COMMENTARY: Decentralization in the Philippines needs an overhaul

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A couple of weeks ago MindaNews reported the view of former mayor of Iligan City, Atty. Franklin M. Quijano, that the enactment of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) will reinvigorate “stirrings for greater decentralization of power to the regions and localities.” The mechanics of local autonomy or decentralization is structured in the Local Government Code of 1991 (LGC). Accordingly, I appreciate this “stirring” forecast as a call to review this law. With this in mind, I propose we begin the process by recalling the current administration’s scathing criticism of the LGC in its national development plan—

“Despite almost two decades of implementation of the 1991 Local Government Code (LGC), however, local governments still face various challenges in the exercise of their devolved service delivery functions….A majority of the local governments still lack the ability or the will to raise adequate local revenues. LGUs have become unduly dependent on Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA) transfers from the national government and have failed to manage their financial resources effectively and sustainably….Owing to loopholes in the LGC, as well as the lack of capacities of local governments in assuming devolved functions, national government agencies (NGAs) continue to deliver certain services despite the transfer of these services to the local governments. The confused and overlapping performance of functions compromises the lines of accountability for local services.” [See Philippine Development Plan 2011-2016 at http://devplan.neda.gov.ph/]

The government’s critique of the LGC indeed raises a lot of issues against this law. However, I believe its fundamental failing is clearly expressed by the last sentence which cites the “confused and overlapping performance of functions” established in the LGC. Indeed, decentralization is discombobulated by this law in two ways. First, there is the ambiguity in the delineation of responsibilities between the central and local governments. And second, there is the overlapping distribution of duties among the different levels of local governments (i.e. province, city, municipality and barangay).

The most notable example of confusion resulting from the hazy allocation of responsibilities between the central and local governments is public health management. The LGC (See Title Five, Book I) provides for the creation of a local health board for every level of local government, except for the barangay, with a main task of overseeing the delivery of health services within the municipality, city or province, as the case may be.

On the other hand, there exists also the Department of Health (DOH), a central government office organized under the Administrative Code of 1987 (See Chapter 1, Title IX, Book Three) whose principal function is to provide health programs, services, and facilities to the general populace.

Clearly therefore, both the national government, through the DOH, and the local government, through the local health boards, are mandated by law to provide public health services to Filipinos. This duplication is all well and good if the conversation is about who should undertake the delivery of this service. The problem arises when the topic of discussion is the objectionable state of health care in the country. Who are we going to hold accountable? Or better yet, who should assume the blame for our dissatisfaction?

The overlapping functions among the different levels of local governments have also led to the sorry state of health services in our local communities. Section 17 of the LGC authorizes all local governments to undertake this task for their respective constituencies. Obviously, precise accountability for this public service is hard to pin down. Implementation at the local level is disorganized and inadequate because it is completely left in the hands of local politicos who can only be bothered to think of the health of their bailiwicks and almost always, as subordinate to their primary goal of re-election.

According to a 2013 paper published by the Asian Institute of Management entitled, Re-engineering of Philippine Health Care: Can We Afford to Muddle Along?, decentralization under the LGC has resulted to the fragmentation of health care. And because we do not have a genuine comprehensive public health management framework in place, there is no single institution (or person for that matter) that can be held accountable for failures concerning public health. The paper’s author, Kenneth Y. Hartigan-Go, MD, articulates the problem with this set-up quite eloquently—“There are just too many stakeholders who only focus on symptomatic solutions and not systemic solutions.”

An aim of decentralizing government is to properly share the burden of governance in order to deliver basic services more efficiently and effectively. As far as public health management is concerned, decentralization in the country has completely failed to achieve this. Moreover, the overlapping responsibilities and the lack of clarity concerning the local government’s powers and functions have undermined the very mechanics of decentralization. Indeed, this unfortunate outcome can be seen not just in our current public health situation but also in the delivery of other vital public services such as public transportation, solid waste management, and disaster risk management to name a few.

The BBL itself is proof that responsibilities between the central and local governments can be clearly delineated in a local autonomy law. Needless to say, there are government functions which cannot be devolved to the local governments because they require uniform and state-wide regulation. Examples of such would be national defense, peace and order, foreign affairs, currency, postage and arguably, public health. It is quite clear however that this clarity in the allocation of responsibility is absent in the local autonomy law we have now.

Our “stirring” on decentralization has shown that the LGC is begging for a complete overhaul. The current administration has accepted this reality since it assumed power and has chosen to essentially tolerate the untenable status quo. Now if only the intense public discourse surrounding the BBL could stir Congress into prioritizing the revamp of the LGC in their legislative agenda. Federalism advocates should probably focus on this project too as part of the foundation-building effort for federalization. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Atty. Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco is a practicing lawyer. He is presently completing a Masters of Law and Development in Melbourne Law School. He recently published a book entitled, Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective)

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