Federalism, decentralization and devolution: A continuing debate in the Philippines

Alex B. Brillantes Jr

Posted at Jun 13 2019 11:50 AM

The proposal to adopt a federal form of government for our country has kicked of heated debates from all sides on the merits and demerits of federalism. These ranged from the well thought out and serious proposals of the Consultative Committee led by Chief Justice Puno and the venerable Aquilino 'Nene' Pimentel Jr, to the bald partisan proposals emanating from some members of Congress to the vulgar “pepe-dederalismo” messaging.

If viewed from a positive point of view, this is a healthy sign for a country that continues to seek appropriate politico-administrative structures and institutions suitable to us at this particular historical moment. One thing is clear: considering the enormous problems and challenges we encounter as a nation – ranging from poverty and inequity to social injustice and corruption – we all agree that the status quo is not acceptable and that fundamental reforms are imperative.

Among the reforms that generated much discussion is the proposal to amend the constitution and adopt a federal form of government as an alternative to the unitary system that we have today. It is important to unpack the debate and begin with what we are familiar with and then proceed with the nuts and bolts of the project.

For starters, we should recognize that federalism is NOT NEW. At the core of federalism is the need to empower subnational governments to make them responsive to the peculiar needs and features of a certain geographical area. This is precisely what devolution and local autonomy is all about.

It will be recalled that in 1991, a Local Government Code principally authored by Senator Nene Pimentel was enacted to transfer functions, powers and authorities to the sub-national local governments in order to enable them to address local needs.

For instance, a landlocked municipality in the mountainous Cordillera regions has different needs from an island fishing municipality in the Visayas. As saying goes, different strokes for different folks. No one size fits all. That is what decentralization is all about, and this is what federalism may be all about.


Devolution and federalism are modes of decentralization. Decentralization can be placed in a continuum with deconcentration (administrative decentralization) in one end where minimal powers are transferred to lower levels, and independence and separatism at the other extreme.

In between them are devolution (political decentralization as provided for in the 1991 local government code), regional autonomy (as provided for in the 1987 Constitution for the Cordilleras and “Muslim Mindanao” and now in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Mindanao (BARM) stemming from the Bangsamoro Basic Law.

Federalism would be the next step in the continuum, before separatism and independence. It is within this context that we have suggested over the years that federalism is the next logical step to devolution and local autonomy. Hence the discourse on federalism is not new when located within the context of the decentralization continuum.

This is not a simple academic theoretical discussion. This is grounded on reality where we have seen actual local governments use their creative powers and authorities vested in them by the local government code through devolution respond to the unique needs of their constituencies (health, education, conflict resolution, generation of financial resource), and come up with innovative responses to local challenges and concerns. Our many local governments who have been recognized by the Galing Pook and other programs through the years are actual evidence of this: these include Upi in Maguindanao, Malaybalay in Bukidnon, Cebu City, Naga City, Mandaluyong City, Munoz in Nueva Ecija, La Trinidad in Benguet, and Aparri in Cagayan, among many, many others.

Federalism must build upon the hard earned gains. Since the discourse on federalism is not new when properly placed within the context of decentralization, we must build upon the accomplishments of decentralization over the years.

For instance, in designing the proposed federal states, we can take off from the administrative regions and the regional development councils. The process of administrative regionalization actually began with the Integrated Reorganization Plan (IRP) that was the first decree signed by Marcos in 1972 upon the proclamation of martial law in 1972!

As regards finances, we can build upon the experience we have had with the internal revenue allotment (IRA) distribution to local governments as provided for by the local government code of 1992.

If anything at all, we have learned that the use of the “formula” in allocating the IRA to the LGUs was simplistic: the use of population, land area and equal sharing failed to take into account more important factors such as poverty and performance.

Building upon this important lesson learned, the allocation of financial resources to the sub-national institutions – states and component local governments under a federal set-up – must take into consideration what Australians have referred to as the “disabilities” of these sub-national governments in terms of poverty incidence and resource deprivation.


The federalism debate should be placed in its proper perspective. To reduce the federalism debate into a “are you for or against federalism” reflects a simplistic appreciation of the issue.

Federalism should be placed within a broader politico-administrative perspective with a keen appreciation of its historical context. More specifically, it should be appreciated within the context of our continuing search for responsive politico-administrative structures and institutions considering the widespread poverty and inequity plaguing our society,

Federalism should not be seen as a Duterte agenda. Although a strong push for the adoption of a federal form of government has been given by the incumbent administration, the federalism agenda should not be equated to a Duterte-led movement and should in one sense, therefore be insulated from partisan politics.

This may sound naïve but that is what fundamental politico-administrative reforms should be. One reason why many of good reforms have failed – at the national and local levels – is that they have been politicized and when the next administration takes over, inspite of the merits of reforms that should cross administrations and should be sustained, they are discontinued simply because they were initiated by the previous administration.

These discontinuities in implementation of reforms simply reflect our political immaturity that unfortunately continues to characterize Philippine politics today.

Federalism – as in all fundamental reforms - should be as inclusive as possible. Its ultimate goal is to empower sub-national governments by providing the enabling framework for meaningful decentralization and development. As former Senate President Koko Pimentel asserted, “federalism is not for President Duterte” and pointing out that “our party [administration party PDP-Laban] has been advocating federalism since 1982.” And at University of the Philippines National College of Public Administration and Governance, we have been debating the merits of federalism in late seventies with Gabriel Iglesias, former Dean of the College, leading the discussions.


Federalism is part of nation-building. The proposals to shift to a federal form of government should be seen as part of a process in nation-building. Nation-building is a continuing process that takes time and is context-specific.

Public sector reforms – which are among the imperatives in nation building – may address specific concerns confronted by a nation during a particular historical moment, or a particular historical period.

It is within this context that popular public sector reform interventions – including the massive reorganization of government, the decentralization of powers to sub-national governments and the shift to a federal structure of government – may be appreciated and understood.

It is also an instrument for development to address the inequities among the regions, and a way to address the conflicts in Mindanao. It is an instrument to recognize diversity and preserve the ethnic identities and culture of the indigenous peoples of the country.

The United States, a highly diverse country of immigrants, has a motto: E Pluribus Unum (out of many – one). And closer to home, in Indonesia, though not federal but highly decentralized, they have what they call Bhinekka Tungal Ika (Unity in Diversity.)

Federalism is a public sector reform intervention to deepen decentralization and enhance autonomy of local governments. Philippine politico-administrative history has shown that the decentralization of powers to sub-national governments has been a continuing demand of local governments as part of the clamor for autonomy. The proposals to adopt a federal form of government should be framed within this context. It is thus considered as a part of the public sector reform for nation building.

It will be recalled that meaningful devolution process was started in 1991, and after 28 years it could be said that the country has not yet attained full devolution. The best that can be done at this particular historical moment is to build upon the gains of devolution, laying the groundwork for federalism and adopting a slow, incremental, strategic, and well thought out phronetic process adopting realistic expectations.

It is realistic because the process is built upon existing policies that have been tried and tested already such as in the case of Galing Pook awardees. Galing pook – and many innovations (heralded and unheralded) at the local level provide evidence that the Local Government Code has shown evidence of relative success with the many good and best practices in local government.


The transition to federalism may be an excellent opportunity for us to introduce much needed reforms in local governance that have been proposed through the past two decades. These include designing and developing responsive fiscal federalism reforms, including a state-oriented revenue-raising scheme, to a transfer scheme based on performance and needs within the framework of asymmetric federalism.

And equally important and quite significantly, it could be an also be a chance to address contemporary burning concerns at the level of local governance – such as fragmentation and even gerrymandering of local governments, which unfortunately has reared its ugly head once more.

Hence the shift will provide the enabling framework for the implementation of reforms in sub-national governance, including imperatives to amalgamate local governments, not only at the barangay level but also at the municipal and provincial levels. We might also learn from the great amalgamation of local governments experience of Japan – seen as one of the factors behind the country’s progress.

Parenthetically, at the practical level, we can begin by beginning with low-hanging fruit that would lay the groundwork for federalism. For instance, we can set up the state governments – an imperative for federalism – by building upon our experience with the regional development councils that have been operating since the 70s.

Then, as proposed by the consultative commission, representation in the Senate can be redesigned to allocate two senators per region to enable and assure equitable representation of all regions in the senate, something that has been sorely missing the past many decades. Again equitable representation is a major feature of federalism.

We end these notes with the following thoughts. To a certain extent, the discourse on federalism has become a political question. The President has made this a centerpiece of his governance reform agenda. Yet there continue to be resistance from many knowledgeable – and certainly informed - sectors who believe the shift to federalism may not be necessary nor prudent at this point in time considering the very political and even partisan nature the debates have taken. “Why not just amend the local government code?” these sectors rightfully point out, considering that strengthening sub-national institutions and deepening people participation is at the core of the desired reforms.

It is within this context that we suggest this proposal, frame the federalism discourse within the context of devolution and strengthen subnational governments. This approach may be in line with what Aristotle once called “phronesis,” or practical wisdom. It will enable enlightened compromise between the polarized sectors in the federalism debate. It will allow us to rise above our rabid partisanship and instead focus on our collective goal of nation building which is what the debate on federalism should be.



Alex Brillantes Jr. (PhD University of Hawaii) is Professor at the University of the Philippines National College of Public Administration and Governance. He earlier served as the Dean of the College of the National College of Public Administration and Governance; Executive Director of the Local Government Academy; and Commissioner of the Commission on Higher Education.