Proving that Good Governance is Good Politics: A Tribute to Secretary Jesse Robredo
August 22, 2012
Secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) Jesse Manalastas Robredo – a highly-regarded, multi-awarded public servant, and an internationally recognized expert in local governance – died after the small plane he was in crashed on August 18. For two days, vigils were held, hoping for good news for the fate of Secretary Jesse and his companions (one of whom survived). Upon confirmation of his death on August 21, tributes poured in and President Aquino accompanied his remains to his hometown of Naga City in the Bicol Region.
Secretary Jesse’s claim to fame is no mean feat. As mayor of Naga City for 18 years, he transformed this once lethargic city into a premier city in the Bicol region. He always generously thanked The Asia Foundation for nominating Naga to Asiaweek as a “most improved city” – though ironically the award itself came during the 3-year interregnum between his two long stints in office (while he was at the Harvard Kennedy School as a Mason Fellow) and it was Mayor Cho Roco (brother of Robredo ally Senator Raul Roco) who was pictured in the article.
By the end of his first stint as mayor (1988-1998), Robredo had transformed the city into a model of local governance in the country, and a laboratory of governance innovations – making it a favorite destination for other local governments worldwide in search of governance models. Under Secretary Jesse, Naga City pioneered the implementation of citizen charter and performance pledges to exert accountability among the city bureaucrats—long before the Anti-Red Tape law was passed in the country. He adopted i-Governance to engage citizens’ access and representation in local decision-making process of the city. He made important information about government services accessible through an interactive website, streamlined government services, and afforded the citizens with a platform to provide feedback on city government performance. Most importantly, Secretary Jesse empowered the people of Naga City, and made them an important partner in the development of their city.
Jesse Robredo was indeed proof that the 1991 Local Government Code could foster much improvement at the local level – as were a number of other mayors and governors who were repeatedly cited by the Galing Pook awards over the years. But what Jesse demonstrated was that good governance was indeed good politics. While initially allied with his uncle Luis R. Villafuerte, they parted ways early in Robredo’s first term, and thereafter the kingpin of the surrounding province of Carmarines Sur ran candidates against the Robredo slate. Given his support by the empowered populace, he was able to see off the Villafuerte challenges – at least within Naga City.
However, Secretary Jesse’s cause did not stop in Naga City. He did not try to run for higher office (a move which rarely works) but instead, became in 2010 the secretary of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) and focused on improving local governments throughout the country. With barely two years in office, he was instrumental in regaining the trust and hope of civil society to work with government institutions, while at the same time raising the bar for civil society-government engagement. In many ways, through civil society organizations, he gave the public the opportunity to pro-actively work with city hall officials on the city budget, the annual investment plans, policies related to the use of funds for health and education projects, and projects to improve the city environment. Until today, that ordinance serves as a model for local executives.
Just at a time when people saw no real hope for it, Secretary Jesse championed the full disclosure of financial transactions to encourage transparency and accountability in local governments. In fact, he was intolerant not only of graft and corruption but also of inefficiency, ineptness, and mediocrity. For him, after 20 years of decentralization, it should no longer be business as usual for local governments – it was time to link “islands of good governance” into an archipelago.
The Asia Foundation is one of many development partners that have benefited enormously from Secretary Jesse’s leadership at DILG. Since 2002, the Foundation, through the USAID-supported Transparent Accountable Governance (TAG) project, has been promoting transparency and accountability in local governments, primarily in cities across Mindanao. However, it was not until 2010 when Secretary Jesse took the helm at DILG that the Foundation finally had the full support of DILG to promote our TAG program. Through DILG Memorandum Circular 2010-83, DILG acted on the recommendation arising from the 2010 Rapid Field Appraisal (RFA) of Decentralization to encourage local governments to disseminate accurate information on its budget and expenditures. Secretary Jesse was a staunch supporter and promoter of the Foundation’s Budget Tracking for Transparent Accountable Governance (BTTAG) initiative – a pioneering effort of civil society organizations to increase transparency and make local budgets public in the Philippines. Secretary Jesse never got tired of attending BTTAG events. He was there at the launch, during the policy fora, and at the conclusion – tirelessly providing the keynote messages to inspire TAG partners in each occasion.
The considerably short period that Secretary Jesse was at DILG was also probably the local government department’s most productive time in recent years. Secretary Jesse put the house in order, upgraded the department website, led the example of full disclosure and expanded the DILG’s network of partners. As city mayor for 18 years, he is well aware of the issues surrounding local governments: graft and corruption, bloated budgets, lack of transparency, and limited resources. But as he successfully demonstrated, these limitations need not hamper nor discourage local governments from bringing innovations, testing the waters nor challenging the full extent of the devolution – all for the greater good of the people.
In the same manner, he recognizes that despite significant successes, local governments “have “to constantly create the environment for active participation and citizenship in local communities. A mission that’s difficult in most areas of the country where power has been denied to the people for centuries and where traditional structures have held sway for generation.” Jesse’s stellar performance and contributions to good governance have been honored with international and national awards, but the best award will be the memory that will live on in the hearts of the people of Naga City and the entire nation. Jesse’s untimely death is a deep loss to the cause of good governance, national and local. He had the vision, the passion, and the capacity to introduce more reforms to our public administrative and political processes. We hope that his life of achievement inspires a new breed of leaders who will carry on his cause.
Maria Belen Bonoan is The Asia Foundation’s Philippine director for Local Governance, Steven Rood is Philippine country representative, and Juan Mayo Ragragio is a Bicolano and former chief of party of The Foundation’s Local Governance, Elections, and Civil Society project in Timor-Leste. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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