THE WORM’S EYEVIEW: Ever heard of management by wandering around?

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews/28 July) — People generally don’t comment, but walking around certain barangays reveals a marked contrast between two distinct residential areas. One area is the privately built and managed subdivision or “township” delineated from the rest of the jurisdiction by a perimeter fence and guarded entrance.

The other area is the larger portion of the barangay, the public domain, not fenced and not guarded except maybe by tanods; it is maintained by the local government.

The private enclave is where the middle and upper classes live—mostly affluent, with elegant homes in well-maintained blocks or neighborhoods. The public domain, more densely populated, is where most people live; their houses simpler, mixed with other structures sprawled about with no pattern or particular standard, streets and sidewalks poorly maintained or even squatted on.

The difference in atmosphere and appearance between the two residential areas is a study in contrast: on one hand, the privately-managed enclave—well planned, orderly, properly maintained; on the other, the public domain—shabby, disorderly, poorly-maintained.

This contrast places the local government in an unflattering light. It propagates the bias that government cannot manage things properly or efficiently; it makes public officials out to be remiss or careless in their duties and obligations to the community.

It’s a contrast that gives the science of public administration a bad image—that governance imposes no standards, that public service requires no esthetic sense, that government can’t be counted on to do even the basic chores in a community.

Officials reinforce these biases when they are neglectful, leaving the public domain unsightly with uncollected trash or careless about trash collectors that leave debris behind, and tolerant of squalor.

Anyway one looks at it, this negative portrait of the community is a disservice to government and an affront to the citizens. It invites disrespect and promotes disloyalty, as when a citizen gets disgusted and abandons his community or the country.

Public officials who tolerate this unflattering condition of their community are unfit for public service. They deepen cynicism towards the government, discrediting themselves and the office they hold as well.

Unfortunately, this problem isn’t going away anytime soon. It’ll persist as long as the political system is dominated by poorly-educated voters who confuse popularity with competence—and continue electing incompetents and misleaders.

Yet it’s a simple problem really—like the issue of filthy public toilets: simply require janitors to clean them every so often, and make sure they do! (Oh, but do hire janitors and cleaners, it’s a necessity for maintaining public health.)

To be sure, how to maintain peak performance among personnel is the never-ending challenge to administrators. That’s why public administrators need to be followed up and reminded to be responsive to the public. No public servant should get away with poor performance, low standards, or neglect and inefficiency with impunity!

A related problem is the attitude of public officials that they should be left alone and not interfered with. This is the result of having non-performing constituents, citizens who pay no attention to the work of the officials, voters who keep on rewarding negligence and corruption.

It’s time we change this attitude. It won’t change if constituents aren’t assertive and demanding: to insist on getting value for the taxes they pay.

The contrast between the two residential areas reinforces perception that inequality or disparity among citizens is normal and should not be an issue. Sure, there will always be inequality—between rich and poor, between educated and uneducated; but it should not prevent officials from trying to provide some measure of public comfort and convenience.

Officials can make up for inequality providing orderly and neat surroundings so that people can enjoy an atmosphere conducive to healthful, sanitary living.

Budgetary limitations may not allow officials to improve the public domain’s facilities at par with the private, but they can certainly clean up, maintain order and sanitation, and do other basic things.

For instance, rallying the neighborhoods, organizing and mobilizing volunteers for clean-up drives periodically shouldn’t tax their energy or imagination too much.

There’s a management system that local officials should learn; it’s called “management by wandering around” (MBWA). Inspecting the jurisdiction on foot, noting potholes, broken streetlights, dirty parks, messy sidewalks, dead trees…and getting the crew to attend to them.

It includes walking around, calling the attention of a household to repair its run-down compound, urging a sari-sari store to remove and replace ugly signage. Try it! It worked in the city of Baltimore in Maryland, U.S.A., where its mayor started MBWA in the mid 1980s.

These are small chores in the community, but they make a difference in the image of the nation—and its face to the world.

Manny is former UNESCO regional director for Asia-Pacific; secretary-general, Southeast Asia Publishers Association; director, development academy of Philippines; vice chair, Local Government Academy; member, Cory Govt’s Peace Panel; and awardee, PPI-UNICEF most outstanding columnist. He is President and National Convenor of Gising Barangay Movement Inc