Strengthening Accountability to Sustain Reform

Framing Paper on the PODER National Conference on Strengthening Accountability to Sustain Reforms at Astoria, 19 November 2014

This conference is basically premised on three basic propositions on sustaining reforms:

  • For reforms in governance to yield gains that will make a dent in the structure of power and that can be felt by ordinary citizens, reforms must be sustained.
  • One of the ways to sustain reforms is to strengthen accountability in governance and society.
  • Accountability in governance is under-valued and under-invested and there are critical gaps which can be addressed by emerging opportunities given key legislative proposals and executive priorities.

How Substantive Change Happen?

There are several paths that can be taken to achieve substantive political reforms.

Some would argue economic empowerment is one path. This is where social protection and welfare programs, like the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps), become critical in liberating the poor from the bondage of patron-client relationships. Gaining higher real income and increasing economic independence affect political attitudes and behaviors, which in turn, affect collective decisions that determine and define power.

Others would contend that citizen engagement in governance can change the way public institutions are defined, operationalized, and used. It makes governance open, accessible, transparent and participatory. Such changes redefine the expectations and demands from the holders of power, which serves as pressure to ensuring that government is responsive to people’s needs and are accountable in achieving collective ends.

The last path is the classic participation in the formal contestation of power, fielding alternatives in the electoral arena that will pursue political reform. Several non-mainstream parties have attempted this through the Party-List System and are now branching out to field new candidates in local and national positions.

All these three paths, in varying levels, achieve incremental change from the old ways of patronage-based, personality-oriented politics and corrupt, unaccountable governance to the establishment of rational (efficient and responsive) public institutions and processes that are governed by good governance principles of transparency, participation and accountability. These then lead to substantive changes that affect the relationship of power and bring about development and social justice. For this transformation to take place, there is one key variable common to all three paths: time. All these three paths take time.

For reforms in governance to yield gains that will make a dent in the structure of power in society and can be felt by ordinary citizens, these reforms must be sustained for they all take time to achieve substantive gains.

How are Reforms Sustained?

In November last year, we held the "National Conference on the State of Reform Agenda Under Aquino," where the ways and means to sustain reforms were discussed. Four main perspectives emerged on how to sustain reforms.

The first view is the personality-focused perspective. It proposes that reforms happen and are sustained depending on the people placed in power. A leader geared towards reforms shall fulfill the reform agenda and will sustain it.

The second view, the institutional reform perspective, is that for reforms to happen and be sustained, institutions must be built to prevent abuse of power and to guarantee effective governance. Institutions provide the framework how political leaders should act and perform their duties. These institutions provide for accountability mechanisms that ensure powers are not abused.

The third view is the state-civil society dynamics perspectives. For reforms to happen, like-minded forces at the top and below should coordinate and collaborate to support common reforms and join forces to take on those who will challenge or be hurdles to reform. Sustaining the collaboration and coordination is key to sustaining reforms.

The fourth perspective gives premium on the participation of the people in governance. There is a need to engage the people and involve them in reform efforts. It is important to empower them through social protection and good service delivery. The key is to communicate and manage expectations and bring in as much people participation in politics and governance.

This conference offers a formula in sustaining reforms that put together these four perspectives. We argue that the strengthening of accountability serves as the convergence of the four perspectives of sustaining reforms.

Accountability is achieved and sustained by creating and strengthening institutions. Institutions are strengthened through accountability efforts and practices.

State-civil society dynamics has been premised on accountability relationships in several ways: (1) the government (state) is accounted for by the governed or society (civil society as a counter-veiling force to the state); (2) Society supports and fills the gaps of a weak state to exact accountability in the exercise of power (social accountability), 3. Reform-oriented state forces on top and societal forces below join forces to push for key reform measures that challenge the status quo and offer an alternative politics. The three can converge with the third type of relationship (hegemonic) supporting the strengthening of accountability done or achieved through the two types of relationship: counter-veiling and social accountability.

Accountability in governance is a fundamental democratic principle for it is premised on the idea that “public office is a public trust.” It therefore asserts the people’s ownership of public power, making the people entitled to account for its exercise and use by those they entrust with it. People’s participation and voice is an indispensable element of accountability.

An improved accountability in governance and politics that gives emphasis on performance and answerability to the people is a more conducive environment for the emergence and nurturing of leaders who are effective, ethical and empowering and who ultimately will support and sustain reforms.

But most importantly, accountability sustains reforms because it builds trust. Practitioners of governance have been recently giving attention to the importance of trust in governance. Largely because of the length of time required for reforms to be achieved and to have impact and because such processes oftentimes would require pushing the boundaries and engaging in “innovative” solutions that are unpredictable and outside the ordinary, trust becomes most crucial.

Accountability builds trust because it supports and strengthens good performance as well as checks bad performance, non-compliance to standards and abuses. Merit-based/ performance-based decision-making is most crucial in the democratic and effective functioning of public institutions, which nurture trust. This is why accountability efforts and processes are usually undermined, challenged or thwarted by those who want to continue abuse, corruption and bad governance. For this perpetuates a culture of mistrust between the people and institutions, which is a conducive environment for personalities (traditional politicians) to earn and keep the trust of the people for themselves that serves as a foundation of patron-client relationship.

Importance of Trust-Building

For as long as economic and political power remains concentrated in the hands of a few and there is vast inequality in society, public distrust towards the State can still be justified even if there are elements of the government that try their best to serve well. Such distrust has been the people's weapon to check the State captured by elite interests for the longest time. It's not easy to give up such weapon.

Dismantling extreme power asymmetry is a long process and trust is an indispensable part of it. While we correct the power imbalance through economic and political empowerment efforts, affirmative actions should be undertaken to build trust. The trust-building processes to be undertaken must be transformative by itself. It cannot follow the same logic of the situation that feeds public mistrust. It cannot be temporary, superficial, personality-oriented and cliquish led by a few on top that determine what's what. It must be empowering, inclusive, sustained, sustainable, dispersed and decentralized.

This is why efforts of the government should center on efforts that strengthen fairness in the conduct of public affairs. In a democratic society, the building of rational, effective and democratic institutions is supposed to increase fairness in politics. The set of institutions that are most central to trust-building are the accountability institutions for accountability checks the exercise of power in an open and participatory way. Accountability institutions, then, must be the center of institutional-strengthening efforts of both the government and civil society. This will cultivate the needed trust that will sustain the long process of political and economic transformation in society.

May we have a fruitful day of discussions and exchanges on how to strengthen accountability. Thank you.