Only seven months after the turnover of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) to the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), there came a proposal at the House of Representatives to create a “National Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH)". The pretext is to “ensure the smooth implementation of the DPWH’s national program in the newly created region”, which gives one reason to agree outright. But this is not a simple question of effectiveness and implementation. It is, in the first place, not a simple issue and requires thorough reflection.
Addressing the issue has far-reaching implications. To have an effective infrastructure program that is efficiently implemented is imperative, but the question of how is dependent on an elaborate system. It has to be noted why, in the first place, autonomy became a key policy under the 1987 Constitution, which specifically mentioned Muslim Mindanao as a region. Re-nationalizing the department might even further complicate the problems in the region or even restore the problems, including the inherent weaknesses of centralization.
Decentralization is an approach that has been adopted by many countries as a strategy for better public administration, which has been identified as fundamental in achieving development. Yes, it is one of the many political reforms introduced in the 1987 Constitution, but it is not just a political tool.
Decentralization is seen as a political reform measure because it expands political representation and participation. Because local governments are given powers that basically allow them to make important decisions without having to wait or depend entirely on the national government, it is now difficult to consolidate national political power without requiring the buy-in of local political leaders.
If given much thought, it will show that more than a political measure, it is in fact an organizing principle called “subsidiarity”. This power of local governments to make important decision makes decentralization a substantial public administration reform. Many countries have been ruled centrally for ages but it has been seen time and again that it is always a challenge for national government agencies to cover the whole country and effectively carry out their mandates. In most countries, the key in delineating functions is that policy-making is mainly at the national level, while implementation is primarily with the local level.
Even policy-making should be defined in such a way that standards are set at the national level. The whole point in this is that the national perspective is broad but can only be comprehensive with details that only the local level can provide. Local governments can already do policies aimed at defining implementation, adapting it to the particular context at the local level.
Considering that the introduction of decentralization essentially altered the political dynamics in the country, one can only imagine how difficult it was to put it in place. It took 5 years for the then Cory Aquino administration to enact a law that will put form to the principle provided in the constitution, and it was also auspicious to have a leader who understood local governance then--former Cagayan De Oro Mayor Aquilino 'Nene' Pimentel Jr.
It remains the same law up to now, however. There have been several attempts to revise it but none succeeded. Again, this only demonstrates the difficulty of pursuing a comprehensive, game-changing reform measure. There is even a provision in the 1991 Local Government Code (LGC) requiring a “comprehensive review” every 5 years, precisely to revise it after much-needed thorough review. It was already anticipated because it effectively alters the long-standing political and administrative framework of the country. It is entirely new and thus entails continued correcting to make it work. Sadly and noticeably, not even a comprehensive review has been undertaken.
If this shows how difficult it was to introduce decentralization, imagine how arduous it was for Mindanao to attain autonomy. Partisanship is part of politics and policy-making. Understandably, it cannot be avoided regardless of the sacrifice spent in attaining autonomy. If the objective, however, is to achieve effectiveness, it cannot be answered only by choosing between decentralization and centralization in general. Again, decentralization has been proven to be a more effective organizing principle. If it failed in ARMM before, it might not be due to the principle of decentralization but more on how it was practiced then.
There are so many studies done on the ARMM, enough to draw conclusions on whether or not it was “a failure.” Just like decentralization, if there had been significant limitations that would constitute a failure, it is not because powers were given below but more because the national government did not actually let go of the powers or did not do enough to prepare and support the local governments until they could actually make it on their own.
Consider revenue generation alone. ARMM then was said to be unable to generate enough regional revenue to support its development initiatives. Note that compared to local governments, ARMM was given greater means to generate revenues. That it failed is true but not because the regional government was not capable of raising regional revenues, they were prevented from raising it. They simply could not collect the revenues.
Everything still depended on the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR). How the bureau is organized cannot or simply was not adapted to conform to the regional government’s mandate, structure, and jurisdiction. It was more a problem of tax administration, not of competence. It will even be useful to determine the competence of the regional government personnel then and now and it might be a surprise for some to find out they are as qualified as they are competent.
The same story could be drawn in the case of decentralization in local governments. Devolved services like health, agriculture and social welfare have been difficult to absorb and perform adequately by the local governments. Consequently, similar to the recent proposal to have a national DPWH in BARMM, there had been several, in fact, persistent proposals to have these services renationalized. Like clockwork, decentralization is blamed for the failure of local governments to perform devolved functions without benefit of assessment, and without taking into consideration that the reason why decentralization was put in place is precisely because of limitations in the delivery of public services.
There is no way we can enjoy the benefits of decentralization since the way it has been implemented has been tepid at best. The constitution is quite robust in establishing decentralization, and compared to other reform provisions that remain unimplemented, legislation was successfully passed to put it to action. It all stopped there though; there was no follow through that could have completed all the necessary complements.
So, whenever it is argued that all we have to do is implement the Local Government Code (LGC) in full and more, and then we will achieve true empowerment and development at the regional and local level, I would say this is just another propaganda. Its intent can only be to frustrate further reforms as we have explained in an earlier piece, What further decentralization?
It will remain a vicious circle since there remains a bias against local governance, and this is supposedly because it has not achieved what was supposed to be achieved with its enactment. Decentralization will never achieve or deliver what it was intended to, not with the continued focus on power and efforts to undermine it.
Hopefully, BARMM is not undermined by the same tendencies.
The national government has always been afraid of losing power, without realizing that power, defined as "effectiveness to carry out its mandate," is weakened precisely because of its unwillingness to share power. If BARMM and local governments are not supported, development can never be achieved and we will be left behind further than we already are.
(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.