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Buried in noise

/ 05:16 AM August 24, 2018

Like millions of Filipinos, I tend to complain about the apparent lack of effective government services in just about any given field. I sit in traffic jams, fuming at bungled road management. I loathe the nonexistent or otherwise shortsighted ways that floods are mitigated. I’ve been traumatized by the procedures of obtaining government-issued IDs. And I hope I never have to go back to this one public dental clinic. I still have nightmares about it.

But I’ve been to the other side, too: I’ve worked for a government agency for a few months. I wish I could tell you that the bureaucracy finally makes sense, that behind the red tape and endless queues are all proactive public servants keeping a well-built machine running.

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Sadly, I didn’t arrive to that conclusion. What I discovered instead were government programs, projects and services that are undeniably valuable to Filipinos, but greatly underutilized. And it’s not because the people handling these services are hopelessly incompetent. It’s because citizens haven’t even heard of these services at all.

As I write this, my Facebook feed is flooded with “mga dilawan” and “mga ka-DDS” slinging mud at each other. News stories dwell on the new SEA Games logo and that movie about crazy rich Asians. Politicians and thought leaders fill our ears with sound bites that are little more than playground insults in whatever partisan catfight they are busy with.

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There is so little mention of the free chest x-rays that the Department of Health has been providing as part of the annual National Lung Month. There is meager coverage of the Department of Trade and Industry’s recently launched 1-DTI consumer hotline. Barely any conversation is happening on the newly passed Mental Health Act, or on the fact that Filipinos with mental illness are entitled to Persons with Disabilities privileges. There is little reportage of the Department of Science and Technology’s Science & Technology Week, when scientific innovations are made available to Filipino end users.

Activities and services like these aren’t just lip service, either. They work. Many local businesses have grown with help from agencies like the DTI and DOST. Numerous lives have steered clear of post-disaster risks thanks to the efforts of the DOH, local governments and their attached agencies.

I’ve seen these happen after Tropical Storm “Sendong,” after the Marawi siege, after earthquakes and landslides. I’ve seen these happen on regular days—neighborhood bakeries and family-run repair shops getting a boost from government programs; children, women and the elderly getting appropriate care at no cost; underprivileged students getting a fair opportunity through publicly funded scholarships.

Yes, contrary to the general sentiment, there are many government programs and projects that exist to serve Filipinos. But they don’t reach their intended beneficiaries as well as they should, because they are buried in so much noise.

Of course, the fact that these public services exist does not dispel the plague of corruption, bureaucracy and inadequacy in the government. It would be naïve to believe so. But as these services do exist, already active and proven useful, the first step to avoid wasting them is to make the public aware of them in the first place.

Yet, very often, the messages that reach the public aren’t about the programs that could help them. It’s mostly just noise.

It’s easy to blame the media for transmitting so little constructive information. It’s been said that for the press, “bad news is good news, good news is no news.” There’s a bitter brew of economics, psychology and plain old materialism that compels news outlets to report more on alarming inflation rates than on helpful public seminars.

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On the other hand, government offices themselves have much room to improve in terms of communicating their own projects to their target beneficiaries. Even the Presidential Communications Operations Office has spectacularly fallen short of the lowest expectations, failing several times to accurately convey even the most basic facts.

Among local agencies, the challenge is to reach out farther into the nooks and crannies of underserved populations, to meet them where they are, to speak their language. Whether it’s a  sari-sari  store owner in an urban barangay or a school-age child in a remote village, their access to government services can start only when they are aware of them.

Noisy politicking and misinformation merely create a disconnect between Filipinos and the services they deserve. This gap is bridged only through effective and responsible communication—be it from the government itself, the media or, yes, from those of us who are well-informed. When more people are aware of solutions, perhaps there would be less to complain about.

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