MANILA, Philippines?Partisan politics over reform has characterized the actions of the Arroyo administration on local governance over the past nine years.
This was particularly demonstrated by the way the administration has marshaled the association of local governments to its defense during the various crises of legitimacy it has faced.
This is in marked contrast to the lack of urgency shown by the administration in dealing with the many bills pending in Congress calling for governance reforms.
Our consultations with local executives around the country show their chief concerns to be excessive political partisanship, centralization and lack of resources. These may be attributable to the governance style of the central government, the Arroyo administration being no exception.
It will be recalled that during the ?Hello Garci? furor of 2005 and the cash handout scandal in Malacañang in 2007, the Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines (Ulap) and other local government leagues threw their support behind the beleaguered administration.
This was interpreted by many that local executives were simply under the thumb of the Arroyo administration. Such support must be placed within the context of the nature of local governance in the country.
Given the patron-client nature of Philippine politics, most local governments simply have no choice but to align themselves with Malacañang, otherwise they would have no access to the vast resources under the control of the President.
That has been true from the time of the Marcos administration to former President Fidel V. Ramos? Lakas, to President Macapagal-Arroyo?s Kabalikat ng Malayang Pilipino (Kampi) party.
Local governments are in the frontlines in the long service delivery chain and, as such, feel the brunt to deliver. It is within this context that their susceptibility to excessive political partisanship and willingness to play the game may be understood.
But it is critical to make a differentiation between the associations of local governments and the individual local governments.
Local execs deliver
In spite of the political machinations local governments have been subjected to?par for the course in our politico-administrative system?it is to their credit that many have managed to be creative.
Evidence here are the many local governments?large and small, urban and rural, landlocked and coastal?that have delivered, in spite of the limitations brought about by lack of resources and the inertia of centralization.
We have seen innovations in local revenue resource generation, community participation, environmental management, peace initiatives and local service delivery. The many awardees of the Galing Pook Awards Program are a testimony to the advances made at the local level in spite of partisanship.
The numerous local governments that have entered into partnerships with the private sector and civil society to build communities through people-initiated movements, such as Gawad Kalinga, show many of them are delivering.
They have had innovative leaders, engaged citizens and a supportive business sector.
We are not romanticizing local governments. Problems of corruption and abuse plague them. They need transparency and accountability. It is within this context that reforms are imperative.
Unfortunately, reforming structures of governance has not been high on the agenda.
Local governments face many challenges and concerns. These could have been addressed by reform measures but these reforms were not an administration priority.
One reform the administration could have addressed is in the area of financial autonomy and the lack of financial resources.
Although the internal revenue allotment (IRA) shares of local governments have been increased significantly, financial transfers are still insufficient to cover the costs of devolved functions.
Hence, the need for reforms to improve the IRA scheme, ranging from increasing the IRA shares of local governments to revising the criteria for allocation to local governments,
IRA dependency is seen as a cause for the continued dominance by the central government.
Another area of reform that could have been pushed concerns unfunded mandates, from which local governments continue to suffer.
These range from directives to local governments to implement nationally designed programs without appropriate financial support, to directives for them to pay the salaries of devolved personnel, especially health workers.
Promotion of intergovernmental cooperation could have been further pushed. It would allow local executives to join hands in addressing common issues, such as ecological, environmental, livelihood and health concerns.
To the administration?s credit, advances were made in one critical area of local governance: Measuring the performance of local governments.
The Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) has developed a performance monitoring system that provides a platform for the improvement of IRA sharing and evaluation of local governments.
The business sector and NGOs have also weighed in by examining the competitiveness and business friendliness of local governments.
The administration could have also pushed for meaningful political reforms, including the issue of the terms of local officials. Three years is too short for a single term. A constitutional amendment is needed to address this.
Other reforms concern the need to reexamine the barangay (village) as a political unit.
One possible reform is the merger of barangays that have shown themselves to be nonviable political units. Another would be to consider transforming barangays from political units (with a set of elected officials) to simply administrative units.
There have also been calls for the abolition of the Sangguniang Kabataan (youth council). Apart from their inability to meaningfully participate in governance (the youth also have their school obligations), their early exposure to partisan politics and corruption has not been good for them.
Debate on federalism
To the administration?s credit, Executive Order No. 669 provided the space for a federalism debate within the bureaucracy. Continuing understanding of the federal setup and its implications is imperative.
The adoption of federalism is an opportunity to deepen the devolution process.
A positive note in favor of local autonomy has come from the judicial branch, not the executive.
A number of Supreme Court decisions could lay the groundwork for reform. They reveal a clear policy trend favoring the constitutionally mandated policy of ensuring the autonomy of local governments.
However, the more shortsighted view of local governance has dominated the approach over the past nine years: Political expediency over long term reforms.
(Editor?s Note: Brillantes is professor and dean of the National College of Public Administration and Governance. He was executive director of the Local Government Academy of the DILG during the Ramos administration)