It doesn’t require rocket science to understand political and public administration systems and its significance to governance and even especially to individual behavior. Still, it remains an enigma to me why even those who have the right, even impressive educational and professional backgrounds don’t seem to understand how fundamental systems are. Even one with just basic education, when properly explained, either shown or demonstrated, I would have no doubt that systems can be understood. In the many years of working and advocating for systems change, I have seen this first hand.
The sad thing however is there has not even been any serious and sustained effort to make everyone understand systems. Even before any sustained advocacy program could be considered, it is already shot down, arguing that the people will not understand it, that they will understand only gut issues or that the people will prefer this and/or that instead. Interestingly, it is those who have good education and professional background who would always argue this way.
How I hope we can stick to the issues and continue a healthy exchange of thoughts and ideas. I would, however, still thank those who keep on talking about systems, even if their agenda is clearly to shoot it down. I myself have been writing about other issues now but when someone writes or says something about systems, I just feel like I have to respond, especially when “advocates” are indicted. I still hope critics can stick to issues, but then again it’s still a choice whether to make it personal or not. It is plain hubris to say, “not many actually understand federalism …even among those advocating”. I’m sorry, but there are many advocates who actually understand and who have actually been studying systems for the longest time and who also profess stellar professional backgrounds.
Contrary to what critics say, this pandemic has shown the limitations of a centralized public administration (see previous article “Stress test in uncharted waters”). If all levels of government had been working together, one that complements the other and not competes, there would not have been any problem. In fact, we could have easily considered other options dealing with this contagion.
If we had a well-functioning, integrated database system, we can easily identify who is healthy and can continue working, and have those with medical history and/or identified to be vulnerable to the virus remain at home and adapt to a different working environment. We would not be suffering from an economy that is at a virtual standstill as it is now. We would not have much of problem identifying who really requires assistance from the government. In fact, we may not even need to have so many programs of assistance as most would remain economically productive.
This alone tells us a lot. No national government can have a complete database system without involving local governments. If decentralization was properly rolled out and supported sustainably, we would already have a good, reliable and up-to-date database system all the time. But no, we’d rather assume that the national government could do everything and undervalue local governments. Imagine even passing a law declaring that official data are only those collated by the national government.
So, it is not surprising that one level of government will point a finger and accuse the other of incapacity or failure. The truth however is simple: under the existing system, the local governments were not made to be a partner or a collaborator, even just an assistant of the national government. In fact, instead of further empowering local governments, policies have continuously enfeebled them through fragmentation, re-centralizing programs like the 4Ps and requiring so much documents that take so much time to comply.
And this is where the ignorance of critics comes in. Federalism is not just one model of government. Every federal country is a model of its own. Every public institution in any country is a product of its own history and/or reflects its own unique context. Not one is exactly the same as the other. It is not right to say that federalism “actually is are two competing layers of government”. Obviously this is just a particular model, that of the U. S. and one that should not be the only measure of federalism. In the first place, it’s quite basic; the history of state formation in the U.S. is not in any way comparable to ours. And this is the key that explains the “competition” between the state and the U.S. federal government. Any expert would know this.
We have to change the system if we hope to have any significant improvement in governance. Not only in terms of delivering basic services but also even in accountability, most especially including choosing the right leader in an election. We have to change the system to have “enough flexibility for governance”, that we absolutely don’t have under the existing system.
If there is flexibility, there should be enough leeway for local governments to do more than what they are already able to do now; to think outside the box, to be able to respond forthwith and not be withheld by some abstruse policy formulated in some unscrupulous circumstance. We see, feel and suffer from these kinds of supererogatory, even worthless and adverse policies and programs of government right smack in front of us in this pandemic. Yes there are local governments who have shown unwillingness to cooperate, but we cannot deny local governments who have shown capacity, more than what is expected of them, to respond effectively and immediately.
Imagine how much more local governments can do if they had the right size and capacity to respond accordingly. And this cannot be done under the existing system, definitely not in the existing straitjacket that is the 1987 Constitution. We need not lose so much in dealing with this pandemic. We can learn from it as many countries did when they had SARS. And if we really could only put our hearts and minds to real change, reflecting on the limitations of governance under the existing structures made conspicuous by this pandemic, we can even gain from it as there’s no more reason why we cannot understand political and public administration systems.
(The author was a member of the Consultative Committee to Review the 1987 Constitution which President Duterte formed in 2018. He is also Executive Director of the Local Government Development Foundation and a professor of Modern Local Governance at the Ateneo School of Government.)
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