• What the 2017 SONA can tell us about governance



    LAST week, many of us tuned in to President Duterte’s 2017 State of the Nation Address (SONA) and heard the administration’s position on various issues. As expected, President Duterte spoke feverishly about the war on drugs, and the declaration of martial law in Mindanao in connection with the Marawi rebellion. He called for greater support for the country’s military and police forces, and promised to approve capability upgrades for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). He urged the Supreme Court to lift its temporary ban on contraceptive implants, the Senate to pass his initial tax reforms, and Congress to bring back the death penalty for heinous crimes.

    President Duterte also spoke at length about environmental health, warning of a tax increase for mining companies that did not rehabilitate their areas of operation, and proposing the creation of a new department that could better enact a resiliency plan against natural disasters.

    We, the viewing and listening public, filtered what we could from his two-hour push for the new administration’s checklist—the longest address recorded since the 1986 People Power Revolution. Despite the profanities, hyperbole, and lack of data, it can be argued that the 2017 SONA achieved its purpose: one year on, we remain painfully aware of the state of our nation.

    This year’s word mention-based analysis by the artist-activist collective Dakila tags “good governance” as the President’s most tackled topic. A quick search of the full transcript shows that he mentions the word “governance” only once, using it to describe Manila as the country’s seat of social, political, and economic power—but there are many ways to talk about governance.

    “Early on, I felt that if change was to be meaningful, it had to start with those occupying the highest positions in government,” Duterte said in his opening statement, “because change that comes from below is more transitory than permanent.” This is a key insight into the Filipino mindset, formed by decades of dealing with various forms of corruption in almost every level of government. It is worth pointing out that the leadership changes and successes that make the headlines are just as important as the daily struggle to transform the public sector from the grassroots. After all, the top is full of elected and appointed officials who may come and go; their influence ends where their term ends, which is why it is important for them to implement what reforms they can during their stay. It is those below that stay on to build our institutions and carry out our leaders’ legacies of reform.

    Duterte’s spirited campaign for improved efficiency in public offices later on in the speech underscores the equal merit and contribution of “change that comes from below”. His directive to streamline public services from womb to tomb such that they become “people-friendly” is aimed at both policymakers and those at the frontlines, and at both the national and local levels of government.

    Besides calling for an end to red tape, Duterte’s speech also made several requests to other branches of the public sector, including congressional approval for the right-sizing of national government. This highlights another bedrock trait of governance: that it takes an institution to raise an institution, and a nation to raise a nation.

    As we wade back into the fray, we can draw on the lessons of the 2017 SONA and look to hope. Each of us has a contribution to make, from wherever we are in government and society.

    Marielle Antonio is a program officer at the Institute for Solidarity in Asia (ISA), a non-profit that advocates for governance reform and envisions a Dream Philippines where every government institution delivers and every citizen participates and prospers. Contact the author through mantonio@isacenter.org and learn more about the group’s work through isacenter.org.


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