OPINION: The weakness of Philippine governance and COVID-19

Edmund Tayao

Posted at Apr 12 2020 12:02 AM

I couldn’t help but react when I saw the news, the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) chief quoted as saying that “'lack of adequate constituents’ info from LGUs (local government units) slowed down initial distribution of cash aid.” Especially in times like these when emotions are heightened, it is expected, nay recommended, that everyone, most especially leaders, should be more circumspect. It’s understandable for someone who is new in the department to make such a pronouncement and so I couldn’t help but think it’s the people around the chief that fed him that wrong information.

There is reason to expect much from the LGUs, but to me, that’s all there is to what we can do, expect and perhaps also hope. But who is at fault and why is this the case? And more importantly, what can be done?

So that we are reminded and some get to be more informed, so much is expected from the LGUs, especially in determining the poorest of the poor, because Social Welfare is one of the 5 devolved functions. But more than that, to me, the most important reason is simply that LGUs are there as the first line of governance, the first agency that is in charge of the local community’s welfare and development. And this can be done only with an effective mechanism or tool, which is none other than the Geographic Information System (GIS), which is a mapping tool, and the Community Based Monitoring System (CBMS), which is basically a local census. Unfortunately, not all LGUs have all these, or that if they do, it is more often outdated. So the next question is why?

Decentralization is one, if not the most important, political reform introduced in the 1987 Constitution. It is consistent with the theme of people power. It brought down effective power to local governments and lessened the dominance of the center, including the President, and therefore diminished the tendency to resort to martial law. Of course there are other fail-safes introduced in the constitution, as martial law is no longer purely an executive function now. Most importantly, this “effective power” has allowed LGUs to really do so much and if we only just look around, those who knew how it was before will be effective witnesses to the milestones of development in the countryside, thanks to decentralization. Of course, there could have been so much more if LGUs were made to be more effective.

So the next question now is why is it that the LGUs have not been able to step up? There are so many studies that have assessed decentralization and local governance, and it is important to note one thing that is common in majority of these studies: “a major constraint to further decentralized democratic development is the reluctance at the center to change.” From the very start, there should have been a rollout plan that the national government came up with in order to prepare the LGUs properly. Most imperatively, the powers, or should I say “responsibilities” downloaded to LGUs should have come with the necessary funds.

Don’t get me wrong; empowering the LGUs shouldn’t be taken to mean that because of decentralization, the national government is now or to be made insignificant. Far from it! There should however be an effective partnership. But this is possible only if each level will be reliable enough to perform its role that there is trust between the two levels of government.

Unfortunately, that’s hardly the case. As I mentioned earlier, studies assessing decentralization from the start of its implementation indicated only reluctance from the center. I remember attending in one forum on 4Ps so many years back, where I asked the lead official then as she made a presentation why the poverty program is being implemented at the national level and her response was “…because it will be politicized if it will be through the LGUs”. I couldn’t help my incredulity, as she must have seen my facial reaction to her explanation. I had to clarify and said, “If you could find me Ma'am, just one government program that is not politicized then I’ll understand."

The DSWD then proceeded with the formulation and implementation of what is called the National Household Targeting System (NHTS). No doubt it is a very useful tool and it is scientific, but so is the CBMS. In other words, both tools are database systems useful in planning, policy formulation and or implementation, even assessment and evaluation. NHTS is a national initiative and is also implemented by the national government. Yes, its implementation involves the Municipal Social Welfare and Development Officer (MSWDO) who is an LGU official. Still, his/her work is done mainly following directions from the DSWD. In other words, LGUs are but accessories to this national initiative.

It is therefore unfair for the good DSWD secretary to say it is the fault of the LGUs that the implementation of the Social Amelioration Program (SAP) has been delayed. The DSWD, at the very least, has the available data, even if not as updated, which is useful to implement the SAP. It is quite too late in the first place to require an “updated” set of information in the middle of an unprecedented global crisis like this.

If from the start, the LGUs have really been made an effective partner of the national government, then this lack of reliable data could have been avoided. If instead of coming up with an entirely different initiative of a nationally determined and driven database collection, including implementation of an important program as the 4Ps, there should have been every incentive for LGUs to perform and therefore be effective partners of the national government.

It is very easy to say the LGUs should be doing this and that or should have been doing this and that without looking at the actual capacity of LGUs. Without the now landmark decision on the Mandanas case, LGUs had been getting a measly 19% fixed share all these years from national taxes. And the basis of distribution of share is not even equitable as proven through the years.

Don’t even go to the argument that the problem is that LGUs are dependent on their Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA). Yes, 90% to even 98% of the total annual budget of most LGUs come from IRA but it’s not right to assume that this is “from the national government” that it is some manna from heaven. This is the LGUs’ share, supposedly “just share” from the collected national taxes paid by “all employed and or productive citizens” all over the country. Yes, including those who reside in the provinces.

Perhaps the national government can consider merging the NHTS and the CBMS. This will allow the LGUs to ensure that they have their CBMS reliably put in place and updated regularly and at the same is used and integrated in the NHTS database. We can then have a national and local data at the same time. The collection of data is done mainly through the LGUs and integrated at the national level. Both levels of government will then have reliable data for use in any and all government initiative and there wouldn’t be any reason to blame one or the other in cases where there are limitations or problems encountered

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.