04 October 2011

Social accountability and leadership

By Dr. Antonio G.M. La Viña 

In this sixth of seven columns on social accountability, I explore the costs of social accountability. The truth is the greatest benefits often ask for the corresponding price. Public policies such as government fiscal stability, land reform, universal health care, education, and the like could require sacrifices borne by different sectors of society. Politics is the dynamic with which people decide how these costs are to be equitably distributed. The problem is that in practice, either these costs are either not equitably distributed, or perceived as so. As revealed in previous columns, this is often the result of ordinary men and women, communities, and sectors of society excluded from, or not participating in, the formal policy-making process.

Dissatisfaction with policy, whether justified or not, is in the end inimical to both governance and community. Only a couple of weeks ago has the country seen what happens when grievances entrench government and society against each other, in the transport and PALEA strikes, and protests in response to budget cuts to health and education. This is indeed a communication problem, but not in the traditional idea of “the people speak, the government listens” and vice-versa (incidentally, that arena is covered by the Freedom of Information Act, which was discussed last week). We must move beyond mere exchange of ideas, interests, and positions into the realm of participation, walking together in each other’s shoes. This is the realm of social accountability.

 As the Affiliated Network on Social Accountability - East Asia Pacific (ANSA-EAP) has learned, an emphasis on mainstreaming social accountability aims to reverse this cycle of policy and protest by involving them in the policy process from the start. Part of the light at the end of the tunnel comes from educating citizens on the costs of policy and policy reform, true to the organization’s “Learning in Action” mantra, by exposing government and civilian parties to each other’s predicaments and perspectives in each stage of the process.

Even if social accountability was the mainstream approach to good governance, its practitioners would still face an uphill battle in our country’s political and socio-economic context. They must convince an otherwise apathetic citizenry to communicate with and constructively challenge elected officials on the issues that affect them the most, and are closest to home. At the same time, they must balance this engagement against the risk of cooption, or where an unscrupulous official or person in power would hijack the pro-reform agenda and resources for his own enrichment.

One ANSA-EAP participant from Cambodia found that traditional, paternalistic culture and mores present a big obstacle to surmount. To quote, “Community people believe that authority is boss and boss is parent. The boss’s word and the boss’s manner are always good.” Such attitudes could also be found at a national level: the dictatorships of Southeast Asian history have justified their rule on paternalistic grounds, offering community stability and economic prosperity in exchange for virtually unopposed rule—and a high risk (and occurrence) of graft and corruption.

 It is perhaps a sad irony that national revolutions to topple corrupt regimes are easy compared to enabling “People Power” within individual villages and hamlets. Yet ANSA-EAP’s efforts show that it can be done, but it requires commitment and even sacrifice from participants. They must be willing to learn and put to use the tools to monitor government policies, requiring literacy. People must learn to interface with and engage government officials in a constructive, non-antagonistic manner, requiring communication skills and values of openness and flexibility. To be effective participants in governance, particularly in the policy planning and design stages, requires initiative, a trait often smothered in paternalistic community settings. Most of all, it requires continuing commitment, an expenditure of time. Citizens must be encouraged to invest time and attention to issues of local governance, contributing to the design/formulation process and to serve as citizen monitors, and for volunteers to teach others these skills.

Sustaining commitment is especially an issue when faced with high expectations, lack of results and failure, impatience, and lack of cooperation from the government apparatus. One must guard against discouragement. This is especially true when, in some contexts, social accountability may demand the greatest cost: life and liberty. Policy monitoring and enforcing accountability may uncover corrupt parties that may stop at nothing to protect their interests. Our country has seen journalists, teachers, social organizers, and religious folk kidnapped, “disappeared”, or murdered for their advocacies, even at the local/community level. Even then, it is important to sustain the fight for clean government, so that the ultimate sacrifice may not be in vain.

It is also important to note that public officials also face their own costs to serve as social accountability’s “government champions.” Government can also suffer from similar apathy as the citizenry: prioritizing one’s own short-term job and income security over medium and long-term reform and development. Deferring to the boss instead of exercising initiative. Lack of communication, both within one’s agency and among agencies. Lack of innovation and stakeholder-input diversity in policy design. Lack of sufficient resources to implement policy. Having to deal with superiors or colleagues who themselves are engaged in corrupt practices, or are otherwise uncooperative in reform efforts. It should be no surprise that Philippine civil servants are some of the most burdened workers in the economy, as former Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro raised in a recent lecture at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila College of Law, in some cases one person doing the work of up to four other people, and without corresponding compensation.

The design of bureaucracy itself may be an obstacle: research had shown that policy design and monitoring work best at the municipal level, but in the Philippines money is handled at a higher government level (usually provincial, or even national through internal revenue allotments), requiring additional engagement from social accountability practitioners. It’s also no surprise that municipal and town initiatives are co-funded by outside agencies such as the World Bank.

Government work is often a thankless job, perceived as unrewarding especially due to low salaries compared to the private sector. Also, even reform-minded government officials may come out with a negative perception of public participation in governance, partly due to the lack of interest and preparation from citizen groups, partly as a knee jerk reaction from protests and other confrontational experience with civil society. Elected officials, too, are also human in their reaction to negative experiences with civil society, and may fear the reduction of their representative power or control over government resources if “other people” were handling their agenda. Indeed, social accountability emphasizes the slow building of a government-civil society, public-private network for policy reform, while still achieving good results. Only continued good interaction between government champions and the citizenry will build the reservoir of trust necessary to overcome bureaucratic inertia and corrupt interests.

Ultimately, what is required from both the citizen-participant and government champion of social accountability is leadership: the will to carry these burdens of good governance, to offer example to the skeptic and to those willing to learn, and to inspire the uninterested and even “those on the other side” through the fruits of their labor. Without leadership, nothing can be achieved; with leadership, everything is possible.

This is the 6th in Dr. La Viña's 7 column series on social accountability.  Links to the first five below.

  1. Social accountability, an imperative
  2. Social Accountability in the MILF Negotiations
  3. Making social accountability happen
  4. Social accountability, antidote to corruption
  5. Social accountability and freedom of information
The writer is Dean of the Ateneo School of Government (ASoG)  and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability in East Asia and the Pacific (ANSA-EAP).  This essay was first published in the 04 October 2011 online and print edition of the Manila Standard Today. It is featured in VOICES with the writer's permission. Dean La Viña can be reached through e-mail at tonylavs (at) gmail.com and twitter: tonylavs

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