Constructive engagement with government

With four cities and one municipality, the Ateneo School of Government's Government Watch (G-Watch) Pilot Run project (this is the final of seven columns on this project) had the lowest tier of Philippine government covered; the sixth site would cover an equally critical government level, provincial. Provinces, too, receive their own internal revenue allotment from the national budget; they also possess decentralized and delegated powers and responsibilities in their jurisdiction. One such responsibility is infrastructure development: critical component of economic development, cash cows and tempting targets for graft and malfeasance. And provincial programs offer larger tempting targets. Citizen monitoring and social accountability must also find a place in the larger fields, the provincial level, as they naturally roost close to home, in cities and towns. But the larger playing field may also present larger obstacles and challenges. Philippine history is replete with the sometimes lethal viciousness of provincial politics in certain locations or regions, in and out of election season (the Maguindanao Massacre is one of the most recent, most notorious examples). As parties and families fight it out at the ballot box, reputations, fortunes, prospective lucrative opportunities and entrenched interests are at stake. Perhaps even more than cities or towns, because of suck stakes, in such provinces the virtues of constructive engagement between government and civil society might find little traction. And yet it has to be done: so much economic development and opportunity for the poorest of Filipino poor are at stake at the provincial level of governance. G-Watch learned hard though valuable lessons in Southern Leyte, where the project decided to test citizen monitoring at the provincial (geographic as well as governance) level in monitoring provincial infrastructure construction. There is no doubt that there was enthusiasm for social accountability. The concept was new to the core group of Southern Leyte volunteers, yet they readily embraced its promise of ensuring good governance and reliable public service. And the provincial government candidly accepted the Ateneo G-Watch team's initial assessment of their weaknesses in good governance and transparency: areas where officials were eager to demonstrate improvement and commitment. Yet Southern Leyte is also host to a bitter rivalry between two political factions. Out of a painful faux pas, G-Watch learned not just of the importance of sensitivity to local politics, but the need to demonstrate non-partisanship. This was probably amplified by experiences at the barangay level: officials there were equally suspicious about the G-Watch volunteer monitors' motives. To be fair, not all vicious political rivalries are driven by the parties' malice, but they still generate enough distrust to poison bipartisan cooperation. Expanding on an observation from another G-Watch pilot site, the trust of the incumbent is not easy to earn: accountability and probing questions engender wariness and resistance from the incumbent respondent. All the more so when the team bringing the message of good governance is an outsider prophet. It's also more dangerous, when political survival may be at stake, with opponents eager to pounce at any shortcoming. Still, even perhaps because of such rivalries, it is important for G-Watch to make inroads in government offices. Political rivalry does drive civil society activity but it should not blind all parties from seizing opportunities to cooperate on shared interests for the common good. The give-and-take of any healthy democratic dynamic demands the virtue of forbearance, of being able to meet our opponent face-to-face on the table, through the policy process and execution. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, there is a time for war and for peace; a time for protest, and a time for engagement. That requires the wisdom of approaching the wary incumbent with proverbial open hands, without what one local called "the mark of Cain." Equally challenging was sustaining the commitment and morale of citizen monitors, many of whom were engineering and accounting students. Considering that they had to scour infrastructure projects across a province, some felt daunted at the scope of work in addition to their daily duties. Others feared that being identified with G-Watch might make government agencies balk at hiring them once they graduated, or other such disadvantages. For those volunteers who signed on with the project, young as they were, some felt intimidated by their role to question officials and infrastructure project contractors. Again, perhaps it's the provincial scope of the S. Leyte pilot site at play: to investigate the projects sanctioned by the provincial government, even in the spirit of civility and constructive engagement, must seem daunting to the average young provincial resident-student. Project Director Joy Aceron noted that, despite their civic-mindedness, they were "not prepared to deal with political conflict." (Luckily, there were some star performers, upon whom G-Watch hopes the torches of citizen monitoring could be carried across the province.) Southern Leyte proved to be a deep challenge for the G-Watch Project, and its run there is not without some deep scrapes. Yet the scars they leave are an important reminder of all the lessons learned in the other five pilot sites: sensitivity to politics, commitment and perseverance, local organization and alliances with like-minded public officials. Most of all, though, we must position constructive engagement as a working alternative to protest and rivalry, where and when viable. It's not that we can't fight City Hall if we need to, but when all we do is fight, we cannot build - neither infrastructure, nor working relationships, nor good governance. Facebook Page: Dean Tony La Viña Twitter: tonylavs

This article was first published in