Last October 9, 2007, the Sangguniang Panlungsod passed another landmark law, the Local Sectoral Representation (LSR) Ordinance. This ordinance, another first in Philippine LGU history, now paves the way for sectoral representation in the Sanggunian, implementing Section 457B of the 1992 Local Government Code. As expected, it was passed not without the debate and drama like what happened when the People Empowerment Program (PEP) Ordinance was deliberated and approved in 1995. (The sponsor, then Councilor now PAGC Commissioner James Jacob, contemplated on giving up his seat in the Sanggunian in protest over the seemingly endless objections on his proposal.) This time, the different sectors were up against each other, lobbying for a possible seat. The regular members of the Sanggunian were debating as to whether the sectoral representatives shall receive the same compensation and privileges as they do. The ordinance will require an additional appropriation of at least P 2.2Million annually. The question as to how the sectoral representatives will be nominated and elected, eventually led to one member abstaining from the voting. In fact, these concerns resulted to several revisions of the proposed draft ordinance. While all the Sanggunian members agreed in principle that LSR would further enhance representation, diversity and quality of deliberations in the legislative body, there were more reasons to disagree than agree. I certified the passage of the LSR ordinance “as urgent” in my State of the City Report last July 30, 2007. Several committee hearings were already conducted. It was time to call a vote. As they say, the devil is in the detail. But, all is well that ends well. The ordinance was passed by a vote of 9 in favor, 2 against and 1 abstention. Like in the past, the Sanggunian rose above their own personal interests and reservations. Looking beyond their terms, I believe the Councilors knew that this was good for the city. Better governance always has its costs — the additional budget, the new Sanggunian members they have to contend with in pushing for their own advocacies and the diminution of their influence in so far as committee assignments are concerned. It was agreed that the Implementing Rules & Regulations (IRR) of the ordinance should resolve most, if not all, of the issues.
The leadership of the Naga City government has blazed the trail in sharing its power with civil society. Over the years, it has passed several ordinances that effectively emasculated the local government’s authority and further democratized decision making within its jurisdiction, beyond what was required by law . To think that since 1992 up to now, the incumbent leadership virtually has a monopoly of power. All the elected officials belong to just one political aggrupation, having been elected and re-elected on a straight ticket in the last 15 years (from mayor, vice mayor up to the last kagawad including the ABC Federation and SK Federation representatives). At the same time that they have rewritten Naga City’s political history, convincingly winning every electoral contest in the last 15 years, they have opened new avenues for engagement between the local government and civil society, by providing a working model for other LGUs to see. (Upi, Maguindanao has its Upi People’s Council. Infanta, Quezon and Legazpi City, Albay have similar bodies. All of them took off from the Naga City’s 1995 People Empowerment Ordinance.) What many fail to realize is that the incumbents’ electoral successes are probably the result of sharing power with the unelected representatives of the locality. In other words, by sharing power, they further secured their hold on power. While I am certain this was farthest from the minds of those who pioneered people participation in the city, apparently this is an unintended outcome that can convince the leadership of other LGUs to follow the same path. I have been asked a number of times in several fora of local officials how we have managed to win on a straight ticket in the last six local elections. (Time and again, our detractors alleged that what we have accomplished were statistical improbabilities . . . and we cheated!) I said that civic engagement significantly contributed to our electoral victories. The logic is indisputable. Certainly, people would elect a government where they have a reasonable say on how it will respond to their problems and address public concerns. Certainly, the Naga City People’s Council would prefer a leadership that they are a part of and would use their influence to promote it.
How did this all come to be? Civil society’s engagement with the local government of Naga City began when COPE Inc. (Community Organizers of Philippine Enterprises), an NGO promoting tenurial rights, organized several urban poor associations to form a federation. Their main agenda was to seek help from both the local and national governments in resolving long-standing land tenure programs in the city. While the initial relationship with the city government was adversarial (according to some city hall sources, some of the leaders were allegedly fronting for the “left“), a change in administration in 1988 opened a small window for dialogue. Jointly working on small successes and eventually making breakthroughs in resolving tenurial issues, the stage was set to step up engagement from projects to programs and from programs to policies. This brought about the formation of the NGO-PO Council, the precursor of the Naga City People’s Council, whose task was to institutionalize the relationship and build the capacity of the NGOs to effectively work with the city government. Civil society participation was thus borne out of a mutual recognition that development goals can be best achieved when the local government and non-government sector work together. The recognition was forged not because of the mere rationality of the principle but as a result of demonstrable outcomes (such as tenure for the urban poor). Of course, this was made possible because the elected officials subscribed to the same idea. It was in 1992 when we first got elected on a straight ticket. Except for one, all the councilors were neophytes. Half of them have been identified with the “moderate left”. There was therefore a confluence of actors and programs that allow the engagement to blossom. Looking back, this would have been extremely difficult if we had the opposing members of the 1988 Sanggunian reelected in 1992. In fact, the PEP Ordinance, despite all of us belonging to just one political group, had to go through the wringer before it was passed in 1995. Opposing it was a matter of principle for some of the members. Supporting was a way to secure support of the NGO block for some. For us, myself and the sponsors of the ordinance, it was a test on how far we can push further the democratization of power in the city. The ordinance allowed non-elected NGO representatives in all the Sanggunian committees as members (meaning they are part of the quorom, can vote and can debate with the regularly elected councilors). In the context of local political realities, it was like putting an opposition in the deliberations when there was none. On hindsight, the first attempt to institutionalize civic engagement in our governance system succeeded because : 1) mutual trust, borne out of successful confidence-bulding projects like the tenure program for the urban poor, was cultivated and developed, 2) civil society organizations collectively demonstrated that they were not only capable of constructively engaging with their LGU but they also possessed the political acumen and clout to influence public opinion, and 3) the local leadership viewed the engagement as a vehicle to expand its capacity, resources and institutionalize its initiatives in the long-term. Elected officials come and go. If there is one thing that is permanent in a locality, it is the constituency. A broad network of civil society organizations that represents the different sectors in the community can very well mirror the sentiments, hopes and dreams of the Nagueno. The PEP Ordinance was a “process response” to the political uncertainties of the future. But then, it can also be gleaned as a “political response” to ensure the continuity of the status quo. In several gatherings of NGOs in Bicol, I have often emphasized that at the end of the day, NGOs should draw their strength from their own selves. The political realities require that they must have the numbers, significant enough, so as not to be ignored by the important political players. Otherwise, they have to rely on the “benevolence” of an enlightened leadership to allow them to exert their influence in the governance process. In the case of Naga City, all the elements were in place at the right moment.
In 2001, the i-Governance Ordinance was passed. While the PEP Ordinance promoted engagement with organized groups, the i-Governance Ordinance focused on engagement with the ordinary citizens by freely providing the citizenry with information on almost anything they need to know about their local govrnment unit. The rationale was the Nagueno, if properly informed, will respond to the initiatives of their local government unit. The Nagueno, if properly informed, will expect their local government unit to comply with set procedures and response time standards, as they will be made accountable as these are publicly announced. While the PEP Ordinance emasculated the Sanggunian, the i-Governance Ordinance almost eliminated the exercise of discretion of the executive departments in their dealings with their clients. Transparency, accountability and engagement marked the initiative. The i-Governance Ordinance easily passed the Sanggunian. If there was discomfort, as this was a “journey to the untried and untested“, it was with the managers of the different operating departments of the city government. The i-Governance Program was a significant milestone because it empowered the ordinary citizen, who probably would have remained nameless and faceless, if engagements were only confined to organizations and interest groups. In contrast to the LSR and PEP Ordinances, the i-Governance Ordinance was a “leadership driven” initiative that was offered rather than demanded. It was conceived to complement the PEP Ordinance. More importantly, the i-Governance Ordinance sought to put in place mechanisms that will protect the gains of the incumbent administration. In this respect, the view was that, we, the incumbents will not ask of our successors what we are not willing to subject ourselves to. In this respect, the i-Governance Program really hinges on the kind of leadership a locality has.
Are these initiatives replicable? Yes, because as demonstrated in Infanta, Legazpi City and Upi, the PEP Ordinance can be replicated. How difficult or easy it would be depends on how active and influential civil society is in the locality and how responsive the local government is. Morever, the degree of engagement and empowerment will be dictated by the political and technical capacity of NGOs and POs and the political dynamics in the local government unit. In the case of Naga City, it was an offshoot of having all elected officials come from a single political aggrupation which wanted to have an institution that can fiscalize the local government unit during and long after their terms of office. In the case of Naga City, it was a result of having NGOs and POs who were asking and waiting for the opportunity to be part of the governance process. Replication can therefore be calibrated depending on the willingness and readiness of the entities involved. The i-Governance Program is easily the most replicable as most of its components are now in place in many localities in the country. The PEP Ordinance is being popularized by NGO groups and donor agencies. The challenge of replicability is with the LSR Ordinance. Naga City’s experience can break long standing barriers. In like manner, if it does not work, it will further set back the implementation of a constitutional provision whose implementation is long overdue.