SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

A week into his job as the first director general of the Anti-Red Tape Authority or ARTA, Jeremiah Belgica bumped into a woman who wept at the sight of him.

No, Belgica quipped, the woman was not a client unhappy with his service when he was still part of a law firm or working as a licensed real estate broker. Instead, what she saw in him was her only hope of moving into her own home.

The woman had bought a house through a government agency, but it turned out that the unit was already occupied. Over three years, she labored and spent good money to move into the house. The agency advised her to sue the illegal occupant. The court advised her to include the agency in the lawsuit. So the agency said it would just give her another unit. But this remained in the realm of OPM – oh promise me.

Belgica then called the head of the agency, who apparently had never heard of him or ARTA. To his inquiry about the woman’s case, Belgica got as a response the equivalent of go shove it.

A day later, he got a call from the agency head, who might have googled ARTA and found out who had ordered its creation. The agency head apologized to Belgica, and said the woman could move into her house the next day.

It’s not the job of the ARTA chief, however, to personally attend to every complaint about red tape.

What ARTA wants are structural reforms that will operationalize the 3-7-20 rule on the processing of transactions with the government, as ordered by President Duterte. That’s three days for simple transactions such as obtaining a birth certificate, seven days for complicated ones such as certain types of clearances, and 20 days for highly technical ones.

The priority agencies, as announced by Duterte in his State of the Nation Address last year, are the Bureau of Internal Revenue, Land Transportation Office, Land Registration Authority (LRA), Pag-IBIG and Social Security System.

Many Filipinos have horror stories about dealing with the bureaucracy – and not just in those five agencies. Facing “The Chiefs” this week on Cignal TV’s One News channel, Belgica said ARTA is adding agencies to the list, among them the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board.

He is also aware of the many complaints about housing issues, including condominium units.

*      *      *

Even the so-called one-stop-shop concept needs reworking. Belgica notes that many so-called one-stop shops, particularly those in local government units, still employ the “silo system” of serving the public. This means that to obtain a permit or some other official document, a person goes to a room or corner dedicated to that service, but he still must go from one desk or silo to the other for the signatures required.

And those signatures can be voluminous. Belgica said the largest number is for permits in the power sector: over 450 signatures required from several agencies. Housing follows, with over 300 signatures needed.

The 3-7-20 rule for work completion is imposed per agency, which obviously cannot all work simultaneously – one signature is usually needed before another can be given, and so on along the bureaucratic layers.

So in fact an application for a construction permit, for example, can be stuck in the bureaucratic mill for a year, even if there are one-stop shops in certain agencies along the way.

The real one-stop shop, Belgica points out, is one where a person needing a particular document or permit submits all the required paperwork to one window, which acts as a gatekeeper or concierge. The gatekeeper then farms out everything to the different desks for the needed signatures.

The next step for the applicant is to have all the fees assessed and then to proceed to the cashier for payment. Then the applicant waits for the third and final step: getting the document.

Under this concierge system, there are only three steps for the person dealing with the agency: submission of requirements, assessment and payment, and release of the document.

*      *      *

How to institutionalize this three-step, one-stop gatekeeper or concierge system is the mission of ARTA.

Belgica knows that structural reforms are easier with automation. This has been done in several agencies, however, with disappointing results. Belgica attributes the failure to the fact that the automation was done ahead of the streamlining of procedures instead of the other way around.

This means that all the redundancies and irrational requirements designed into systems and procedures – whether deliberately to encourage the payment of grease money, or simply due to sheer incompetence – were also incorporated into the automated process.

So ARTA is now moving through the different agencies to rationalize procedures. Once rationalization is completed and tested, the system is then institutionalized through automation.

Not surprisingly, ARTA has run into resistance. Belgica cited as an example the LRA’s registers of deeds, whose functions, he stresses, are chiefly ministerial. The RDs submitted to ARTA on Dec. 6 last year a “Citizens Charter.” Upon scrutiny, ARTA saw that certain processes would take 60 days.

There are about 150 RDs. ARTA has given them until March 7 to rationalize their processes in compliance with the 3-7-20 rule.

The law creating ARTA allows it to file complaints against red tape purveyors in the bureaucracy before the Office of the Ombudsman and Civil Service Commission.

*      *      *

There is, however, another source of delays in government services, and it’s outside the jurisdiction of ARTA. Noynoy Aquino during his presidency railed against it; Duterte has openly issued warnings against it. This is the judiciary, which can poke its nose into practically all aspects of governance – and stop any project with a restraining order that can be in place for years.

Even the Supreme Court gives a new dimension to the meaning of “temporary” in its restraining orders.

When the judiciary steps into executive actions, that 3-7-20 can refer to years rather than days.

Belgica and his team of about 100 (90 percent of them tech-savvy millennials) are reviewing whether there could be certain ministerial functions in the judiciary and perhaps even Congress that might be (as he puts it) “ARTA-ble.”

He says that fighting red tape calls for a whole of nation approach that requires a change in mindset. Agencies, he notes, tend to overregulate, and end up unduly burdening 99 people just to catch one who violates or fails to comply with the rules.

ARTA is now working on a regulatory management framework, which incorporates the regulators’ code, and is aiming to finish it by April.

Our bureaucracy is littered with the carcasses of failed efforts to cut red tape. We’ll see if this one takes off.


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