COMMENTARY: Federalism but not in name

MELBOURNE, Australia (MindaNews/02 January) — The functions of government can be decentralized in various ways. Federalism is just one example of a decentralization arrangement among a spectrum of arrangements establishing greater or lesser degrees of local autonomy within a nation-state. By virtue of the Local Government Code (LGC), devolution or the method of conferring legislative and executive powers to local governments is the principal decentralization arrangement we have in the country.

Pertinently, the Constitution does not mandate a specific decentralization arrangement. In fact, Section 3 of Article X has given Congress the responsibility to determine the structural mechanics of local autonomy. This means that lawmakers actually have the freehand to “federalize” decentralization in the country.

Due to space constraints, I cannot go into the nuts and bolts of this proposition. However, it may assist our legislators to heed these three fundamental principles in the event any one of them decides to pursue this game-changing reform. First, the allocation of responsibilities between the central and local governments must be clear and coherent. This is not exactly a pioneering innovation given the work done in the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro. Therefore, the only task required here is to come up with a broader national framework that reflects this streamlined division of government labor.

Obviously, there are government functions which cannot be devolved to the local governments. Usually these pertain to matters that require uniform and state-wide regulation such as national defense, peace and order, foreign affairs, currency, postage and so forth. There are functions that are clearly local as well such as preservation of heritage and cultural sites, environment protection, and management of public land areas reserved for leisure and recreation, just to name a few. But there are public mandates in between these two poles which need to be allocated between the two levels of government. This is the area where deliberation is most crucial.

The point to remember here is that the devolution of functions has to be formulated in such a way that the assignment of accountability is unequivocal. We do not want a distribution scheme that leaves everybody clueless as to which government office can be held answerable for our dissatisfaction. Neither do we want overlapping designations that allow government agents to pass the blame for failure to deliver public services to our satisfaction.

Second, the local government structure must reflect a collective approach to local governance. The current model must be replaced because local political families have exploited the LGC to ensure the fate of the local government is highly dependent on the person holding the gubernatorial or mayoral office. Obviously, this manipulation of the current decentralization arrangement has further entrenched the patronage relationship between the local executive and his constituency. Thereby allowing local politicos to enjoy an unhealthy prominence in local governance.

An effective countermeasure against this pattern of patronage in local politics is to integrate a sense of community in the administration of the kapitolyo and the munisipyo. The local leadership structure itself must be configured to facilitate the collective governance mindset among the local constituency. An example of such would be a parliamentary type of configuration similar to the “leader-and-cabinet model” used by local governments in the United Kingdom. As a corollary to this restructuring, the mechanism of sectoral representation can be further enhanced in the “cabinet” to widen and deepen community participation in policy formulation and implementation. Suffice to say, lawmakers on this score have a lot of latitude in instituting audacious and innovative changes. Keeping in mind of course that the investment of the people in the community in local governance is crucial to the success of the local autonomy regime itself.

Third, mechanisms must be established to foster cooperation and collaboration among the local governments in addressing national concerns. One solid truth about the decentralization process is that it does not diminish the integrity of the state. Indeed, decentralization is not just about the devolution of political and fiscal powers to the sub-national level, but it is also about a shared responsibility of shaping the future of the whole country. This idea is already reflected in Section 2 of LGC where it is explicitly expressed that “the territorial and political subdivisions of the State shall enjoy genuine and meaningful local autonomy to enable them to attain their fullest development as self-reliant communities and make them more effective partners in the attainment of national goals.” [See also Sections 13 and 14 of Article X of the Constitution] Unfortunately however, this notion of collective action to attain national goals is yet to be firmly institutionalized in our system of government.

Indeed, the current local autonomy regime in the country is crippled by a slew of institutional defects. The overlapping and confusion of government functions, the hovering presence of Malacañang in the management of government, the myopic and parochial approach to development, to name a few. These deficiencies have ultimately led to the failure of both levels of government to effectively and efficiently deliver essential public services.

The federalism route to reform the current broken decentralization arrangement appears to be the popular alternative being floated around. Some advocates however portray the Constitution as a seemingly immovable hindrance to this aspiration. I maintain though that this is not necessarily the case. The three principles enumerated above are vital components of federalization. I hope I have shown in this piece that these principles can be institutionalized in our local autonomy framework at anytime. Truth is, the term federalism need not even be mentioned by lawmakers when pursuing this groundbreaking reform. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Atty. Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco is a practicing lawyer. He is the author of the book, Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective. He researches on current issues in state-building, decentralization and constitutionalism)