. regional cultures and value systems (as basis of subdividing the nation into new regions/regional governments) and evaluation or assessment of the nation’s political history and systems, to be distributed in localities for further input and discussions among locals. Are we not tired of bara bara or renegade approaches? I am. And I know I am “a small voice.” Even then I can always hope.

Congress must lead a process worthy of the people’s respect and trust as what the founding leaders who wrote the Federalist Papers did- they clearly and rationally put forth federalism as the right system in which to uphold liberty and freedom. What’s ours? Surely a Congress in the 21st century can do much better than just talk in bursts here and there.

Defense of federalism here points to nothing being fundamentally changed, in short, it is still the strongman or woman and his or her parliament at the center of the Filipinos’ universe. Now we hear Congress has set September 6 to start discussions of charter change. How could you call a hearing held in Batasan in Metro Manila a “national public hearing”? It’s the absolutist and centralist process all over again, by a minority (who Filipinos are wary of) who feels they know what “we the people” think and will decide for. Where is the federalist spirit in that? We’re already setting out on the wrong foot. We might just as well remain a decentralized unitary system and improve on what we have started with decentralization (of which federalism is a form).

Back to the donor representative to whom the first version of the federation’s organizational development proposal was submitted. I had afterward retreated to the restaurant just in time to savor the eat-all-you-can breakfast before it closed. For the first time in many months, my taste buds were working and I enjoyed the food. With the completion of the document, my mind was finally emptied of all thoughts – worries – about the federation (but more importantly the children and young people out there who relied on this support system). All that was needed to be said had been organized and coded to paper. It was enough for me that the document was read by it’s intended audience. Whether the “more powerful hand” will do something about the situation at the federation is something I’ve finally accepted as having passed outside my sphere of control. The ball is already in their court. In the meantime, lemme eat my steak in peace (to the tune of I Can See Clearly Now).


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