[Editorials of The Connection] Good local governance died with Robredo?



It’s quite tough for a nation to lose a respected, ingenious civil servant in Jesse Robredo. By chance, an attendance sheet of a Sept. 11 board meeting of the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) showed his name still listed, two weeks after he had been buried in Naga City. “Robredo” still rings a bell, even if he ain’t Dolphy.

Naga’s the city that is reputedly the best governed local government unit, the dream LGU that the 1991 Local Government Code envisioned. That was the showcase that propelled Robredo, the former city mayor, into becoming secretary of interior and local government.

From balita.ph

Before Robredo’s wake in Naga City, the city hall wasn’t a neat place to go to. It looks like a warehouse physically —until the wake colored the facade of city hall into white. But look at the bulletin boards there: there are lots of colorful flowcharts of the services chain that residents will be guided at when seeking the assistance of local public servants.

There were no media reports on the city being a local governance powerhouse of the Philippines. No thanks to the way Robredo died, a plane crash off the Masbate Sea, people remembered him more for that —what with the amount of media coverage focused on the rescue effort, the wake and then the eventual final honors. We hope we’re wrong that Filipinos will not forget Naga City as the local governance powerhouse, even for people who didn’t know about it.

But with Robredo’s demise, did the vision of good Philippine local governance join him in that plane that crashed and sank into the depths of the sea?

Local governance envisioned that provinces, cities and municipalities will see the arms of the state extending better services unto constituents. The logic is simple: local folk know their conditions better, as well as the solutions to make that happen.

Some 21 years after the 1991 Local Government Code, the challenges of ensuring good local governance in the Philippines remain. Local communities are a seedbed of local patronage politics, and elections every three years are always the trajectory of local officials’ efforts. Many of the LGUs nationwide are like small children: they need careful handholding by parents. That is why the Department of Interior and Local Government was set up, to provide technical guidance unto LGUs while respecting their autonomy.

And why stop the technical guidance, if many LGUs “copy-then-paste” development plans and budgets from previous administrations; if local legislators do not meet regularly to enact ordinances; if municipal agricultural officers do not frequently meet farmers to determine their needs; social welfare services are less-prioritized programs; and local taxation cannot make the LGU financially autonomous from internal revenue allotments that come from national taxes?

In a sense, Robredo’s work at DILG was like running Naga City, the city that hauled international and national awards under his watch. For example, he instituted an awards system to encourage LGUs to be transparent and accountable, then to eventually become innovative in delivering public services. Robredo issued lots of memoranda compelling LGUs to have these programs and ordinances.

Then he made a political dare: releasing a memorandum circular that publicly-funded projects must not bear the face and names of local politicians (of what Filipinos refer to on Facebook as “anti-epal”). Go to cities in Metro Manila: the faces of mayors Herbert Bautista and Benhur Abalos of Quezon and Mandaluyong cities are plastered in tarpaulins, vehicle letterings, and waiting sheds —waiting to be feasted upon on Facebook.

Ads on Robredo? None, like his boss before he died, President Benigno Simeon Aquino III. None, like the other reformist mayors in few places of the Philippines (Actually, in developed countries, those kinds of “advertisements” are a felony).

Facebook then continues the political bashing of the epal local leaders, and that’s understandable: public service becomes a political premium, a tool for political survival and, in some occasions, local corruption. These things are common in local governments across the country, these being the frequent refrain of local governance advocates.

But the message of Robredo’s death is the aspiration that pursuing good local governance isn’t just something a Robredo can do. Other surnames are wanted, not just some four or five local leaders who can be profiled in a book of good local governance champions. As well, Robredo’s work for Naga City is done while the existing Filipino political culture prevails —pragmatic but progressive and principled.

Of course it ain’t easy. There’s a fourth-class municipality next to Naga City in Camarines Sur province, called Canaman which won a local governance award from DILG. The next town, Magarao, is a fifth-class town and typically less dynamic in governance. Mayors of both towns knew their neighboring politico Robredo so much, yet his dynamism yielded mixed results nearby: progressive versus sleepy towns.

Earning the people’s will and trust is the best legacy good Philippine local governance can —and should— achieve.  It is perhaps not enough that local election results are the barometer of good local governance. Visibly vibrant communities do.

This country needs more progressive local government units, and it is a vision that we hope it didn’t die with Jesse Robredo in the depths of the Masbate Sea.

About Jeremaiah Opiniano

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