Notes from the Field

Six Philippine Cities Fight Corruption, Improve Governance

March 18, 2009

How do you solve a problem like corruption? Do you catch the corrupt and pin them down?  Not necessarily, if you ask the cities of Calapan, Iriga, Roxas, Santiago, Sorsogon, and Tacloban in the Philippines. They do it differently. These cities have found a way to counter possible occasions of corruption through the The Asia Foundation’s Localizing Counter-Corruption project, which is supported by the British Embassy in Manila.

These cities do it in three ways. They institute reforms in selected government systems and procedures – streamlining processes and often digitizing them to lessen human intervention. They also open themselves up for partnership with NGOs and the private sector, boosting the confidence of those who demand transparency and accountability. And they implement a 12-month program called Public Service Excellence, Ethics, and Accountability Program (PSEEAP), to complement their reform efforts. PSEEAP promotes transparency in service delivery, strengthens the accountability of local bureaucrats, and encourages a customer-oriented culture in the delivery of basic services.

Is the approach working? After only a year, it is still too early to tell, but there is anecdotal evidence of results in these city governments.

Earlier this March, some 30 representatives of these six cities gathered for a two-day conference. There, they shared their experiences, assessed the success of the program in their cities, and planned activities to sustain it. In one of the workshops, conference participants took stock of the program’s contribution to their city governments in improving customer relations, work procedures, and the skills and attitudes of service providers.

The program, said Ed Castro of Santiago City, led to renovations in their city hall. They changed their transaction booths to glass to make them transparent while transferring all frontline offices to the ground floor to make them more accessible. In Roxas City, the city government installed flow charts and signs to guide the public. The city government of Calapan provided lounges for waiting customers. Other city governments have observed improvements in telephone courtesy among city government workers and in the way they address walk-in customers. In a number of cities, participating offices also agreed on standards for servicing their customers, prescribing the time and number of steps for selected government processes.

A month earlier, NGOs participating in the project also gathered for a two-day conference to discuss the challenges, insights, and immediate results they have achieved in working with the city governments.

Three months into the project, the Coalition for Bicol Development (CBD) organized a loose coalition of professional organizations, NGOs, and sectoral organizations in Iriga City in preparation for the partnership they are working out with the city government. The newly organized coalition, said Joy Bañares, executive director of CBD, has also started talking to members of the City Council for the enactment of an ordinance that will provide the legal basis for the creation of an Iriga City People’s Council.

In Calapan City, the Kaunsayan Formation for Community Development, Inc. (KAFCODE), is a NGO that has been helping small vendors, fisherfolk and farmers craft their sectoral development agenda. According to Doris Melgar, KAFCODE executive director, later they will present the sectoral agenda to the city’s mayor in a council where both the city government and KAFCODE sit as members.

The joint reform efforts in these cities are yielding good results. In Calapan City, reforms in the real property tax administration of the city have resulted in substantial increases in taxes collected. After the city government started serving pre-auction sale notices to delinquent property owners in September last year, and after it published in a local paper a five-page notice of delinquency that listed 186 properties in the whole city, realty tax collection increased by 169 percent in October last year, by six percent in November, and by 34 percent in December when compared to the 2007 collections. More increases are expected when the city government automates its real property tax system.

In Santiago City, where the city government instituted reforms in its business permits and licensing system, perception surveys conducted both before and after the institution of the business “one-stop-shop” revealed customer satisfaction in the enhanced procedures and in the attitude of the personnel administering the licensing. Registrants express much satisfaction in the shortened process of seeking permits, the fewer documents required, the reduced number of signatories, and the punctuality and courtesy of service providers.

After slightly more than a year of implementing the Localizing Counter-Corruption Project, a lot has already been done to prevent and reduce corruption in the six cities. But a lot more still has to be done in the overall fight against corruption in the Philippines. This, however, is asking too much from a two-year project in just six cities. Perhaps, all that it can offer for now are some models and maybe a little hope to the Filipino.

Many Filipinos have been weighed down by endless newspaper stories of alleged corruption in the Philippine government. Some have become cynical. To these people, curbing corruption or putting up deterrence to it is a useless exercise. It is an attempt much like holding moon beams in one’s hand or keeping the waves upon the sand. The Localizing Counter-Corruption Project, however, is a new shot in the arm. From the experience of the project perhaps Filipinos will learn that transparent accountable governance is still possible, at least in Philippine cities. Yes, there’s still hope for Juan; there’s still hope for Maria, for Abhoud, and Miriam.

Eric Aseo is The Asia Foundation’s Program Officer for the Transparent Accountable Governance program in the Philippines. He can be reached at eric@asiafound.org.

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