12 October 2011

Social accountability in action

By Dr. Antonio G.M. La Viña  

This is the seventh and final column in this series (written with the research assistance of my brilliant collaborator Christian Laluna) where we explore the concept of social accountability: what it means, what it entails from its practitioners, and what its potential benefits are to governance, to citizens, the community, and the nation. We have set it as an alternative to mainstream governance, where policy-making, execution, and especially accountability are mainly in the hands of government officials. We have emphasized the democratic, citizen-building character of social accountability. In today’s final column, I will be talking about social accountability in action, using as examples the CheckMySchool.org and Government Watch (G-Watch) initiatives, the former of which was created with the assistance of Affiliated Network for East Asia and the Pacific (ANSA-EAP) and the latter a long-standing program in the Ateneo School of Government

Of all the policy areas of government, there may be no more critical priority than education, as reflected in the weight of the budget given to the Department of Education (DepEd). At the same time, the money and investments in other resources (such as textbooks and educational materials, construction of classrooms) poured into DepEd makes the department one of the most tempting targets for graft and for corrupt activities, as shown in the past by the high-profile “noodle” and “textbook” scams, where government had to pay for overpriced noodles and erroneous textbooks. In Robbed: An Investigation of Corruption in Philippine Education, Yvonne Chua of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism found that corruption was so institutionalized in education policy, both nationally and at the local level, that “payoffs have become the lubricant that makes [DepEd] run smoothly.” It is lamentable that corrupt practices would be necessary just for policies to push forward. Transparency and accountability became the watchwords for DepEd reform.

What G-Watch and CheckMySchool.org have done was to put as much of the responsibilities of transparency and accountability as could be placed into the hands of ordinary yet committed citizens, using established and workable mechanisms and tools. G-Watch covers electoral reform and human rights in its agenda as well, but it is in monitoring the delivery of educational services that the initiative had cut its teeth. Through the Textbook Count Project, for example, and in cooperation with DepEd, G-Watch gave citizen groups the means to monitor the bidding for, and production and delivery of textbooks across the country. With training and tools, diverse groups and peoples such as parents, students, village and church leaders, and Boy and Girl Scout troops were able monitor the cost, quantity, and quality of textbook delivery, and that the bidding and delivery process observed the proper procedures.

G-Watch showcases how, with training and tools, citizens can make an impact on the success of government policy and reform. Textbook Count Project members were able to cut the costs of books by 50 percent, shorten delivery time, and eliminate “ghost deliveries” which diverted public funds to private pockets. It should be no surprise that this same citizen monitoring model is also used in Bayanihang Eskwela to monitor the construction of schools and classrooms, and has been proposed for other service-delivery agencies, such as the Department of Health.

The more recent CheckMySchool.org, in the meanwhile, showcases how information and communications technologies can be leveraged to promote transparency and accountability, while connecting ordinary people to their government. Combining the resources and services of a database and information forum/exchange, the site is an interactive GoogleMap of the country containing important information about individual public schools. Some of this information comes from national records, such as the school’s allocated budget, or the average test scores of its students. Other information—and this is where social accountability comes into play—comes from citizens themselves. People can validate the accuracy of government-provided data; offer additional information, in text as well as video and pictures; they can praise well-run schools or point out specific complaints to be addressed; and can even offer incentives and suggestions to improve performance.

Information can be provided to CheckMySchool via the main Web site, through social networking sites Facebook and Twitter, and even by text message. These are all well-understood means of communications for a majority of Filipino citizens, especially the youth. Because of the Web site, the information can be accessed by anyone with the most basic Internet literacy, and especially by third-party researchers working on reform and accountability projects or programs.

Yet the project extends beyond information into action. Based on the comments and suggestions forwarded from the communities, and through the partnership with ANSA-EAP and DepEd, CheckMySchool will select one school a month for priority assistance, incentives, and targeted resources. This is what makes the Web site relevant in terms of social accountability—true to its motto, “Promoting transparency and social accountability, one school at a time!”, CheckMySchool aims to guarantee effective response and results to educational policy issues on the ground, raised by the people themselves. Every school improved by the comments and suggestions of its own stakeholder community becomes an incentive for other schools and communities to participate in the program, in the hope that they, too, can receive these benefits or ensure quality public education for their children. Whether it’s the need for more teachers or books or repairs to school buildings, the Web site can being information from people to government, and action from government to the people.

G-Watch and CheckMySchool do not merely provide an avenue for people to participate in governance; it gives them the means to do so, on their terms. At the same time, it provides an alternative to the theme of confrontation and resistance, so often seen in protest and revolution, which is also part of a healthy democracy, but not meant to be its dominant character. Beyond replacing the corrupt, social accountability helps government do the job it is supposed to do.

This returns us to the beginning of this column series: Social accountability ultimately aims to reestablish government as a government “of the people”. Social accountability is not just about giving people access to government and governance, but also making it easier for people to successfully participate in governance. Indeed, ultimately, good governance cannot be achieved work without citizen engagement and action. People Power revolution was all about bringing people back to government and governance, when dictatorship and corruption had cut them off. Yet in the two decades since we marched down Edsa in February of 1986, we have yet to walk that final mile and achieve a clean and responsive government. Election, prosecution, and revolution are not enough. That final mile is one walked by citizens, not by the state or by revolutionaries.

President Noynoy Aquino’s own father wrote once that too often we Filipinos “have a penchant for blaming others for our faults,” and that even Jose Rizal himself rebuked us, his fellow countrymen, for this. We can have clean government, but we must move from complaint to action. Social accountability has made the way easier for us. There is no excuse now: in our hands lies the fate of Philippine governance, and of the country.

This is the 7th and final column in Dr. La Viña's series on social accountability.  Links to the first six 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 
  6. Social accountability and leadership
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 11 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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