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Making national government local

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Making national government local

05:08 AM July 17, 2017

Every weekday before sunrise, lines start forming outside government offices throughout Cebu City. Many farmers take early-morning buses in to try to get a head start on the inevitable queues for applicants. At 8 a.m., the doors open and the daily deluge begins.

Improving this situation has been one of the major thrusts of the administration. In his budget message at the start of the year, President Duterte prioritized measures to “cut red tape and hasten front-line service” for the “convenience of citizens and investors.” To the government’s credit, agencies have started to move — offering online appointment services, mobile caravans, and local government partnerships.

While these initiatives help urban Filipinos, those in the rural areas remain neglected. For 60 million Filipinos in 1,500 municipalities, availing themselves of government services remains an odyssey.

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Here’s an example. A public school teacher in a small town in Negros Oriental, applying for a Professional Regulation Commission (PRC) license, needs to travel more than eight hours to Cebu City. Applicants literally cross mountains and oceans to get to the PRC office, hopping on buses, jeeps and ferries. Once they arrive they submit their documents, and find out that they need to make the same trip one or two more times to complete the application process.

Go around the countryside and ask anyone who’s had to deal with the government — whether it’s claiming pensions,
applying for identification documents, or registering a business — and you’ll probably hear a similar story.

Simply put, our government does not have the resources to make these services available to every Filipino. Most agency offices are present only in regional capitals, and only a few like the Land Transportation Office and Philippine Statistics Authority are available in provincial capitals. Extending their reach to the municipality level requires opening at least 1,500 more government offices, which is neither financially nor operationally possible for the government.

This isn’t a problem unique to the Philippines. Worldwide, governments are facing the twin challenges of increased service expectations and tighter budgets for government operations. Recently, innovative governments have begun using the private sector to supplement existing services and better serve the public.

Take Alberta, Canada. Renewing a driver’s license used to mean losing a whole day to the queue at the Department of
Motor Vehicles. Now, by partnering with insurance offices and postal providers, applicants can drop off their old ID and an application form at hundreds of branches across the province and get their new ID mailed to their doorstep.

In India, the ambitious Aadhar program aims to assign a single ID number to every Indian. To cope with the massive task of registering more than a billion people, the government has recruited hundreds of private partners (mostly financial institutions) to work as registration offices. Through these partnerships, the government has opened around 170,000 registration centers across the country and is now well on track to meeting its goal of registering every citizen.

I believe outsourcing in the Philippines can do the same amount of good. The key will be selecting the right public services to outsource, and the right private partners to outsource to. The government should focus on widely needed services that are simple to provide and low-risk to outsource—such as ID renewals, document applications, and basic payouts for pensions and other government programs.

On the flip side, the government also needs to select the right private partners—ones with the reach to serve the rural public, and with the infrastructure and the capabilities needed to link up with government systems.

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If this administration can do this, then we can save millions of hours and pesos for Filipinos who need the time and the money most. And maybe, just maybe, I won’t need to line up at government offices anymore.

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Justin Arcenas is managing director of RuralNet, a financial technology startup serving the Philippine countryside.

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TAGS: bureaucracy, government services, Inquirer Commentary, Inquirer Opinion, Justin Arcenas, red tape, Rodrigo Duterte
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