Twenty eight years is a long period for the country to put in place devolution of powers and responsibilities to local governments. Devolution was a reaction to the long period of martial law when policies, activities, and even behaviour were controlled from the center. It was a heroic act, not just to give communities opportunities to be part of decision-making. It was intended to hasten the delivery of efficient public service. Local governments can address problems when and where they happen. Can we imagine what would happen if disaster risk management is not managed by local governments? It would take days for the central government to mobilize manpower and resources for rescue operations.
Devolution paves the way for accountability. Communities can witness who are performing their jobs well and those who are not. The performers are rewarded through their election and laggards are not voted into office.
But devolution is still far from reality. Local governments have to ask central government officials permission even for minor activities such as leaving their offices to attend a meeting or a conference. They need approvals for budgets and how they would spend grants such as Assistance to Municipalities. There are limits to how much can be spent on personnel. As a result, they resort to “avoidance” practices such as issuing “job orders” and converting offices into economic enterprises. Unreasonable rules spawn “creative” means of disobedience and skirting around the law.
Our inability to give more powers to communities stem from major reasons: lack of trust, reluctance to give up power and lose control, inadequate patience and capacity to build capacities, and failure to generate social capital. I will not even go to how elections have been captured by the powerful and the wealthy to blur accountability. This is a different story.
But our organization has experienced the joy and difficulties of devolution. We realized that we are becoming a bit bigger. With more and more local governments all over the country desiring to do education governance, we decided that the only alternative is to decentralize. This idea was brought up by then Mayor Jesse Robredo as early as 2006. It took some time for the program to mature. The lesson is that decentralization does not happen with just a change in government, such as a shift to federalism.
We have organized Mayors and their Local School Boards into regional councils. Learning from the lessons of devolution, we gave up many powers and resources, as well. Every Council formulates its own vision, its priorities, by laws and has the right to accept membership. We have even devolved operational funds to the councils.
The results surprised us. They welcomed working by themselves with great enthusiasm. They elected their officers, did rigorous planning, and initiated their own activities. Last week, the Councils in Northern Luzon, Maguindanao and Lanao did the training of hundreds of local government officials on their own — a program which they did without ME. I should feel hurt that I am now dispensable. But I am elated and so proud that they can carry out without the President. It is a strong sign that the councils will survive. They have formed viber groups and it makes me smile to see their messages every day. They share news about their activities and their difficulties. Decentralization is fostered indeed by a strong bond of fellowship.
There are councils where we still need to support. And this is a pillar of decentralization. We have to build capacities of the local staff in planning, programming, facilitating, budgeting, and organizing, among the many others. Sometimes, we lose patience. It is more difficult to mentor somebody on how to perform processes than doing them yourself. But this is how you make yourself important and indispensable—a No No to sustainability.
Of course, there are laggards. A quick fix is not to deal with them and throw them out. Fortunately, I have watched the transformation of despotic and corrupt local leaders through the processes of osmosis, and a system of incentives and disincentives.
Decentralization can work in any organization. We only need trust, giving up control, capacity building, and social capital.