Daylight Dialogue: The Good Governance Challenge

On good days, they have rice with salt and water. They live in a hut “smaller than most toilets in Malacañang.” She is an old lady, and he is her grandson, a grown man bedridden with cerebral palsy. They have been living like this for thirty-one years.

In a country like the Philippines, stories like this do not run scarce. This particular one comes from Barangay San Jose Oras, Ocampo, in the third district of Camarines Sur—two lives among the half a million represented by Congresswoman Leni Robredo.

“Would this woman care about Open Data or good governance?” Rep. Robredo asked during her welcome remarks for Daylight Dialogue, a multi-sectoral forum on government transparency and reform. “Would she care that Open Data will make people more proactive, lead to better engagement and greater transparency? Would she care that these reforms will bring accountability and people participation?”

“Probably not, and not one of us in this room could and should blame her.” But for government officials, Rep. Robredo said, it remains a duty to toil in the service of our countrymen—”whether they appreciate what we do or not. Whether they respect our efforts or not. Whether they understand it or not.”

“The sun rises every day,” she said, “although we do not see it all the time.”

In this, Rep. Robredo encapsulated the theme of Daylight Dialogue, a forum organized by four government agencies—the Department of Budget and Management (DBM), Department of Finance (DOF), Office of the Presidential Spokesperson (OPS), and Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office (PCDSPO)—in partnership with the World Bank. Involving participants from a wide variety of sectors, Daylight Dialogue was composed of three plenary talks that centered on renewing trust in government, institutionalizing good governance, and enhancing citizen engagement. The overall objective was to broaden government and civil society partnerships and to sustain the discourse on good governance.

Held at Malacañang Palace on July 15, 2014, Daylight Dialogue sought to promote trust between public and government, to pursue transparency as a cornerstone of progress—and thus help usher in a Philippines marked not by the darkness of secrecy, but by the light of good governance.

To this end, prominent leaders were invited as panelists for the plenary talks, which focused on specific topics and were organized as free-flowing conversations. Mr. Coco Alcuaz of ANC’s Business Nightly served as the moderator, and the discussions were open to questions from the audience.

The Road to Good Governance: Taking Stock and Moving Forward

Panelists:
Usec. Manuel L. Quezon III, PCDSPO
Usec. Richard Moya, DBM
Mr. Randy David, sociologist and journalist
Mr. Ramon del Rosario, Jr., Makati Business Club and the Integrity Initiative

The first plenary provided an overview of current reforms on transparency, citizen engagement, and public financial management. The panelists assessed how the Philippines has fared so far in its journey and how current reforms can be sustained beyond the Aquino administration.

The discussion began with a recognition of trust as a key factor in successful relationships. As Usec. Moya said, referring to the administration’s social contract with Filipinos, “At the core of every relationship must be trust.” On behalf of the business sector, Mr. del Rosario identified trust and transparency as the hallmarks of this administration. Relating how businessmen like him in turn felt the need to “do something within [their] own ranks,” he described the founding of the Integrity Initiative, a private-led effort to promote integrity in business transactions. He also acknowledged the administration’s achievements, noting how the quality of investments in recent years demonstrates the private sector’s newfound confidence in government.

But as Usec. Quezon said, for at least some members of the public, there is “a certain level of fear and ignorance about government.” As fear leads to suspicion, there was an urgent need to dispel this impression and champion openness in government—hence the launch of the Official Gazette website, a consolidated portal for all government issuances, statements, and documents. The launch of gov.ph redefined the government’s relationship with the public, especially with local media. From his perspective as a sociologist, Mr. David proposed ways to improve this relationship, exhorting reform advocates to situate transparency initiatives within the country’s social and political reality.

Toward the end of the session, the panelists discussed ways to further strengthen current reforms and find ways of moving forward. Usec. Moya advocated the use of technology as well as enhanced inter-agency cooperation. In his words: “Poverty is not a one-agency problem. Our problems are inter-agency, so we should tackle them in the same way.” Mr. David brought up the need to make government reports more understandable, while Usec. Quezon recommended heightening the level of discourse in local media. Mr. del Rosario volunteered the private sector as a source of support, with experts who could help boost the current “momentum for reforms and…economic progress.”

The Good Governance Environment: Challenges and Opportunities

Panelists:
Sec. Mar Roxas, Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG)
Sec. Florencio Abad, DBM
Sec. Edwin Lacierda, OPS
Commr. John Phillip Sevilla, Bureau of Customs (BOC)
Commr. Kim Jacinto-Henares, Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR)

The second plenary explored the need for reform and the challenges in implementing good governance initiatives in key agencies. The panelists discussed the reforms they are championing in their respective agencies and described future plans for improvement or expansion.

Within the DILG, Sec. Roxas described his efforts to continue his predecessor’s practice of conferring the Seal of Good Housekeeping to compliant local government units (LGUs). He talked about gradually making the process stricter, in order to set higher standards of excellence. Sec. Lacierda also spoke about improving government systems, this time in terms of data management. As the Chair of the Open Data Philippines Task Force, he shared the principles behind Open Data and its relevance to the currently pending Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill—how both should be combined so that release to one is release to all.

Commr. Sevilla discussed the BOC’s reform initiatives, including a recent upgrade of their IT systems. He spoke about the agency’s current challenges—how they remain vastly understaffed, with overworked employees. He explained that they are already working to surmount the problem, since “you cannot focus on structural reforms if you’re too busy putting out fires.” Commr. Henares described a similar staffing problem in the BIR. But more than that, she emphasized their policy of strict law enforcement as the key to tax reform and to limiting officials’ room for discretion.

On the DBM’s budgeting policy, Sec. Abad described three guiding principles: “Spend within your means; spend according to priorities; and spend with measurable results.” He stressed the importance of challenging the status quo: “If you don’t push boundaries, then you’re not going to change anything.”

From their statements during the plenary, it was clear that each of the panelists did push boundaries, which has led to controversial clashes with not a few enemies of reform. But as Sec. Roxas said, while the straight and narrow road is never smooth, “we have to be confident that this is the path that will take us somewhere.”

Renewing Trust in Government: Institutionalizing Public Accountability

Panelists:
Omb. Conchita Carpio-Morales
Commr. Grace Pulido-Tan, Commission on Audit (COA)
Sec. Leila de Lima, Department of Justice (DOJ)
Ms. Sherisa Nuesa, Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines (FINEX)

The third plenary provided an overview of the public accountability and anti-corruption efforts of three government agencies—the Office of the Ombudsman, COA, and DOJ. The panelists talked about the hurdles their agencies currently face.

“People are the best resource.” This was how Omb. Morales responded to a question about institutionalizing reform. To support the government’s reform agenda, she asked the public to remain vigilant, to elect the right officials, and to recognize the need for strong legislative support.

The other panelists echoed her sentiments. Commr. Tan and Ms. Nuesa shared government initiatives to curb corruption through vigilance, such as the COA Citizen’s Desk and the new Whistleblowing Policy of the Governance Commission for Government-Owned and Controlled Corporations (GCG). They also described the need to bolster the justice system through legislation. Ms. Nuesa described a currently pending bill on the deputization of private lawyers under the Sandiganbayan, which would allow the government to acquire more skilled lawyers and thus spur case resolution. Sec. de Lima in turn detailed the DOJ’s efforts to improve the Witness Protection Program and the Whistleblower Act.

Commr. Tan also spoke about the need to protect COA employees from harassment and to grant the agency enough power to execute their own actions, so that they would not have to rely so much on other departments. She described the intense public pressure her agency is currently facing to conduct a special audit on the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP)—when in fact they have long been auditing DAP as part of their regular process. She said that as auditors they frequently encounter allegations of partiality, even though they just “report what [they] find.”

The Madness of the Crowds

As Mr. David said during the first plenary, “Transparency is both a source of strength and a source of vulnerability.” While on one hand it fosters trust between citizens and their government, transparency also leaves government open to “inconvenient consequences” (Usec. Quezon). We saw this most recently with the DAP controversy, in Rep. Robredo’s words: “Sometimes, people fight those who strive to help them“. In our nation’s quest for good governance, it is hard for people to determine whether they are following the wisdom or the madness of the crowds.”

This was something President Aquino himself sought to clarify in his keynote address for Daylight Dialogue. Enumerating the many benefits the Filipino people reaped under DAP—such as housing programs, social services, and infrastructure projects all across the country—the President referred to former versions of DAP under his predecessors and reflected on the current scrutiny. “Perhaps we are being questioned today simply because we have been truly transparent about it.”

In his speech, the President expounded on the legal basis for DAP, quoting several sections from the Administrative Code of 1987. Equally importantly, he elaborated on the moral basis for the program, and on his personal decision to approve it after seeing the slow disbursement of funds within government agencies, which led to unimplemented projects and thus untapped benefits for Filipinos. Describing his vision of a better Philippines, President Aquino said, “The famed belief of former President Ramon Magsaysay encapsulates this perfectly: that those who have less in life should have more in law. … The duty of government is to act and to do what is right—to do what benefits the vast majority of people at the soonest possible time.”

The fruits of this vision have been noted by both local and international observers, including World Bank Group President Dr. Jim Yong Kim. In his remarks for Daylight Dialogue, Dr. Kim praised the administration’s efforts toward inclusive prosperity: “The city and the country have changed so much [since my last visit]—especially during President Aquino’s four-plus years in office.” But even as he openly appreciated the country’s progress, he stressed the need to do more. To this end, he underscored the importance of events like Daylight Dialogue: “…we [have to] set clear goals for governance, collect evidence as we experiment and implement reforms, and share experiences with one another. We have to refine and improve our work continually, as economies, technology and public expectations evolve. And this is why I’m so glad to be with you this morning: because this conference is a space for exactly that kind of exchange.”

Dr. Kim’s speech centered on the global fight against corruption, and the ways in which countries like the Philippines and institutions such as the World Bank are adapting to find better ways to respond to “the slow emergency of poverty.” He mentioned government initiatives such as geo-tagging and Open Data, as well as the World Bank’s internal reorganization, which will allow them to take a more global approach to problem-solving. In closing, Dr. Kim remarked that cooperation remains the key in all these endeavors: “The only limits to our achievement are the limits of our solidarity: the limits of our willingness to invest ourselves without reserve in action toward a common goal.”

Disrupting the Status Quo

Sec. Jun Abaya of the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) also noted the importance of cooperation. In his closing remarks, he highlighted how events like Daylight Dialogue embody the straight path. “This conference lays emphasis on the cornerstone of this administration’s promise to every Filipino: a leadership of integrity, a government of reform, a policy of transparency and accountability to the people, an ultimate goal of inclusive growth.”

He also drew a contrast between current reforms and the practices of previous administrations, using the metaphor of “black and white.” As an example, he referred to the recently discovered misuse of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), and how enemies of reform have been capitalizing on this scandal to tear down good programs like DAP.

“Those on the dark side insist that PDAF and DAP are merely different shades of gray. … They are attempting to blend right and wrong into a swirl of confusion, trying to convince the public that black and white are one and the same.”

But Sec. Abaya acknowledged that these challenges come as a result of seeking meaningful, positive change. “The path we have chosen is a path of disruption,” he said. “We are disrupting the status quo, the under-the-table culture, the shady deals and government pay-offs. We may have ruffled many feathers, but we do not mind ruffling the feathers of those who have poisoned our country with their blurring of ethical and legal lines.”

Despite the challenges and “inconvenient consequences” brought about by this policy, the Aquino government has vowed never to retreat into darkness. As Mr. Del Rosario remarked, “…the best response I think is to continue the very strong momentum that this administration has achieved over the last four years—momentum, not only in reforms, but of course also in terms of the growth path of our economy. I think the best response to the problems that are being encountered is to continue to show…that you are on the right path and to continue with as much vigor as you have demonstrated so far.”

Indeed, rather than backtracking, the administration plans to institutionalize transparency through FOI legislation. As the President, he stated unequivocally during Daylight Dialogue: FOI will be passed before 2016. This can only bolster current efforts, and further entrench a culture of openness in government—another step forward in the journey toward a better Philippines. In the words of former DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo, as quoted in his widow’s opening remarks: “Good local governance can be the conclusion of our unfinished revolution.”