A Sona spot­light on gov­ern­ment ser­vices

Philippine Daily Inquirer - - OPINION - DINDO MANHIT

Dur­ing his State of the Na­tion Ad­dress on July 24, Pres­i­dent Duterte con­tin­ued to shine a bright spot­light on the prob­lems of peace and or­der in our coun­try. Although he em­pha­sized the war on drugs and the on­go­ing fight for peace in Min­danao over al­most all other is­sues, he also paid at­ten­tion to one im­por­tant point: the qual­ity of gov­ern­ment ser­vice in the Philippines.

The Pres­i­dent’s com­ments on gov­ern­ment ser­vice were wide-rang­ing, hit­ting de­lays in pro­cure­ment, le­gal set­backs, in­ad­e­quate laws, and inat­ten­tive work­ers. He re­jected bad deals on fire trucks, ex­pir­ing medicines, and even the prac­tice of mak­ing cit­i­zens re­turn re­peat­edly to trans­act with gov­ern­ment of­fices.

To dis­cuss the Sona, Strat­base ADR In­sti­tute and Democ­racy Watch held a fo­rum on July 27, ti­tled “The Road to Change: Civil So­ci­ety Or­ga­ni­za­tions’ Post-Sona Assess­ment.” The roundtable fea­tured Julio Tee­hankee of De La Salle; An­thony Abad, lawyer and com­men­ta­tor; Alvin Ang of Ate­neo de Manila Univer­sity; and our own Fran­cisco Magno, pro­gram con­venor and trustee of Strat­base ADR In­sti­tute.

We gen­er­ally agreed that the Pres­i­dent used the Sona to reach his au­di­ence—or­di­nary peo­ple who are ag­gra­vated by gov­ern­ment fail­ures. As Tee­hankee pointed out, since the elec­tion cam­paign Mr. Duterte has skill­fully man­aged the pol­i­tics of anger.

“It’s a jun­gle out there. There are beasts and vul­tures prey­ing on the help­less…,” the Pres­i­dent said in his Sona. Th­ese vul­tures are in­deed ev­ery­where. For the past five years, the Philippines’ dis­mal per­for­mance in the Cor­rup­tion Per­cep­tions In­dex of Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional (TI) has been alarm­ing. In 2017, it ranked 101st in cor­rup­tion among 176 coun­tries. The TI re­port de­scribed pub­lic-sec­tor cor­rup­tion as en­demic. The re­port em­pha­sized the mu­tual re­la­tion­ship be­tween cor­rup­tion and in­equal­ity.

The sack­ing of cor­rupt gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, ap­pointed or elected, is a much wel­come prac­tice. Thank­fully, Pres­i­dent Duterte gave ex­am­ples of his will­ing­ness to act de­ci­sively against cor­rupt or in­ef­fi­cient pub­lic ser­vants. How­ever, cor­rup­tion can be likened to a many-headed hy­dra, which sprouts more heads when one is chopped away. To ad­dress cor­rup­tion, the gov­ern­ment must en­gage in a whole gamut of pro­gres­sive re­forms, an­chored on the prin­ci­ples of trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity, bet­ter po­lit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion, and in­ter­ven­tions tar­get­ing poverty.

A more ac­count­able gov­ern­ment may help to ad­dress the wildly un­equal liv­ing stan­dards in our so­ci­ety. One is­sue raised in our fo­rum was the Pres­i­dent’s prom­ise of a fed­eral sys­tem for bet­ter rep­re­sen­ta­tion. One made the point that this shift could be­come a fis­cal night­mare; an­other raised a con­cern over the ca­pac­i­ties of fu­ture re­gional gov­ern­ments to han­dle more de­volved pow­ers. The shift in sys­tem could be a very pow­er­ful tool for rep­re­sen­ta­tion, but it must be care­fully thought through to en­sure that more au­ton­o­mous re­gions can also de­liver good ser­vices.

More im­me­di­ately, the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act should be ex­tended to all branches of the gov­ern­ment. If the car­ry­ing out of gov­ern­ment trans­ac­tions is trans­par­ent, cor­rupt or ques­tion­able prac­tices can be min­i­mized. How­ever, the bat­tle against cor­rup­tion en­tails trans­for­ma­tion at the struc­tural and cul­tural level. Struc­ture and cul­ture should be dealt with si­mul­ta­ne­ously; per­haps ori­en­ta­tions and reed­u­ca­tion need to be car­ried out at all lev­els of pub­lic of­fice.

Clean­ing up cor­rup­tion is no easy chal­lenge. Ap­proach­ing the prob­lem of cor­rup­tion at the in­di­vid­ual and be­hav­ioral lev­els is the other part of the for­mula. There are prac­ti­cal steps that can be taken, such as life­style checks, but cul­tural change is the long-term so­lu­tion. Such change will re­quire, as Pres­i­dent Duterte men­tioned, the pow­er­ful to set aside their per­sonal am­bi­tions and agen­das for the greater good of the Repub­lic, and lead by ex­am­ple.

———— Dindo Manhit is pres­i­dent of Strat­base ADR In­sti­tute.

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