Citizens and civil works
Last week, a Roads and Traffic Expo was held at the SMX Convention Center. I made a presentation on “Monitoring Civil Works: Citizen Perspectives and Practices.” It was an opportunity to share the citizen’s point of view in a forum on traffic and transport issues dominated by hardware and software solutions.
Civil works are infrastructure designed, constructed, used and maintained in the name of the public. But often, these do not work for the public, unless the citizens themselves actively participate in bringing them about. Without citizen monitoring, civil works often become “uncivil” — not responsive to the needs of the public, overpriced due to corruption and substandard.
Civil works are whole systems — hardware, software and peopleware. The physical infrastructure part is only the visible portion. What make the roads and bridges serve their purpose are the rules that govern their use, and the actual behavior of people in them.
Citizens are concerned about the condition and use of the roads, but this concern is often personal and individualized, seldom rising to the level of a community concern, where a more strategic and systematic monitoring routine can reap results. Individual actions cannot find meaning if they are episodic and not embedded in an overall strategy for attaining collective impact.
This sense of helplessness erodes the citizens’ trust in government, because it is at street level that they experience the deplorable quality of public administration. Their sense is that public money is wasted as politicians design public works for self-aggrandizement, writing their names on pedestrian overpasses with matching obscene quotes like “public service is a conscience call.” Worse, roads and bridges are reported to have been constructed when, in fact, they do not exist.
Frustration turns into despair when natural disasters and calamities become occasions for human-made disasters. Many protective dikes constructed in the wake of the Pinatubo disaster have collapsed, slabs of concrete sliding away like wayward icings on a cake at the slightest hint of floods. Too many bridges are missing spans, testaments to contractors and government officials’ gross disregard for human life.
The lives, safety and welfare of citizens depend so much on civil works that these should not be left to government monitoring alone. Even where there are no malevolent designs on the part of government officials, there is no capacity and technical expertise to perform the kind of monitoring required for numerous civil works undertaken by national and local government entities.
The feasibility and practicality of civil works monitoring by citizens and communities themselves have become a reality as a result of the pioneering work of the Concerned Citizens of Abra for Good Government. Many citizen initiatives like Bantay Lansangan, G-Watch and third-party monitoring projects for citizen participation in governance have since been followed over the decades under the rubric of social accountability (government’s obligations to the people) and social audit (the tools for exacting accountability).
But the effort is not nearly universal to tame malfeasance and misfeasance in the design, construction, use and maintenance of civil works. There are low-hanging fruits that can dramatically improve citizen control over civil works. Here are some of them:
1) Create partnerships between local government civil engineering offices charged with monitoring and supervising civil works with civil engineering faculty, students and departments of state colleges and universities. This will be a mutually beneficial arrangement to put field experience and expertise together.
2) In large government resettlement areas for informal settler families in Bulacan, Cavite and Rizal, design and embed good civil works—roads, bridges, schools, health clinics and fire stations. These should be part of an integral plan, rather than retrofitted after the fact.
3) Engage existing academic and community mechanisms that provide and deploy force multipliers. These include the National Service Training Program, the National Service Reserve Corps, the Boy and Girl Scouts, Sangguniang Kabataan and senior citizen organizations.
4) Harness information technology for citizen feedback systems to widen and routinize the monitoring of civil works. Citizen feedback systems such as seeclickfix (https://seeclickfix.com/
watchers/11750?page=1), an internet website that allows the reporting of nonemergency citizen issues, makes citizen-government partnerships possible. Citizen feedback on civil works and mobility issues can be matched with government response capacity to resolve these issues. But—is government ready for this?
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