Philippine Daily Inquirer, Op-ed commentary, October 29, 2014, p. A12

To say that governance in our country leaves much to be desired is one great understatement.  This is true for both the national government as it is for local government units (LGUs). At the national level, principal offices of the executive, legislative and judiciary branches are periodically covered by the opinion surveys of SWS and Pulse Asia. These serve to update the citizenry on the approval and trust ratings of the respective heads of the three branches of government.

Such approval and trust scores, however, may be too general and somewhat superficial. They don’t sufficiently inform the public about the true character of government officials in terms of integrity (incorruptibility), competence, and dedication (ICD). For instance, “approval” and “trust” can be easily earned by political patronage and/or sheer mass popularity. Which perhaps explains why some high officials, although widely suspected or reported to have engaged in nontrivial corruption, continue to have relatively high ratings.

A more rigorous evaluation resulting in more solid indicators or grades on the critical characteristics (ICD), among others, expected of government officials would act as pressure for better public service. As well, such grades, reflecting people’s demands of their public servants, may deter unworthy aspirants from running for public office.

Having taught several years back at the University of California Santa Cruz while a graduate student at Berkeley, and more recently at the University of the Philippines Diliman, I can well appreciate how it is to be subjected every semester to the “student evaluation of teachers” (SET). The SET includes such questions as: does the teacher come to class on time; is he/she adequately prepared; does he/she speak clearly and understandably; does he/she grade fairly; have you learned according to your expectation; how does he/she compare with your other teachers; overall, how do you grade your teacher? The point is that a more thorough evaluation of service providers (whether in academe or government) can not only be an effective spur for no-nonsense performance but also reflect their true character.

If evaluating and grading our chief officials at the national level is called for, it’s probably even more in order for local government executives as they are in the frontline of public service. Being literally on the ground, they are mandated to deliver economic and social services to the people such that they affect people’s lives even more directly. They stare the real faces of poverty, inequality, and wealth, besides infrastructure deficiencies, on a day-to-day basis (unless, of course, they’re more often in Manila, elsewhere or abroad than where they ought to be!). Being in close contact with their constituency, people are also likely to know them better, thereby facilitating an evaluation that should result in relatively accurate scoring.

A hypothesis I’ve heard is that local officials are not really genuinely interested in poverty reduction apart from the conspicuous dispensing of hand-outs here and there. There’s no real incentive or motivation to address poverty for two possibly interrelated reasons. One, with political dynasty quite commonplace, sustained by political patronage, local officials (or their close kin) are virtually assured of winning in the next elections. Two, the votes of a more well-off and discerning electorate are harder to buy. The first reason is an obvious argument for anti-dynasty legislation. Apropos the second, one hopes it’s not generally true.

Lessons from recent calamities (e.g., “Yolanda”, Bohol earthquake, “Sendong”, and “Pablo”) put preparedness and speedy response in bolder relief. Which further underscores uprightness, efficiency and effectiveness (or ICD mentioned above) being of crucial importance, a sine qua non in local governance. Local executives’ performance, driven by ICD, should be made a criterion for the internal revenue allotment (IRA) besides being a signal to voters.

Another usefulness of ICD scores is as a guide to where domestic and foreign investments can be fruitful. Likewise, they can point to which localities multilateral and bilateral assistance can have the greatest impact. Further, well-meaning nongovernment organizations are in constant search of LGU leaders they can efficiently partner with.

To be sure, evaluating and grading governance is a more involved process and a harder task than public opinion surveys. But it’s not insurmountable, though potentially more costly. But the benefits can well trump the costs. To make the budget affordable, the exercise can begin small by piloting it first among a few select LGUs. The questionnaire could then be modified and fine-tuned for gradually wider (preferably, at least annual) application.

This project, it would seem, dovetails with the philosophy and mission of such business-driven laudable advocacies as the Integrity Initiative and the Coalition against Corruption. I would be surprised if it does not resonate well with them, or they might already have thought about it. Hence, it will be great if one or both will spearhead the project with broad-based private-sector participation and sponsorship – involving business, reputable NGOs, and the academe. Given their experience, SWS and Pulse Asia might be the logical candidates for carrying out the field survey.

As for funding, business can partner with the national government which should be concerned about local governance since well-performing LGUs will eventually redound to spatially broad-based national progress. In short, it might be a private-public partnership because “good governance is good business” – a nominal variant of P-Noy’s oft-repeated remark, Good governance is good economics”.