People and the law and also published by The Manila Times on 22 March 2023.
When people own their issues, they also own the law that aims to address those issues. This ideal state arises when conditions for people participation have been developed. It promotes a political system that enables government to respond more effectively to the needs of its constituents. In such a case, people in government, especially the elected ones, function as true representatives. They serve people’s interests.
Without the necessary condition for people participation, governance is likely to fail.
I often use the elevated trains (LRT and MRT) and on each ride, I conduct a mental survey of how at least two sets of laws operate. One is a law that changed the name of a major thoroughfare from Buendia to Gil Puyat (in Pasay and Makati), and the other are laws granting discounts and priority lanes or seating for senior citizens, pregnant women, and persons with disabilities.
Drivers of the train, who announces from his/her cabin trip-related information such as the train’s location, would say “Gil Puyat Station” only about half of the time; else it’s “Buendia.”
The law favoring senior citizens offers contrasts that are hard to ignore. Here is a study of what happens when people own the law. What it prescribes gets done 99 percent of the time. Everyone, almost without prompting, and with no one imposing it, yields their seats or places in a queue to senior citizens (among whom I am one) and their kind. I say 99 percent because there can be exceptions.
Aside from name recall (which itself poses a sociology research question given that many of those drivers could have been born after the name of Buendia was supposed to have been purged from public consciousness), I think the relative toughness by which a name becomes an institution has something to do with people not owning the relevant issue. The national law (enacted in 1982 through Batas Pambansa Bilang 312) that replaced Buendia (a Katipunero) with Puyat (a Senator) may have addressed an issue strongly felt by politicians, but hardly by anyone else. After 40 years, there is little showing that people have taken the name-change issue as their own.
How do we know that people own their issues?
In an ideal, functioning republican system of government, people would have no need to go to the streets and mount protest actions to let the state know what their issues are. The structures for such an ideal set up exist; for example, the Local Government Code (LGC), which had been in effect since 1991, had tried to institutionalize inclusive and participatory governance processes. LGC prescribes barangay assemblies where everyone has a forum for an elaboration of their aspirations. It created barangay councils for sectoral development in which members of the House of Representatives sit, so that what people say at the lowest levels could be heard at the highest levels.
Why congress pass laws that people have no reason to embrace as their own is a sign of structural defect and of organizational dysfunctions. There is disconnect and lack of a collective purpose to serve public interests.
When people get to a point where they own neither their issues nor the process that public policy making goes through, their representatives in government do not serve them. These representatives serve strange interests.
The annual appropriation law of the national government quickly comes to mind as an example. Every year there is a uniform million or so provision for a multi-purpose something in hundreds of municipalities nationwide. This is one among many ways by which national politicians legally bribe local political dynasties for the latter’s support during electoral contests. Kind promotes kind.
The same investment proposal would show up in the following budget year, indicating that nothing consequential came out of the previous year’s expenditures. This deception is replicated in big-ticket items that seek to modernize everything—from agriculture, to transport, to internal and external defense capabilities. Despite the ballyhoo, nothing gets modernized in the end. Every year, funds are being allocated for these proposals; every year, nothing gets done except the dissipation of public funds.
The budget law is enacted in the name of the people, yet done in relative secrecy, with the entire budgeting process hardly benefiting from people participation. During congressional hearings, congress invites resource persons (mostly Department heads), with nothing much to contribute but to flatter their bosses and to legitimize the process. Congress hypes up the annual budget as pro-poor, but the money bag ends up being fodder for corruption that, as Pope Francis puts it, is being paid for by the poor.
And yet, even as thieves run the government freely, people do not mind. In fact, they elect them to office each time there is a vote. (There had been spasmodic exceptions when controversies as naked as the Napoles scandal had led to the prosecution and eventual imprisonment of a few. However, this were all for show. They soon got themselves out of jail, and the voters tapped them on the back with a fresh round of electoral mandates.)
It is therefore not enough that people own their issues. They must also understand what causes them. Everyone can relate to social problems about poverty, criminality, peace and order, etc. But not all may know that people themselves contribute to the unmitigated recurrence of their issues by voting to office the same people who exploit the system to their advantage.
Changing the status quo faces a dilemma. Who can initiate political reform? The people—who are beholden to patronage politics? Or their representatives in government—who benefit from the dysfunctional system and therefore would have interests in keeping it from breaking apart at all costs?
Even if voters get to change the roster of incumbent politicians every election year if the latter do not grow a conscience, the system as it works now will continue to thrive because it has grown to become the ogre that never dies. Change can be initiated only by those who have the will power, the courage, and the integrity to educate the people on what keeps them from understanding and owning their issues.
This can happen when political reform gets the people involved in identifying, defining, and debating their issues. When there is genuine people participation from the time public policy starts taking shape to the time it gets implemented on the ground, people become duty bearers as well. Arresting lawlessness, for example, is best left to the police. But a process where people co-own the problems of criminality is established when the police get the communities involved.
When people own the law, that law becomes self-executing. That law does not need complex monitoring structures by which the progress of its implementation would be measured; it does not require costly graft-ridden government bodies for control, regulation, and oversight.