#BrgyAssembly: We could’ve done so much better

Lou Gepuela

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Not many citizens realize the power to implement change at the community level is already in their hands

Has any public official ever asked you how you want your taxes spent?

If not, isn’t now a good time to start asking, ‘Why not’?

When someone asks you for money, isn’t it but proper (and prudent) for you, as the creditor, to find out where it’s being spent? If you knew your mendicant neighbor was just using your hard-earned pesos to sustain his gin habit and sabong (cockfighting) lifestyle, and had absolutely no capacity (or intention) of paying you back, wouldn’t you do something about it?

If someone was being extremely generous by disbursing your paycheck to your neighbors and getting all the credit for this benevolence, wouldn’t you do something about it?

Doesn’t it make sense to ask taxpayers where they would like their taxes to go? Isn’t it strange for someone at the top to tell us what our priorities are, and where our priorities lie, as a people, and as a barangay?

The barangay

The barangay is not the building with the Philippine flag located somewhere in your neighborhood, nor is it the elected and appointed officials who hold office there, nor is it the totality of the citizens who are its residents.  

It is the sum of all these parts, greater than every single component. “As the basic political unit, the barangay serves as the primary planning and implementing unit of government policies, plans, programs, projects, and activities in the community, and as a forum wherein the collective views of the people may be expressed, crystallized and considered, and where disputes may be amicably settled,” says Section 384 of The Local Government Code of 1991 as amended.

The barangay is where civic responsibility begets better governance – at least, that was the theory.

‘We were not informed’

The Synchronized Barangay Assembly Day for the first semester of 2014 was scheduled to be held last Saturday, March 29, 2014, in accordance with Proclamation Number 260, dated September 30, 2011.

There was evident failure in the dissemination of information by some barangays to their stakeholders.

The common complaint noted was that barangay residents had no idea that a barangay assembly was scheduled for last Saturday, and that there was little to no notice from (or even at) the barangays themselves, even up to the day itself! Considering that DILG issued the Memorandum Circular last January 28, even asking the city and municipal mayors to ensure its enforcement, and considering further that this is an event that mandatorily takes place at least twice a year, and considering finally that a significant portion of barangay officials are second and third termers (meaning that they have been on the job for 6-9 years), it beggars belief that ‘they did not get the memo.’

Was there a decided consensus to just let this pass? Does this not constitute neglect of duty? Who should be held responsible? Why aren’t they being held responsible?

There is absolutely no excuse for postponing, or not even holding the Barangay Assembly at all. It is as significant as an electoral exercise, and citizens have every right (if not a civic duty) to excoriate officials who fail to get the word out, or who are simply not prepared.

CITIZEN PARTICIPATION. The synchronized assembly mandated by law aims to involve residents in addressing issues affecting the community. Photo by Raisa Serafica/Rappler

Analog thinking

Sincerity in constituency engagement is made evident by the efforts made to elicit and ensure public participation.

In this day and age, it confounds the understanding why there are still some barangays in highly-urbanized cities that fail to utilize the exponential capacity of social media, which is much more cost-effective, costing much less than the monthly coffee ration for barangay tanods.

It is a declared constitutional precept that governmental authority emanates from the sovereign people. Barangay officials, and government officials in general, should not be managing our expectations, and telling us what we can, and cannot do, what we can, and cannot say, and what we can, and cannot see. They should not be making the decisions that we are well and capable of doing on our own, particularly at the barangay level. They should be implementing the decisions that we make, convened as we are in our respective Barangay Assemblies.

Barangay officials should give their constituents the benefit of the doubt, and trust that they can handle large numbers, such as the specifics of barangay finances, and constituents should not hastily paint every barangay official as venal and corrupt, even if this is the common perception.

There should be a paradigm shift, where everyone (in barangay government or at its periphery) see the Barangay Assembly, Sangguniang Barangay, and Barangay Development Council as complementary organs of the same government, and not mutually exclusive fiefs and powerbases scrambling for already-scarce resources. Barangay officials should consider their constituents as partners in barangay development.

Abdication of civic responsibility

There is much rage, accompanied by the requisite wailing and gnashing of teeth, when billions of pesos are exposed to have been (allegedly) funnelled from public coffers to private pockets at the national level, but when it comes to the barangay level, that energy strangely dissipates. Barangays collectively handle billions of pesos of our money, too.

It is very unfortunate that there exists a mindset that ‘just’ because it’s the barangay, it’s not worthy enough to hold one’s attention. Flood mitigation, waste management, stray animals and disaster preparedness may not be as riveting as other pursuits, but concerns such as these are the bread and butter of local governance.

The observer effect

Meaningful participation by residents raises the quality of governance. Sustained public engagement ensures a better sense of responsibility, and develops a culture of accountability, which drives better barangay service delivery and more responsive performance from barangay officials.

This virtuous cycle in turn, reduces execution gaps, and avoids the unconscionable waste of precious social and economic capital. Furthermore, regular feedback from the public challenges the status quo, and reduces the susceptibility of groupthink among the barangay officials. Instead of repetitive sloganeering and unoriginal, low-impact ideas, genuine sustainable grassroots development takes place.

Leadership is a choice, not a position

Good governance will never happen if barangays are left to their own officials’ devices, simply because there will be no meaningful system of accountability present. Responsible citizenship will result in responsible and responsive local governments, and the direction of the barangay and the behavior of its officials are made markedly different, in the presence of knowledgeable and empowered citizens who are able and willing to be vigilant, by keeping their elected servants honest to their deeds, and accountable to their promises.

The sense of powerlessness ordinary citizens feel is fuelled only by the lack of awareness that they are more powerful than they can possibly imagine.  This is the beauty of the Barangay Assembly.

Not many citizens realize that they have the legal right, solely by their own initiative, to convene their Barangay Assembly any time they feel it necessary, without requiring the prior permission of their Punong Barangay or their Sangguniang Barangay.

Not many citizens realize that in the absence of the Punong Barangay (or the member of the Sangguniang Barangay acting as the punong barangay), any citizen qualified as a member of the Barangay Assembly can preside over the Barangay Assembly.

Not many citizens realize that they control the agenda of the barangay assembly, and that they can directly initiate legislation, and personally submit draft ordinances and resolutions that the Sangguniang Barangay must consider.

Not many citizens realize that the discussion, publication, and public dissemination of the state of barangay finances is not a mere suggestion, but a clear legal responsibility of the barangay treasurer, who by Section 513 of the Local Governnment Code, as amended, is liable to a fine and one month imprisonment for every failed instance to publicly post the itemized monthly collections and disbursements of the barangay at prominent places in the neighborhood.

Not many citizens realize that they can legally remove any provincial, municipal, or barangay elective official, by means of the recall mechanism, if they lose confidence in their elected representatives.

Not beholden

The Barangay Assembly, therefore, convenes at the people’s pleasure, and represents the people’s interests. It is not, and should never be beholden to the Punong Barangay and Sangguniang Barangay. As the direct representative of the sovereign people and symbol of its collective will, its suggestions and recommendations to the punong barangay and the sangguniang barangay should be given the greatest heed.

The Barangay Assembly can, and should act as a shadow government, becoming an effective means of ensuring that the Punong Barangay and Sangguniang Barangay live up to higher public expectations, and that they consistently act solely in the public interest.

Isn’t that, after all, the primary reason why they are exercising public office? – Rappler.com 

Lou Gepuela is a Filipino citizen who believes that sustained public engagement with government and continued community empowerment is the missing link in fixing a significant portion of society’s ills. He spent five years learning and applying process improvement, people management, and customer care skills in the local BPO industry.

iSpeak is a parking space for ideasn and opinions worth sharing. Send your article contributions to move.ph@rappler.com 

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