Quo Vadis, Citizen Participation? Introduction to the Conference-Workshop

This conference-workshop is meant to start putting the citizens and civil society at the center, not mere expectators and recipients of policies and services - but as active actors pivotal in direction-/ agenda-setting and in leading this country to a better future.

We are to reflect on ourselves, how we are now, our strengths and weaknesses, what we have become and becoming and where we should be going given today's governance and political context. We felt that this is something civil society has not done yet or has not done enough yet in the context of today's Philippines, with a government pursuing a platform of "Daang Matuwid" that arguably has brought about or has activated many openings in government for transparency, participation and accountability.

Brief Review of Historical Role

To reflect on this, we need to backtrack a bit to briefly remember Philippine state-society relationship. Civil society, in 90s and early 2000 Philippines, was being hailed in literature as "savior of governance." This is premised on a situation where we have what they call a "weak state," or to simply put, a state that is failing, unable to deliver services to the people, implement laws; a state that is not trusted by the people, that is detached and is ridden with corruption, inefficiencies and incompetence.

Civil society - NGOs, POs, think tanks, academic institutes, social movements - became "savior of governance" in this context playing a variety of roles:

  • co-implementer that contributes to the efficiency in service delivery;
  • intermediary to bridge the citizens/ people to the government;
  • articulator of people's needs and issues; and
  • countercheck/ watchdog/ monitor to prevent corruption.

Civil society was a source of innovation, of candor, efficiency and true dedication in public service.

Advent of "Daang Matuwid"

Now comes a government that premises its work on good governance bannering the call for "Daang Matuwid," which demands from itself all that which civil society used to demand and help provide: innovation, efficiency, professionalism, fight against corruption, competence.

How is and should Philippine civil society react to this? The relationship of civil society and the state is always a dyadic relationship. One react to the other following one's nature which is also dependent on the nature of the other. How does a changing state affect civil society?

This issue becomes critical in light of the premise of civil society supposedly being independent and distinct from the state and civil society supposedly being progressive.

In light of a state that has assimilated much about the praxis of civil society, including literally its leaders, ideas and actions, with the advent of cross-overs, transpartisan politics, partisan civil society, there is a need to reflect on how civil society today will articulate and practice its independence and progressive nature today given the constraints and challenges brought about by the state's assimilation of what used to be the strengths of the civil society. This is a good problem to contend with, but we do not want to be victims of our own success.

There are, of course, frameworks put forward to capture this relationship of state and government: state-society fusion, state-society synergy, constructive engagement are some of the ones mentioned in discussions. However, even following these frameworks, civil society's independence and autonomy is critical in order for the fusion, synergy and engagement to be strong. It is civil society's independence and autonomy that enables it to put forward something new, different; for state-society interaction to have value-added. It enables civil society to remain progressive, demanding government to do more and progress.

This, we need to resolve, in the context of having a government that while professes and is guided by good governance, is still facing threats and challenges within, outside and as a result of inter-elite competition or squabbles. This is a critical point for when civil society, for instance, brings up a valid point of criticism on the functioning of the government and its policies, it is very easy for the valid points of civil society to be used and captured in inter-elite competition and by vested interests, such as the media.

Time for Recollection and Reflection

How much have we thought about this and resolved the underlying contradictions and pitfalls in our practice given this seemingly changing context? Perhaps it is about time we start recollecting our actions and decisions in the past five years under such context and grapple with the emerging challenges and issues of civil society participation in light of the possibly-changing nature or content of state and civil society and state-civil society relationship.

We thought that perhaps in resolving issues in light of this search for a framework, the role of international platforms and how civil society engage it or interface with can be looked into. This will be tackled in Plenary 1.

We also thought looking at an area of engagement that has been relatively advanced when it comes to constructive engagement between civil society and government in fighting corruption will be a good area of focus. In procurement, challenges confronting civil society participation is quite advanced and it raises that tension of the need for independence and autonomy, on the one hand and the need for support from the state to sustain and expand civil society involvement. The second panel will look into this.

Perhaps it is time to sharpen and be discerning about our underlying premises when it comes to civil society participation. Perhaps it is about time to concede that there are kinds, ways and approaches of civil society participation that work better given the light of empirical evidence pointing to differences in results and impact of civil society participation. Panel 3 will take this on. How do we make use of these empirical evidence, what are the implications of this idea, will probably not be taken up or resolved here, but we also foresee this event to open up more discussions and raise questions to be resolved in the future.

Finally, the final panel is the most pressing and urgent one because it's already election season: how much does the Filipino vote really count?

Empowerment vs. Patronage-based

One of the critical indicators of empowerment is citizens' ability to decide independently and the capacity of that decision to affect political processes or what is referred to as political efficacy. This makes empowerment the counterveiling agenda to patronage and patron-client relationship with the latter founded on the principle of perpetual dependence in exchange for political efficacy.

The empowerment agenda, then, is a very challenging, difficult and complicated agenda. How do you make people's voice count in light of: asymmetry of power and information, sharp inequality, long history of patron-client relationship that nurture and deeply-embed a culture of patronage and servitude or the basic issue of collective action problem?

I will end with this final point. And for this one, I'd like to quote from a book entitled Do the Poor Count that looked into whether the poor's vote count. It looks into whether the voice of the poor matter in Latin America empirically and quantitatively (using methods such as regression analysis).

The book says: no, the voice of the poor largely doesn't count not because of poverty (not because they are poor or their particular condition as poor individuals and families), but because there are institutional factors, both formal and informal, that keep the poor from exacting accountability from their public officials (in sanctioning public officials) and that disincentivize pro-poor policy or programmatic representation by elected officials. These institutions are the formal ones such as electoral rules, design of legislative and executive branches; and informal institutions such as party nomination procedures and patron-client relationships.

When it comes to real people's empowerment, structural change is a pre-requisite to contend with the challenges and inherent limitations. The structure, the system has to be transformed in a way that it is biased in favor of the popular will and in a way that it is supportive and preferential to those who have less - not as mere beneficiaries, expectators or supporters, but as actors who set direction, determine agenda and who ultimately can be leaders too.

Need for Structural Change

I would like to share the key point I gave in my talk yesterday at AIM that argues what key reforms will "cement" Daang Matuwid, which I believe can bring about true empowerment too.

For "Daang Matuwid" to be sustained, expanded and deepened, good governance has to become a norm, good governance practices must become common, not mere islands and best practices up for awards. Political party reform, Freedom of Information (FoI) and the anti-dynasty law are mechanisms that will make Daang Matuwid a norm that will bring about change that can be felt by the common tao.

I made three points to support this assertion and I'd like to share here the highlights:

  1. We will not be able to effectively stop corruption unless we address money politics in elections.

    We cannot simply rely on "good leaders" to stop corruption and ensure good governance sustainably. We must develop and nurture a system that will support and/ or discipline politicians to become good leaders.

    There is wealth of knowledge untapped in public service and leadership because we have structurally excluded a big part of our population from getting elected.

  2. Party subsidy can tilt the balance of power in elections in favor of an actor that is more predisposed to being programmatic and to having accountable processes that could mitigate the impact of money politics -- the political parties.
  3. For us to have a chance at party-based politics, we need a party law. For the party law to be passed and have a chance of getting implemented effectively, the parties must own it. For parties to own it, they should do a better job at trying harder to be real parties. Parties, too, must show institutional integrity.

For programmatic parties to fair better in managing power politics, there should be demand from informed citizens. Furthermore, dynastic politics that arguably is the competition of party-based politics must be regulated. This makes FOI and anti-dynasty law critical to party development and reform agenda.

May we have a fruitful discussion and learning exchanges in this conference-workshop. I thank the speakers in advance, the panelists, the moderators and most especially the participants. All who are here were selected on the premise that we see you as champions and actors of genuine people empowerment. We look forward to facing the challenges ahead with you. I also thank my teammates in advance for their hardwork in putting this together and the leadership of Ateneo and our donor partners for their support.

Let the charting of a brighter future with strong and nurturing state and civil society continue.