CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews/14 February) — One wonders why, as our society gets more sophisticated, our bureaucracy growing larger, and social media’s widening outreach at their beck and call, communication between us (the people) and our government remains marginal and woefully inadequate.
Information vital to the public trust or to protecting the national interest is made available largely through controlled media packages (a.k.a. ”praise releases”) or through scripted utterances that have less to do with communicating than with propagandizing, or worse.
Instead of promote intelligent appreciation of public issues or build enthusiasm for civic participation, spoon-feeding of information serves merely to delimit public understanding or involvement. It conditions people to act or react predictably but not intelligently.
Take for instance what the central government is doing about our situation in Mindanao. It is holding consultations that are hyped up as the widest and most comprehensive, aimed at generating “massive public support and ownership” of the Bangsamoro concept and basic law.
Well and good, but they had better make sure the process is credible.
Where are the People?
If they really want universal understanding and support, why aren’t they informing and consulting people universally?
Why are they targeting only so-called civil society (CSO), people’s organizations (PO), and non-government organizations (NGO)—but not the entire community of sovereign citizens?
No matter how loud these CSO-PO-NGO groups are, or how well-funded their representation, they constitute only a minuscule fraction of the citizenry. Not even the established civic clubs like Rotary or Jaycees; the professions like law, engineering, medicine; and other institutions or sectors like business or education are engaged except indirectly.
Democracy is ill-served by being selective, by letting the elites front for everyone. How about the masses who far outnumber the rest? It’s not clear how they are being consulted.
Fact is, except for polling organizations that make a living by eliciting people’s views on public issues, the government is remiss in engaging the citizenry about larger issues in society.
This failure to consult the people in earnest is not mitigated by the practice of relegating vital issues for consideration or action by elite bodies only, like the two houses of congress.
It merely ensures that public opinion can be more easily manipulated by charlatans and demagogues. Having issues debated by them only keeps the quality of public discourse from rising beyond the mediocrity of a Bong Revilla or a Jinggoy Estrada…or the empty-headed perspective of a Manny Pacquiao or a Lito Lapid.
Why not Consult Everybody?
Yes, consult everybody by engaging the whole community instead of just slices or sectors of it.
How? Simply activate the neglected mechanism the law created for precisely that purpose: the Barangay Assembly.
It would be simpler, cheaper, quicker, and the venue is just stone’s throw from everybody.
The law’s intention in creating the Barangay Assembly is to make it serves as the forum “wherein the collective views of the people may be expressed, crystallized and considered, and where disputes may be amicably settled” (R.A. 7160, Local Government Code, Sec 384).
Consider: everyone lives in the barangay, just as all the CSO-PO-NGO members do. It takes only a week to convene their Barangay Assembly with a formal notice. And it costs practically nothing unless civil society insists on assembling at 5-Star Hotels.
And the Assemblies can be convened simultaneously—by province, by region, or nationwide all at once. The media will cover it and their reports will raise public awareness more effectively than orchestrated consultations.
The ARMM has about 2,555 barangays, each with its own Assembly. The rest of Mindanao has about 8,500 or so barangays, each with its own Assembly also. Nationwide there are about 42,030 and the DILG can convene them simultaneously to take up the same agenda.
Convening them (as the DILG does twice a yearly)—invites and engages all Filipinos ipso facto. Since the Barangay Assembly’s membership is all-inclusive, its session involves the entire polity.
Why this Assembly gets no attention or importance as the venue for resolving issues by every community is perplexing. Its neglect has kept democracy from flourishing and maturing in the grassroots.
All that’s needed is a written notice, agenda, background information (in a brochure or primer) and lots of copies distributed through media and the neighborhoods.
The CSOs, POs, and NGOs—along with the barangay’s professionals, academics, and church groups—can serve as facilitators and resource persons to provide information or help run the proceedings smoothly. This is where professional groups and institutions based in the barangay or nearby can play a constructive role.
Do all these sound reasonable and worth doing so our moribund democracy will spring to life? Or are these impractical or impossible and not worth doing?
If so, we might as well be resigned to the return in full force of feudalism and the datu-sultan system of governance. No sense wasting time or effort trying to make the impossible work!
Manny is former UNESCO regional director for Asia-Pacific, secretary-general of Southeast Asian Publishers Association, director at development academy of Philippines, vice chair of Local Government Academy, member of the Cory Government’s Peace Panel, and PPI-UNICEF awardee for outstanding columnist. firstname.lastname@example.org