Local competence

DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco - The Philippine Star

Two recent calamities, COVID and Typhoon Odette, revealed that the local governments were the weak points that made things more difficult than should otherwise be. This is a cause for worry because LGUs will have their hands on more money as we implement the Mandanas ruling on their share of tax revenues.

The Mandanas ruling increases the national tax allotment or NTA (formerly known as the IRA or internal revenue allotment) of LGUs. Compared to last year, the NTA will be increased by 38 percent (P 263.5 billion) in 2022, which is almost 20 percent of the proposed budget.

Will we just waste resources by throwing more money on LGUs that have little capacity and inclination to carry out the responsibilities that go with bigger budgets? Most likely. There are LGUs with good governance, but they are more the exception rather than the rule.

In theory, devolving more power and resources to local governments is a good thing. They are the face of government to the grassroots and they know better what their communities need than some bureaucrat allocating budgets in an office in the nation’s capital.

Devolution or political decentralization involves the transfer of power and authority from the national government to LGUs. We also talk of devolution as the application of the concept of local autonomy.

Republic Act 7160, otherwise known as the Local Government Code (LGC), was enacted by Congress and signed into law during Cory Aquino’s watch. It is a bold attempt to reverse centuries of central government rule starting during the Spanish era.

In theory, centralization of power and resources is said to be the cause of underdevelopment in the countryside. It is also blamed for the government’s failure to deliver basic services.

Also in theory, devolution is supposed to be a means of accomplishing the goal of people empowerment. Local governments are supposed to derive power from an empowered citizenry who will more effectively hold the LGUs accountable.

The LGC decentralizes governance by devolving powers, resources, and authority of the national government to local governments. But our 30 year experiment with the concept has not been hopeful. In many areas, it strengthened political dynasties that have made local governments a family controlled business.

Two devolved functions, healthcare and agricultural extension, suffered in many parts of the country.

In healthcare, the interest of many LGU officials ended with the procurement of overpriced medicines and the hiring of their political proteges regardless of qualifications. The DOH had to come in to help or the people would be totally deprived of health services.

In agricultural extension, many unqualified political appointees rather than technical extension workers have been given the job. The DA now operates only at the level of regional offices. Farmers are not getting the kind of technical support they need to be productive.

Our recent experiences have shown the frustrating limitations of LGUs that are unable to keep up with the necessary pace of responding to urgent needs.

Take the case of COVID response. We ended up with a confusing plethora of rules on who can travel that differed from LGU to LGU. And when travel rules were simplified by the national government, domestic tourists were frustrated that some LGUs insisted on cumbersome requirements they do not have the capacity to efficiently implement.

Same thing happened when the tourism department and IATF went out of their way to prioritize tourism workers for vaccination to help the industry recover, the LGUs of Malay, Aklan (Boracay) and Siargao were slow to respond. They claim not to have the personnel to smoothly implement the vaccination program.

Odette showed the inability of the LGU in Siargao to properly implement the building code. The almost total devastation showed obvious violations that were revealed by the shoddy construction of hotels and other tourism infrastructure in a premier tourism destination.

No wonder there are concerns that many LGUs will not have the capacity to assume re-devolved functions once the Mandanas ruling is implemented. It is probably too late and inappropriate to throw money to “capacitate” the LGUs now that we are in the midst of an election campaign season.

But what is our choice? For one thing, the pandemic is not going away soon. This is why one of the pillars of the 2022 national budget is building resilience, specially as related to the (COVID-19) response.

We are talking here of allocations for medicines, vaccines, health facilities, and enhanced programs for the prevention and control of communicable diseases. There will also be resources provided for laboratory testing facilities, as well as for the hiring of personnel to run the necessary health programs.

We will most likely look to LGUs to carry out such programs in the same way that they were tasked to undertake the vaccination program. In recent months, we had adequate vaccine doses in stock, but many LGUs outside of NCR are unable to keep the pace necessary to immunize as many Filipinos as quickly as possible.

If we had more Vico Sottos as mayors or a Joey Salceda as governor, we can sleep nights knowing the increased revenue allotment of LGUs will be used properly. But that is not the case. Many are in office only because they are members of political dynasties. Others get elected on the basis of popularity rather than competence and a heart to serve the people.

Even as we are focused on the outcome of the national election, there is also a need to take the local electoral contests more seriously. In the end, local officials determine how fast, how competently, and how honestly public services are delivered to all of us.

Only an enlightened citizenry that closely monitors the performance of their local officials can make the difference between success or failure at the grassroots level. LGUs are the face of the government for most people.

Imperial Manila is not the problem as much as the political dynasties that govern our LGUs. This is why the mayors we elect are probably more important for the grassroots than the president in Malacañang.



Boo Chanco’s email address is [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco


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