OPINION: Effective gov't and organizations: Responding in times of crisis

Edmund S. Tayao

Posted at Feb 10 2020 09:40 PM

In one of the notable papers of public administration scholar Herbert Werlin, he explained that “the best organizations are those that combine centralization and decentralization, harmony and conflict, autonomy and control, flexibility and rigidity, and dispersal and concentration of authority”. This is true with companies, he goes on to say, citing Peters and Waterman. “The excellent companies are both centralized and decentralized. For the most part…they have pushed autonomy down to the shop floor or product development team. On the other hand (and this is a key feature that balances decentralization so as not to lose coordination and control when needed), they are fanatically centralized around the few core values they hold dear."

Organizations are put up to organize, i.e. put together otherwise separate and disparate parts or components and or agents and have them work and coordinate as if it is just a single entity. All the more with a government; as the manifestation of a state’s existence, it is the primary agent of order in any society. This is precisely why, as we have learned in the “state of nature” theory, man surrendered his absolute freedom and altogether formed a sovereign Leviathan.

Freedom and discretion is still there albeit the formation of the Leviathan comes with a tacit agreement to adhere to rules. These rules are intended mainly to ensure that there is equal opportunity in the use and/or enjoyment of freedom. These are intended not to curtail, but to empower everyone regardless of circumstances, supposedly leveling the political, economic and social field. When an organization and more so government, fails to work, coordinate and therefore operate as much as if it is a single entity, the objective of order and ultimately allowing the achievement of society’s full potential is simply lost.

This is the reason why there are certain designs or tools developed by the human and policy sciences so that organizations, public and or private, can be so designed that it operates at the optimal level. In terms of structuring the dynamic of different agencies and or levels of government, often referred to as intergovernmental relations (IGR), the choice is either centralized or decentralized. This is separate or a specific consideration that further defines what a unitary or federal form of government is. In other words, even a federal form of government can be centralized, especially in key government services.

Decentralization has been a popular IGR design since the third wave of democratization or the late 1970s to the present. It has been considered and adopted by many countries not only as people are empowered and made to participate more but also equally important, to diffuse development to the countryside. In the case of the Philippines, autonomy is established as a State Policy in the 1987 Constitution (Section 25, Art. II), in order to effect decentralization of local governments (Section 3, Arti. X).

As it was a priority policy direction after the end of the dictatorship in 1986, the Local Government Code was enacted in 1991. Local governments have since shown that development is indeed possible if they are empowered. But there’s still much to be done especially since officials, both at the national and local level, remain ambiguous in the understanding of autonomy, especially on the extent of the powers of local government units (LGUs) and the role of the national or central government.

This ambiguity was in full display recently. Some of our LGU officials seem to require more understanding of the extent of their powers and the principle that defines IGR or the relationship between the national and local governments. Consider a vice mayor, yes, not even the local chief executive of Talisay, Batangas, questioning the national government’s decision to close the town and relocate its residents at the height of the recent Taal Volcano eruption. There is no need to even ask for this vice mayor's background to question Phivolcs’ capacity after complaining that the agency failed to “predict” the volcano’s eruption. This may be just purely grandstanding but if he now gives some thought to his actions, he might realize he made a fool of himself with his declarations.

And now, you have Capas, Tarlac local officials rejecting the national government's decision to use the Athletes’ Village in New Clark City as quarantine areas for OFWs rescued from ground zero of the spreading epidemic of the 2019 novel coronavirus (nCoV). This despite the information that only those not yet afflicted by the virus will be allowed to fly home, and that there are careful, meticulous protective measures put in place by the national government. Again, this is an out-and-out grandstanding or a display of wanton refusal to even just attempt to understand the situation and ultimately make the people of the town understand. Instead, they are alarming the people more and sowing confusion.

What will filing a petition against the decision to use the facility to a court of law do? What will be the bases of such legal action in the first place? Assuming the court will respond, how much time would then have effectively lapsed? Does it make sense still to move the repatriated OFWs to another site or facility?

It would have been best if the LGU officials considered working hand-in-hand with the national government and with the various agencies operating to effectively contain the spread of the virus. Not only is this the only thing they can do, it is the best policy action available. It is not even a question if the national government coordinated or failed to consult them before making the decision. It is a matter of national security, which clearly is the power and function of the national government. Decisiveness is key, not more participation and definitely not a protracted process.

It is ludicrous even odious to think that in critical situations, you have local officials like these. When they think it is not in their interest, they seem to forget that they are part of a bigger whole that is the country. Autonomy is interpreted as independence and they act as if they have the power to just do anything without regard to how it affects the country. In fact, they don’t even have to think of the country, they should just concentrate on the welfare of their constituents. They might be surprised that the whole country’s and their constituents’ interests are not opposite but actually one and the same. Cooperation is therefore key, and coordination is what’s needed.

When the situation is normal, you will find it amazing that local officials act like they cannot do anything of significance without the national government’s support. This, of course, is but normal and again consistent with the fundamental need for cooperation and coordination. This brings us back to the principle of “elasticity” or the use of decentralization and centralization in specific circumstances and or conditions. The more recent literature describes this as “accordion effect." The accordion is used to illustrate the “ebbs and flows that organizations go through.”

Clearly, there is much to be done when it comes to decentralization and local governance. We have enacted a law on decentralization but the whole system does not and cannot support the fundamental need for more competent officials. There are those who will insist that it is because of the “culture” that our officials behave like this. If we accept this explanation, then we have assumed that all our officials are incompetent and or narrow. I don't think this is the case.

(The author is the Executive Director of the Local Government Development Foundation and a professor of Modern Local Governance at the Ateneo School of Government.)

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