Despite what some well-funded technophiles would like us to believe, most people seem to understand that “social networks” are not really effective platforms for public action. The people of Masbate, however, apparently didn’t get that memo. Over the past several weeks, I’ve gotten to know a group on Facebook which calls itself “Masbate Talks,” a group outwardly not much different than any of the millions of other casual discussion forums on Facebook.
But the similarities end at the use of the Facebook platform. While the Masbateños, being generally normal people, do spend a fair amount of time sharing gossip and amusing stories (most of which I don’t understand, my grasp of Visayan dialects being very weak), they spend much more of their time in remarkably focused discussions of issues in their province, and produce a surprising number of organized recommendations in the form of a “monthly progress tracking report” summarizing the activities of their provincial government.
The first of monthly wrap-ups is circulating now among concerned parties, and it is worth a closer look not only for the interesting ideas it contains, but as a model for public interaction with government. The report describes the financial status of the province (as of the end of June, Masbate had a little over P607 million in the bank, according to the provincial accounting office), then goes on to summarize the main activities of the governor, vice governor and members of the provincial board (Sanguniang Panalalawigan) during the month. In a subtle reminder to the people of Masbate—and no doubt to the elected officials as well—that a certain amount of public service output is expected, the monthly salary of each of the officials is also noted. The report finishes up with a review of pertinent topics discussed in the Facebook group during the month, as well as suggestions and requests to be passed along to the relevant provincial officials.
In terms of organization, the group has a relatively simple structure: It is managed by one or two moderators, whose main responsibilities are to identify and invite “subject matter experts” to the group to serve as sort of a knowledge base, and to manage the conversational traffic at least to a minimal extent by keeping out spam and irrelevant advertising posts. Beyond that, the discussion seems to progress democratically; topics and questions that are of interest to a large number of people spark conversations that can go on for days, while less interesting topics are largely ignored. The bit of minor genius which differentiates the group from a simple social media-based discussion forum is the follow-up; summarizing the topics of interest and ideas generated from those side-by-side with an overview of the provincial government’s performance during the same time period is an excellent way to gauge the government’s sense of priorities and responsiveness to the issues the public considers important.
So how is the Masbate government doing with regard to the concerns of Masbateños? Judging from the “monthly report,” not very well; the only accomplishments cited for the month were the passing of a resolution supporting a proposal by the Mining Industry Coordinating Council to increase the government’s share of mining companies’ gross revenues by 10 percent, another resolution commending the 9th Infantry Battalion for safeguarding the recent elections in the province, and the filing of a couple resolutions calling on the provincial government and the governor’s office to set up official websites. The group report, however, also notes that July was the first full month of business for the provincial government following the inauguration of election winners, so a considerable amount of time was spent on the necessary tasks of establishing internal rules, provincial committee memberships and other housekeeping duties.
Gov. Rizalina “Dayan” Seachon-Lanete of Masbate—whom some might remember as figuring in the “anti-epal” fad of a year or so ago, due to her once having had labels bearing her picture printed to dress up cans of relief-good sardines—would probably do well to pay some attention to the concerns and suggestions coming from the “Masbate Talks” group. This is partly because a significant number of participants (the group now numbers well over 10,000) are disturbed by her having been prominently named in the ongoing “pork barrel” scandal, but more importantly, because the group has generated a number of substantial recommendations, including:
• Creation of a local mining council or task force to assess safety and environmental issues in the mining area of Aroroy;
• Creation of a Youth Development Council, which can serve as an umbrella organization for the considerable number of youth organizations throughout the province;
• Development of a program to promote investment in Masbate, including the development of an Enterprise Zone similar to the Mactan Export Processing Zone in Cebu;
• A feasibility study for the production of chicacorn and kamote crunch snack foods to boost the local economy; corn and kamote (sweet potato) are abundant crops in Masbate; and
• Distribution of dictionaries in the Masbateño dialect to early elementary teachers (Kindergarten to Grade 3) to improve teaching of the local language.
Groups like “Masbate Talks” can be set up anywhere, thanks to ubiquitous user-friendly platforms like Facebook, and provide a framework that can actually play a vital role in connecting the public, the local government, and investors and service providers. Masbate may be one of the country’s poorest provinces, but that poverty obviously doesn’t extend to ideas; the “group that talks” is one that the rest of the Philippines, a country already renowned for its ability to imitate things, ought to copy immediately.