One of the disconcerting elements of the current discourse on reform in government is the seeming assumption that limited reforms (or at least none meaningful) are being undertaken. And, as such, the government has been inutile in combating the prevalence of corruption. It is an overly simplistic view of a highly complex undertaking; one that a macro review of the efforts of the Aquino administration proves to be somewhat false. If anything, discussion should be more centered on the relative effectiveness and comprehensiveness of those initiatives. Or, just as importantly, the relative ability of the administration to publicize and engage civil society in those processes.
For example, one of the key initiatives in the Open Government Program undertaken by the government is the revamping of the Official Gazette website (www.gov.ph) into a ‘one-stop shop’ for policy and reporting announcements. Programs, such as the Disbursement Acceleration Plan, the Open Government Initiative, and on-going (ignored) efforts like COMELEC and making elections more transparent, have been announced or relayed via the site; yet civil society and even certain legislators seem completely oblivious to their existence. This raises two questions:
- Is the Aquino government doing enough to make citizens, outside of media members, aware of the existence of the Official Gazette as a source of information and giving stakeholders opportunities to engage with transparency and accountability initiatives;
- Is civil society doing enough to empower themselves in engaging government processes for reform and good governance. Are they keeping track of initiatives and staying informed? That takes continuing effort to stay abreast of developments and educated about their specifics.
I posited a question yesterday on Twitter (modeled after a famous Zen riddle): If information is available and no one uses it, is it really available? The institutionalization of transparency and accountability tools only occurs through continued use. That is a challenge to civil society; most especially those who have chosen to take on the mantle of public intellectuals, advocates, and activists. When information is readily available (now and in the future), civil society should no longer expect to be spoon-fed. That is not the nature of citizenship empowerment, in fact it is the opposite.
…the facile dichotomies between Light and Darkness, free world and obscurantism, sweet tolerance and blind violence, tell us more about the overweening pride of their authors than the complexity of the contemporary world.
- Tzveta Todorov
Unfortunately, the current level of discourse ignores policy-centric and program-focused in favor more emotionally charged sloganeering, founded predominantly on motherhood statements and Manichaeism. That is a natural outflow of our typically emotionally charged discursive climate with regards to corruption and governance. And it fatally inhibits much needed engagement from all sectors in the public sphere. Right now this is expressed through the current almost fatal polarization among civil society ‘activists,’ as well as the wholly combative stance taken towards the Executive Branch (somehow avoiding certain legislators) in discourse; one being promoted and leveraged by some survival and/or agenda driven legislators and politicians.
A third response - ‘overthrow the system!’ - is discredited by its inherent inanity: which bits of which system and in favor of which systemic substitute? In any case, who will do the overthrowing?
We no longer have political movements. While thousands of us may come together for a rally or march, we are bound together on such occasions by a single shared interest. Any effort to convert such interests into collective goals is usually undermined by the fragmented individualism of our concerns.
This is when Tony Judt’s dissection of modern protest movements and the hyper-charged emotionality of current levels of global discourse are most chilling. The sad by-product of this hyper-polarization and emotion driven ‘discourse’ is dismissal of dissent, or evidence and events that run counter to dearly held talking points. That is not to say that protests should not be undertaken or do not play a key role in society. They do. Informed dissent is the foundation of a functioning democracy and must be encouraged in all spheres.
Moving beyond that, a nuanced analysis of government initiatives must be twofold:
- What is being undertaken by government, throughout the three branches, and how can those processes or initiatives be improved, engaged with, or supported;
- What are additional initiatives and policy proposals that civil society would like to see implemented.
By basing our analysis of the public sphere on the willingness of government, media and civil society to engage in constructive, well-informed discourse, we will better be able to gauge our collective ability to move beyond Manichaeism and inherent inanities. So far, that analysis does not yield much positivity. That being said, there are elements of hope. Doy Santos has written about shifting public discourse towards policy, even initiating a hashtag (#PostPNoy) discussion thread to collate what we would like to see implemented over the next three years by the administration. While Cocoy Dayao offers recommendations on his experience in protesting the passing of the CyberCrime Law and the subsequent crowd-sourced bill to combat the CyberCrime Law called the Magna Carta for Philippine Internet Freedom.
Just as compellingly, Marck Ronald Rimorin writes about our collective need to step back and move away from Manichaeism towards collaborative discourse. One key point that he makes is the need for us to truly leverage social media to develop crowd-sourced policies and ideas to combat corruption and reform governance. That is the missing element in the talk of ‘social media based protests’ and one that is disconcerting in its absence. Especially in light of the social media evangelical credentials on members of various protest organizations. Transparency, accountability, and consultative practices in reform movements is a missing ingredient in creating multi-sectoral solutions. As Cocoy Dayao has experienced with MCPIF, and Doy Santos hopes to encourage with #PostPNoy, substantive policy discussions and the crafting of reform agendas can take place in the public sphere and with the government.
Stepping Back from the Emotional Precipice
Sadly, contemporary intellectuals have shown remarkably little informed interest in the nitty gritty of public policy, preferring to intervene or protest on ethically-defined topics where the choices seem clearer…where unconventional opinion rarely finds a place…
- Tony Judt
Lost amid the emotionality of the moment is that some progress is being made towards transparency, investigation of corrupt practices, and the prosecution of illegal activities. Stepping back and taking a macro-perspective on developments demonstrates this. Thus, discourse must move past simplistic emotion driven dualities and consider the nature of endemic corruption in the government, as well as the culpability of legislators in promoting, leveraging, and protecting corrupt practices. It must touch on the worthiness or merit of stimulus programs under the administration. Failing to take these various issues on their own merit and lumping them together will result in flawed solutions; as Jego Ragragio points out. While branding anything financial in government we do not like as “pork” is excellent for talking points and slogans, it fails as a platform for comprehensive and cogent discussion.
Considering Open Government
In reviewing the reforms being proposed and undertaken by the Aquino administration, one multinational and sectoral initiative intrigued: the Open Government Partnership; of which the Philippines is one of the founding eight members. The Official Gazette has announced the ODP in the past, as well as published the 2012 Philippine Open Government Country Assessment Report in March 2013. It is disconcerting that this document went relatively unremarked. However, as an aside, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism has been tapped to undertake an independent assessment of the Philippine government’s Open Government Action Plans and progress. A key part of the OGP is consultation with the private sector at every step.
As a document the P-OGC Assessment Report offers a macro perspective of the administration’s reform agenda. As such, I would argue, it becomes a starting place for engagement between government and civil society on reform initiatives and their effectiveness. It offers a framework within which to evaluate and interrogate the structure of good governance programs and, subsequently, present suggestions, additions, or improvements as needed. Granted, this is separate from policy-centric discussions, but I would argue policies designed to address identified systemic flaws will naturally flow out of discussion and an increased understanding of system processes.
The Open Government Partnership is centered around the following declarations:
We acknowledge that people all around the world are demanding more openness in government. They are calling for greater civic participation in public affairs, and seeking ways to make their governments more transparent, responsive, accountable, and effective.
We recognize that countries are at different stages in their efforts to promote openness in government, and that each of us pursues an approach consistent with our national priorities and circumstances and the aspirations of our citizens.
We accept responsibility for seizing this moment to strengthen our commitments to promote transparency, fight corruption, empower citizens, and harness the power of new technologies to make government more effective and accountable.
We uphold the value of openness in our engagement with citizens to improve services, manage public resources, promote innovation, and create safer communities. We embrace principles of transparency and open government with a view toward achieving greater prosperity, well-being, and human dignity in our own countries and in an increasingly interconnected world.
- Preamble of the Open Government Declaration
Essentially, the Open Government Partnership is an initiative designed to enhance and institutionalize transparency and accountability measures to promote good governance. A review of the action plan of the Philippine government, linked to and patterned on President Aquino’s Social Contract with the Filipino People, offers an understanding of how the administration has approached good governance reforms, as well as gives an opportunity to review those reforms. All members of the Open Government Partnership declare their commitment to adhere to four principles:
- Increase availability of information of governmental activities
- Support civic participation
- Implement of the highest standards of professional integrity throughout the country’s administration
- Increase access to new technologies for openness and accountability
A full description of each of the four points can be found on the ODP website.
My argument is not that the Open Government Program is the beginning and end of reform geared towards good governance and the elimination of corruption; nor does it appear that is how it was conceived. That being said it offers civil society insight into how the administration has chosen to approach improving transparency and accountability through the implementation of various initiatives. That gives civil society a method with which to critically interrogate the government’s adherence to their own self-imposed and created action plan, as well as weigh the effectivity of the various programs and policies.
Addressing systemic corruption and improving good governance is a multi-sectoral long term effort, that requires consultative and collaborative processes from all stakeholders involved. There is no single solution to what faces us. True sustainable change must be multi-pronged in approach and scope; encompassing all sectors of government and civil society. They must multi-faceted, culturally bound, and inclusive, both in depth and nature, to truly effect change through the country. The key is how do we, collectively, approach crafting those solutions. And how do we then ensure any transparency and accountability, and anti-corruption reforms are both effective and institutionalized.