Support for Local Governance: Some Lessons Learned

Mario M. Galang specializes in and advocates local autonomy and good governance. This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, August 7, 2006 edition, page S1/5.

External support for good local governance initiatives has come largely through programs or projects, mostly donor-funded, with varying stories to tell. The items below were drawn from a recent project experience of assisting more than 500 municipalities and cities develop their governance capacities for delivering health services. The story of the project is not exactly the most exciting and memorable, but the lessons are good enough to turn the experience into a fruitful one, especially for those whose passion includes advocating good governance.

Think as one, act at once

In the beginning was the word; and the word was what you all agreed to live by, live for, or at least, live with. It was your consensual idea, writ large, of how and why the project would work.

The learned would say with conviction: There is nothing as practical as a good theory. Call it by any name of common choice—paradigm, results framework, logic model, theory of change, etc., it matters less than all of you deciding to march in step along its line. Otherwise, imagine a carriage pulled by horses in disparate directions.

At some point in the process, theorizing must somehow take the back seat. The well- earned lesson says: Don’t make perfection the enemy of the good. A theory is not called hypothesis for nothing. Its ultimate test is its own application, not its own logic in abstraction. So, step into action, by all means—and do it pronto. Then, try to be good at learning all the way through.

Pick your site wisely

Whatever your chosen arena for action is, start on the right foot by choosing your site wisely. Some local dynamics are simply beyond change no matter how good you are at learning. A mayor at loggerheads with the sanggunian, for example, leaves you with very few options for spending project resources short of moving into another LGU (local government unit). The choice is costly; and projects run on tax money. It takes its toll on project image and credibility as well.

Meet the mayor

The mayor is the boss, both in the formal and informal sense. You live with this irony: Support for good governance rises or falls on the merit of the reciprocal support the mayor gives to it. Proof of support? Visibility. You will know it when you see it.

The power and authority are shared by all mayors in common. But no two mayors are alike; and mayoral qualities don’t lend themselves to neat classification. It pays to meet the mayor and know her person, her style, her politics, her mind—and how all these bear on your project agenda.

All mayors are politicians, with little exception, if any. Your project goal is good, but they need votes, too, as a matter of survival. If good health is good politics, for example, then a convincing connection between the two should make for a perfect buy-in.

Choose your champions

You cannot live without them—people or organizations that share your project objectives and agree to take the operational lead for them. They are your best chance for having the job done and sustaining the project beyond its life.

Your ideal champion is someone who appreciates the rational demand of governance and service delivery and the role politics and politicians play in the process. Pure reason is pure imagination.

Grasp the governance dynamics

Politics inheres in governance and helps define its unique and complex dynamics. Take this as a given and take it in the pragmatic sense, sans a cynical countenance. Denial is fatal.

Governance is governance by virtue of people’s participation. The extent to which it is allowed depends again on the mayor’s predisposition and experience. In some cases, it is not the idea of participation that the mayor is averse to, but the “participating” NGO itself. If community organizations stray into politics at the mayor’s expense, then all else is fair—from her own point of view. Tap your local NGOs, by all means; but keep in
mind the politics.
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Know the people of influence

Actors, players, stakeholders—they are the people of significant influence in terms of moving people, funds, programs and other local resources.

Your analysis intends to inform your intervention. So, who you should know in terms of relevance depends on the issue at hand and the extent of power, or degree of influence, that they enjoy about the issue. Knowing your players, therefore, should also mean figuring out their respective positions on the issue, and how the issue stands in their list of priorities.

No analysis is ever final. You keep tabs of what’s going on and refresh your information base as the need arises.
Know your LGU systems

The LGU is a labyrinth of systems and processes that enjoys basic similarity with all others, simply because these are centrally prescribed. Systemic change is not easy because some of these systems are prescribed by laws, if not by departmental orders.

LGU processes are poor and slow in the formal sense. But informal relations do play a role in pushing papers through the maze at greater speed.

A familiarity with LGU systems offers certain advantages to project work. It helps in planning, monitoring and evaluating activities; or, generally, in putting information in accurate perspective. It also enhances your credibility among your partners.

Build on what the LGU has in place already

It makes ample sense to work on the current local health plan, for instance, instead of drawing the LGU into a workshop process to come out with a new one, just to accommodate your project items. Build on, not build.

Give full play to LGU initiative

LGUs are not created equal. Their capacities vary across their universe. When you give them outputs to achieve, in equal measure, you are implicitly assuming the opposite.

The flaw appears when you hinge project performance on these outputs and use them as metrics. Whether you mean it or not, you have practically set upon yourself the formidable task of homogenizing LGU realities over a limited time. No one has ever done that yet.

Stick to outcomes and stop the supply of project prescriptions. Outcomes, by definition, are abstract generalizations representing the common element among otherwise disparate objects. LGUs would therefore find them easier to adopt as their own. A participatory workshop process, following a good design may do the job.

Then leave the rest (inputs, activities, outputs) to the locals, with project support standing by, on call. You get to gain at least the following:

  • • Build stronger ownership over the outputs;
  • • Establish LGU responsibility and accountability over delivering them;
  • • Produce localized, more realistic outputs;
  • • Enhance sustainability; and
  • • Spare the project from making promises that it may not keep.

Count all that counts

Project targets are naturally alluring because they are measurable. Galileo must have started it all when he said: “Measure what can be measured, and make measurable what cannot be measured.” There is really no issue when LGUs set the targets themselves for their own guidance. When these are set from without, the issue becomes getting LGUs to adopt them as their own. Process, as in participatory process, holds the key.

Certain processes, however, yield less or non-measurable outcomes within a given time, to the dislike of latter-day Galileos: Until you can measure them, they don’t count!

Still, the intrinsic value of ownership, sustainability, and empowerment remains. Armed with the longer view, try looking at a process of this sort as an outcome in itself, and get assurances, this time from Einstein, that: “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.”

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