An offshoot of direct participation in collective decision making is a process that will not require people’s representatives in government. Instead, the people themselves, convened in a rolling constituent assembly, will become the legislators themselves. From this assembly (People’s Congress), executives and members of the Judiciary will be chosen and appointed through a selection and affirmation process.
The People’s Congress as its long-term agenda shall take the place of the current Senate and House of Representatives — or in whatever form they may take as a result of a possible shift to federalism — should start rolling. The need to remodel the system of representation in government arises from years of experiencing dysfunctional politics, summed up by what I said in my last column: “A visceral extension of presidential clout, Congress — like an appendix whose usefulness medical science has yet to determine — is a costly prop, an embarrassment from which the democratic ideal would wish excised.”
A People’s Congress means the people themselves — defined here as Filipino citizens, wherever they may reside in parts of the universe, who are registered voters — will exercise all powers and functions performed by the current members of Congress. A key factor that facilitates the viability of this mechanism is communications technology, which obviously was not there when the Founding Fathers of the United States of America traveled from 13 British colonies to meet in what later became known as Washington D. C. There they plotted American independence and, starting in 1779, the two houses of the US Congress, copied by us to the last detail, became the venue for face-to-face meetings among the people’s representatives. With today’s technology, this set-up of representation becomes nothing but a remnant of a fading idea.
Here is a hint: Facebook and Youtube, to name just two popular web-based people-networking platforms where up to 500 million users at any given time can interact among themselves — these users can even host “live shows” of their own — can make it easy for ordinary citizens to visualize how a People’s Congress may look like.
It shall be operationalized by a fully encrypted web-based portal, powered by alternating servers, that can host up to 100 committee meetings simultaneously. To be able to join these meetings, a voter needs to sign up first, then log in afterwards, using his or her Commission on Elections (Comelec) credentials. The design of the website should be such that users will have easy access to committee “rooms” where they feel their interests will be best addressed; its functionalities should adequately provide for them to present their arguments for or against any pending legislative proposal; and that user feedback is ranked according to the number of “likers” or supporters.
The people’s initiative contemplated under the current constitution shall become the default process by which all legislative proposals will be submitted for review, debate and approval, without need for the required number of signatures.
A People’s Secretariat shall be established to perform the functions of the current secretariat of both houses of Congress. It shall manage, in collaboration with the Department of Information and Communications Technology, the operations of the People’s Congress website.
Existing rules on congressional protocols, such as conduct of committee meetings and plenary sessions shall, as far as practicable, be applied and maintained. Quorum — defined here a simple majority of all registered users — shall be necessary for the following cases: final approval of a bill, impeachment verdicts, and ratification of international treaties. A legislative proposal shall have one year within which to secure the required majority vote; otherwise it relapses into a fresh bill and shall undergo another process of review, debate and amendments.
No user can have multiple accounts. One user equals one vote.
The agenda for the People’s Congress in its inaugural session can be limited to the approval of the national budget. In succeeding sessions, budget deliberations shall have priority over other pending bills. Part of the transitory steps shall include automatic refiling of all pending bills under the existing congress.
Certain conditions need to be established before a People’s Congress can be expected to function properly. For the moment, let us assume that the free Wi-Fi bill will soon become a law (this public service provision can also be initiated individually by local government units [LGUs]. Status quo shall be maintained for the executive branches of government, including those in LGUs, as well as the entire civil service system. However, a People’s Congress for LGUs, patterned after the national model, shall be adopted eventually, in accordance with a phased timeframe.
Through direct action, a People’s Congress gives life to “government by the people, of the people, and for the people.” The next step: charter change for the establishment of a People’s Congress through people’s initiative.
The idea, recognizing that information and communications technology can simplify the system of representation in government, proposes that the people themselves, qualified as Comelec-registered voters, would be constituted as the legislature, performing all constitutionally mandated functions of the present Congress. These functions include enactment of laws, hearing cases of impeachment and legislative franchises, ratification of treaties and confirmation of presidential appointees. Except in the last four cases, approval of all People’s Congress actions will require a majority vote of at least 60 (otherwise decision making shall be by consensus); example, if the People’s Congress has 10 million member-users, 6 million will constitute the majority. A legislative proposal shall have one year within which to secure the required majority vote; otherwise it relapses into a fresh bill and shall undergo another process of review, debate and amendments.
The People’s Congress shall be administered by a People’s Secretariat (can be assumed, as a transitory measure, by the present Secretariat of the Senate and of the House of Representatives), which shall manage the traffic of bills (e.g., numbering them and posting them for deliberations, debates, amendments and final approval). Except for matters the nature of which it shall eventually determine, all sessions and/or hearings of the People’s Congress shall be conducted online.
The Secretariat shall likewise be responsible for drafting and styling committee reports, bills and resolutions before they are submitted to the plenary for approval, and shall certify to the finality of all acts of the People’s Congress when the required number of votes has been met. In collaboration with the Department of Information and Communications Technology, it shall operate a fully encrypted web-based digital platform, powered by rotating/alternating servers, that can host up to 100 committee meetings simultaneously. Back-ups shall be stored on site and in remote places, including areas outside of the country.
To be able to join these meetings, a voter needs to sign up first, then log in afterwards, using his or her Comelec credentials. Signing up with the People’s Congress as member-user will require biometrics and a verification process involving Comelec data, using application programming interface. For added security, data from the unified ID system of the Philippine Statistics Authority can be imported by the system. As previously mentioned, no user can have multiple accounts, for obvious reasons. One user equals one vote.
The design of the website should be such that users will have easy access to committee “rooms” where they feel their interests will be best addressed; its functionalities should adequately provide for them to present their arguments for or against any pending legislative proposal (e.g., using real-time web conferencing technologies); and that user feedback is ranked according to the number of “likers” or supporters. The committee rooms are open 24/7, so that members who reside in different time zones are given adequate air time. All users shall have access to online forms by which they can submit legislative proposals, or express their views and cast votes (can be as user-friendly as clicking Facebook likes) on existing proposals.
Whenever a legislative proposal has received votes from at least 10 percent of all member-users of the People’s Congress, the Secretariat may call hearings in aid of legislation, and for which purpose it may invite experts, witnesses, or resource persons.
All pending actions at the committee level that receive votes from at least 25 percent of all member-users shall be deemed elevated to the plenary (or the general membership of the People’s Congress) for final action. Except for bills/laws, all approvals by the plenary shall not require Presidential approval to be enforceable. In cases where presidential veto is allowed, the People’s Congress can override it by a vote from at least 60 percent of all its members. However, for bills/laws that impact on national security and taxation, the People’s Congress will require the vote of at least 80 percent from its members to override a presidential veto.
The People’s Congress shall have four special committees: committee on impeachment, committee on legislative franchises, committee on treaties and committee on appointments. It shall appoint, through its usual process of generating the minimum number of votes, a maximum of 24 permanent members and four alternate members for each of the four committees. Any member-user of the People’s Congress can nominate any fellow member-user for appointment to any of the four committees; provided that not one member-user can be appointed to more than one of the four special committees. These appointees shall have a rank equivalent to a Cabinet secretary.
All actions by these committees can be elevated to the plenary only if, one, a majority of their respective members have endorsed them and, two, the 10-percent rule on the minimum number of votes has been met.
All hearings involving cases of impeachment, legislative franchises, ratification of treaties and confirmation of appointments shall be done at the committee level. Final approval, as in all other legislative actions, shall be up to the plenary. But instead of the standard majority decision, plenary action on reports/proposals submitted by the four special committees shall require a vote of at least 60 percent of all members of the People’s Congress to be valid.
Permanent members of each of the four special committees shall elect from among themselves a chairman and a maximum of three deputies. The four chairmen shall elect from among themselves the permanent secretary of the People’s Congress. All elected and appointed officials of the secretariat can be replaced by a simple majority vote of all members of the People’s Congress.
Within 30 days after the People’s Congress has been adopted through a constitutional amendment, its secretariat shall adopt its own rules that provide, among other things, the standards for its operations, staffing, organizational structure, and terms of succession for plenary-appointed and elected officials. Needless to say, none of these rules should be inconsistent with pertinent laws on government auditing and on the civil service, as well as on existing constitutional provisions that establish the relations of Congress with the two other branches of government.
Constitutional provisions on treaties and on impeachment involving the President shall not be altered, except that the appropriate committees shall take the place of the representations currently assumed by Congress.
No shift in navigation of political crossroads can be more pro-active and future-looking than this. It benefits from history that teaches those who wish to get ahead in life to always be on the lookout for opportunities offered by advances in technology and new ways of doing things.
Consensus building methodology
Decision making by the People’s Congress shall go through the conventional majority rule standard. However, for decisions that are unable to get the support of at least 60 percent of all members of an assembly (national or local), a Delphi process shall be applied.
Developed by Project RAND (of Rand Corp.) in the 1950s, the Delphi Method is a management tool originally designed “to forecast the impact of technology on warfare. The method entails a group of experts who anonymously reply to questionnaires and subsequently receive feedback in the form of a statistical representation of the ‘group response,’ after which the process repeats itself. The goal is to reduce the range of responses and arrive at something closer to expert consensus.” The method’s framework “is based on the assumption that group judgments are more valid than individual judgments.”
“The Delphi Method allows participants to comment on the responses of others, the progress of the panel as a whole, and to revise their own opinions in real time.
“The person coordinating the Delphi method is usually known as a facilitator or leader, and facilitates the responses of their panel of experts, who are selected for a reason, usually that they hold knowledge on an opinion or view. The facilitator sends out questionnaires, surveys etc. and if the panel of experts accept, they follow instructions and present their views. Responses are collected and analyzed, then common and conflicting viewpoints are identified. If consensus is not reached, the process continues through thesis and antithesis, to gradually work towards synthesis, and building consensus.
“During the past decades, facilitators have used many different measures and thresholds to measure the degree of consensus or dissent.”
In 1975, Linstone and Turoff noted that “there are three distinctly different types of Delphi: classical or traditional, decision-making and policy. While most Delphi methodologists use some variation of the traditional type to answer their research questions, the policy Delphi technique can produce more robust data when appropriately implemented. In other words, a policy Delphi has the ability to produce a “‘rich, meaty, stimulating body of opinion…’ This is especially true when seeking the impact of past changes in policy.”
In all cases, the method applies the process of iteration as the means by which consensus building is facilitated. Example: the number of opinions / comments / answers to a policy question or issue is ranked 1 to n. Round 1 of iteration results in Opinion Numbers (ONs) 3, 10 and 11 being ranked as the three leading opinions or answers. In round 2, after more inputs from experts and non-experts have gained traction, ONs 11, 3 and 5 take the lead. In round 3, ONs 5, 3 and 11 maintain the lead. In Round 4, ON 5 remains on top. It can be said that ON 5 has established consensus, and the Delphi process can be concluded at that point.
As a public policy tool (the method became handy in breaking down issues related to the economy, health and education, among other key public sector domains), Martin Hilbert, et al., reported in Foresight tools for participative policy making in inter-governmental processes in developing countries: Lessons learned from the eLAC Policy Priorities Delphi (2009) that the “Delphi method has also been used as a tool to implement multi-stakeholder approaches for participative policy-making in developing
countries. The governments of Latin America and the Caribbean have successfully used the Delphi method as an open-ended public-private sector approach to identify the most urgent challenges for their regional ICT (information and communications technology)-for-development eLAC Action Plans. As a result, governments have widely acknowledged the value of collective intelligence from civil society, academic and private sector participants of the Delphi, especially in a field of rapid change, such as technology policies.”
The body of knowledge that has been established since the early years of the Delphi Method buttresses the theoretical framework for the technical operability of the People’s Congress that I have discussed in this space these past few weeks. The committees of the People’s Congress, backstopped by their respective secretariat, shall facilitate the Delphi process to build consensus. When a certain level of consensus has been achieved, the committees concerned shall toss the proposed legislative action to the plenary for approval. All it will take is a simple majority of all members of the People’s Congress to pass a bill into law.
Phased roll out
If anything good can come out of this pandemic, it should be this. Zoom meetings and any of their kind have shown us how feasible it is for all citizens to virtually participate in discussions of public policy making. Anyone who has Comelec credentials can sign up, log in, and participate in such envisioned meetings. This innovation in democracy should establish government processes that are inclusive, participative, empowering, responsive, effective and efficient.
We can start with pilot runs. We can pick from 1 to 10 barangays to start with. All residents in the pilot barangay can participate in enacting ordinances. Decisions shall be reached by the usual majority rule standard (“dividing the house”). However, in cases where less that 60 percent of assembly members have expressed support for a policy proposal, decision making shall be by consensus (using the Delphi Method). The People’s Congress at barangay level also elects barangay officials, who are subject to a vote of confidence that can be invoked at any given time by at least 10 percent of the voting population of that barangay. After three years, when workability of the system has been established, the template for direct people participation shall be adopted in all barangay nationwide. The same changes shall follow at the municipal, city, and provincial levels afterwards. The ultimate goal is for the People’s Congress to take the place of the present-day bicameral legislature at the national level. Aside from legislating, the People’s Congress shall appoint the president and all other noncareer executive officials, judges and the hawks that comprise the military establishment. The no-confidence vote mechanism similarly applies at the national level.
UNDP’s Tawid COVID 19 Challenge
Under both Social Accountability and Sustainable Livelihood criteria of the 2020 UNDP Tawid Covid19 Challenge, a barangay (preferably in an urban area where internet connectivity is relatively more reliable than in remote rural areas), shall be developed as a laboratory. It shall undergo a NCDDP-like CEAC process through which its residents shall be able to discuss their issues and propose solutions. Whatever activity or project that may came out from this process shall be funded by the Tawid Covid19 Challenge.
Beyond one nation’s political progress
With complete process documentation, the results from this pilot laboratory shall inform future policy actions, viz:
1) Fine-tuning of pending bills in Congress with respect to NCDDP and LGC amendments.
2) Phasing in the establishment of People’s Congress at the barangay level (in 3 to 5 years); at the provincial, city and municipal levels (in 6 to 8 years), and at the national level (in 9 to 11 years). Eventually, depending on the outcomes of these democratic innovations, the Philippine template
can be used to facilitate decision making processes at the United Nations.
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