A Sona spotlight on government services
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.