Notes from the Field

Two Decades of Journey to Local Autonomy in the Philippines

September 1, 2010

The 1991 Local Government Code, which initiated the decentralization process in the Philippines by empowering local governments to more effectively respond to their community needs, has always been referred to as radical and revolutionary. It now serves as an example for other countries on how local governments have accepted, adjusted, and adapted to this development panacea.

However, after nearly two decades of local autonomy, it has become imperative to know and describe the progress, initiatives, and innovations of local governments 19 years after the Local Government Code was passed.

The 11th Rapid Field Appraisal (RFA) – the first since 2001 – was conducted from February to May 2010 in 15 regions of the country, covering a total of 177 local governments. The appraisal was essentially designed to find out the progress of decentralization on the ground, specifically focusing on four major local governance performance areas: local administration, social services and health, local economic development, and environmental management.

The newly released findings provide concrete data on the realities that local governments continue to face. Although the findings alone might not seem earth shattering, just how little these findings have changed over time might be surprising.

For example, as early as 1997, the 7th RFA already found widespread use of multiple venues for citizen participation, specifically in the Local School and Local Health Boards as well as non-Code-mandated sectoral venues such as the solid waste management board, fisheries, and aquatic management councils. The same trend is still observed now with these specialized bodies and committees still more functional than the Local Development Councils.

Resource generation is another area of recurring concern for local governments. The 6th RFA, conducted five years after decentralization took place, cited internal revenue allotments (a local government’s share of revenues from the national government) as the main source of revenue for local governments. Nineteen years after the Code passed, this finding still holds true. The internal revenue allotment continues to be the major source of local government income, making up 90 percent for provinces, 70 percent for cities, and 86 percent for the municipalities. This reveals that either local governments have not fully maximized their taxation powers, or that there is no sufficient tax base to collect taxes from in the first place. This reflects the need to review the taxation powers of local governments and how these can be improved to support local government operations.

In response to the Anti-Red Tape Act of 2007 and the recent clamor for a more transparent public sector in the Philippines, The Asia Foundation included in this year’s appraisal a number of questions surrounding transparency issues. The assessment revealed that much work still needs to be done to improve local governments’ public disclosure systems. While local governments are gradually opening up and providing space for greater transparency, information on matters like budgets, expenditures, and financial reports are still not shared with the general public, thereby limiting opportunities for public scrutiny and citizen feedback.

Despite some not-so-encouraging results, not all findings in this year’s appraisal were so bleak. In fact, the RFA saw a growing critical mass of good governance practices in specific areas. For example, several local governments, such as the municipality of Cordova in the province of Cebu, established a marine protected areas to serve as breeding grounds for marine species, which eventually became a popular tourism destination. Naga city launched an “i-governance” program that allows citizens to text feedback and queries by mobile phone to the city government at a cost of PhP2.00 per message. Text messages are responded to within the day. In response to revenue generation challenges, La Trinidad municipality recently started sending letters to establishments and individuals delinquent in property and business tax payments, which resulted in increased collection of local revenue for the municipality. Although these local-level practices are inspiring, they need to be scaled up for greater regional or national impact, a role that different leagues of local governments can effectively perform.

Indeed, decentralization has redefined governance in the Philippines, with the Local Government Code of 1991 providing local governments with the enabling environment to experiment and be more responsive to community needs. With localized service delivery, citizens are more satisfied with local governments than with national government. A recent nationwide citizen survey conducted by the Social Weather Stations reflects that citizens are in fact more satisfied with local governments than with national government. The specific local government services citizens are most satisfied with are: maintaining of the public market, implementing educational programs, promoting sports programs, maintaining of health centers, lighting of streets, collecting garbage, protecting the environment, and providing information on taxes and permits. However, citizens remain dissatisfied with the performance of local governments in eradicating graft and corruption.

The RFA and the SWS citizen survey results suggest that decentralization in the Philippines has been a success overall, with specific achievements varying depending on the quality of leadership, technical capacities and resources of each local government.

Maria Belen Bonoan is The Asia Foundation’s director for Local Governance in the Philippines. She can be reached at bbonoan@asiafound.org.

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