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No Free Lunch

In search of T&A

Two basic principles of good governance have always been in short supply in the Philippines: transparency and accountability. It’s lack of transparency, for example, that lets officials in control of substantial public funds divert them for private gain. The same lack also makes it possible for projects that are not in the best interests of the people to get implemented. Lack of transparency can likewise lead to government policies that favor certain groups at the expense of the majority. I could go on and on.

Lack of accountability leads to those same problems, and perpetuates them. Weak accountabilities in our public sector have also led to a system fraught with rules and regulations seemingly designed to make it as hard as possible to transact business with government. The same rigid rules and regulations stifle creativity within government itself. We put in place processes and procedures often filled with more safeguards than necessary, as if premised on everyone being dishonest, and will cheat at every chance. But in the process, we discourage creative positive initiatives in government.

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A traditional example is the requirement that all income earned by government offices, including those earned out of innovative revenue-raising mechanisms, be surrendered to the national treasury. This kills all incentive for government offices to help raise revenues in creative ways (described in the 1990s “reinventing government” literature as “entrepreneurial government”).

It does nothing to help transform government offices from mere resource spenders to resource-generators as well. At this time that the government’s budget deficit is again on the rise, we need to encourage all units of government to tap revenue earning opportunities in what they do—but not to excess, of course.

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We need not have too many rigid rules and regulations covering government processes, for as long as accountability systems are strong and clearly defined. The threat of sanctions or penalty for errant behavior needs to be certain, and the penalties severe enough to be a deterrent. This way, excessive rules and bureaucratic procedures — like the need to obtain 50 signatures to complete a transaction — need not be the norm in dealings with and within government.

How can transparency in government still be promoted and enhanced? Whatever happened to the efforts to pass meaningful freedom of information legislation?

The right of citizens to obtain pertinent information affecting them and their communities must be guaranteed by law — whether it be the procurement cost for street lamps in the city, the assets/liabilities and compensation package of public officials, or the use of individual officials’ discretionary funds for the year.

It’s not even enough that such information be made available on demand. There’s merit in proactively disseminating such information, as in the case of funds in the control of local governments for development projects. Citizen’s groups can play an effective role monitoring the proper use of such funds if the nature and magnitude of such funds is routinely made public. The Department of Budget and Management had started moving in this direction years ago, but true budget transparency remains an elusive goal.

Asserting accountabilities takes decisive leadership, starting with the president. In any government initiative, concerned officials must not be able to point fingers when things go wrong. It must be clearly defined at the outset who takes responsibility (translation: whose head should roll) in the event of failure. In the military establishment, this is asserted through command responsibility, and the same should apply in the entire government bureaucracy.

Complementing accountability is the principle of subsidiarity, or taking decisions and action at the lowest level possible. People must get out of the habit of looking to the national government for all the solutions to our problems, when solutions are often with levels of government closer to us.

With transparency, accountability and subsidiarity, much can be done to make governance truly responsive to the needs of the people. But we all need to do our part.

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