COVID-19 Shows the Philippines’ Need for a More Open Government

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COVID-19 Shows the Philippines’ Need for a More Open Government

A new wave of COVID-19 infections has once again laid bare the shortcomings of the state’s response.

COVID-19 Shows the Philippines’ Need for a More Open Government

People going to the public market wear masks and maintain physical distance to reduce the spread of COVID-19, Muntinlupa City, Philippines, May 2020.

Credit: Flickr/ILO Asia-Pacific

The unprecedented rise in COVID-19 cases in the Philippines in recent weeks has led many to question once again the competency of the government in addressing the pandemic. Following the approval to bring Metro Manila, Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna, and Rizal back under the Enhanced Community Quarantine, netizens have vented their frustrations online, causing President Rodrigo Duterte to trend on Twitter with under the hashtags #DuterteResign and #DutertePalpak.

At this point, holding the government accountable for certain lapses is valid. But with the growing number of people that need immediate help, citizens are already finding ways to help themselves and their neighbors to survive this crisis.

The increase in COVID-19 infections has led to more people incurring huge debt from their hospital bills. In my circle, for instance, I have seen and shared posts from friends and friends of friends who are soliciting financial support from those with money to spare. So far, people are responding to the call.

Stricter movement of people also means that jobs are again limited. This endangers those who are dependent on daily wages and income. As a response to the growing need for support, the Maginhawa Community Pantry was set up in mid-April this year, and has since been replicated by a number of different communities.

This kind of citizen action and mobilization is not new, but is amplified during times of crisis. Similar groups were quickly set up to mobilize donations and resources for communities affected by the eruption of the Taal volcano in January 2020, Super Typhoon Rolly, which devastated the Bicol Region in November 2020, and Typhoon Ulysses, which hit Luzon the same month. And many similar stories have taken place since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, both those that went viral and those that went under the radar.

We are seeing that because the government is failing to effectively and efficiently provide, respond, and protect its citizens from this crisis, people are taking matters into their own hands. It is tempting to conclude that if the public can do it, and the government cannot, then why not go with it? The idea of self-governance is attractive to prove the point that government is ineffective and more could be done without it, but the populace is not quite ready to govern itself. There are many critical functions that only the government has the capacity for.

Therefore, the stories that we are seeing today of community pantries, and other initiatives that demonstrate the bayanihan spirit, are more about the need for an open government that encourages and enables the full participation of its citizens rather than pitting citizens against the government. An open government opens its doors to the world by co-innovating with its citizens, sharing resources, harnessing the potential and power of mass collaboration, and driving transparency.

The idea of collaboration between the government and its stakeholders is nothing new, but it fluctuates depending on the willingness of the government of the day to allow for greater participation from outside its boundaries. We have recently witnessed that the government is not too keen on collaborating, especially with certain groups of society. It has also made decisions that antagonized its stakeholders instead of luring them to positively contribute to nation-building. Sometimes, actions and responses from other parts of the government are also perceived as competition rather than complementary efforts.

The problems we are facing, regardless if they are the result of poor decision-making, bad governance, uncooperative citizens, or the general lack of empathy, are too complex for government to address on its own. We have seen how the lack of updated databases and interoperable systems slowed down the execution of the social amelioration program. The contract tracing efforts of the government also encountered serious infrastructure problems since the right system for data collection and proper encoding was not in place. These and other technological requirements in addressing this pandemic are not the core competency of government despite certain expectations from the public.

We often hear of the “whole-of-nation” approach to governance, which has been a buzzword since the previous administration, but how much of our bureaucracy has been redesigned to accommodate greater participation from non-government players in enhancing public value and solving our most pressing problems? Systemic changes are needed to ensure that the professed “whole-of-nation” approach is actually practiced.

An important step for the government is to acknowledge its inherent limitations. Even with its resources, the delivery of services and its ability to be the first mover of civic action and innovation are challenged by certain processes and structures – not to mention the political calculations involved in government decision-making. Especially in times of crisis, the government would benefit from acting as a convenor instead of trying to do everything on its own and centralizing the resources and delivery of services. We are living in an era in which the rise of social media, the progress in education, and the gains from various civil rights movements have led the public to be connected and develop the skill sets and passion to solve many of the problems affecting them.

Currently, however, people’s efforts are being sidelined if not discouraged. Thus, we cannot blame people for their growing frustration with how this pandemic is being managed, and their deepening desire to initiate action on their own terms because they know they can effectively work alongside the government.

The general public also has a role to play in promoting a more open government. We need to change our view of our relationship with the government. Our adherence to the concept of the social contract has somehow conditioned us to believe in a relationship where we can simply expect services from the government because we elected it and we pay taxes, and when these services are not delivered, we are entitled to complain and protest. Protests and holding government accountable are important tenets of a democratic society, but this mindset breeds lesser participation from the public and leads to collective complaining instead of collective action. Here, too, we must acknowledge that the government cannot provide for all our needs.

This mutual recognition is important to move past the unreasonable burdens we put on either the government or the public, which is a significant roadblock in pursuing discussions on collaboration. If we view government as a platform rather than the first mover, we now can ask the questions of how should resources be shared with other players outside the government? How can the government support community organizing? How can citizens design and introduce projects that address the needs of their immediate communities? How can government tap the information and data collected by its citizens and even the private sector to co-develop better programs?

We need to continue the conversation about how we should redefine the relationship between the citizen and the government in building a better normal. At this point, we are losing too many lives to focus on politics, and for the government to blame the public for its lack of cooperation is nothing but rhetoric. Only when we – both the government and the people – are willing to admit failure can we move to work towards systemic improvements.