IN their book Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson discuss the role of institutions in influencing national development. Based on years of research, Acemoglu and Robinson argue that the rise of prosperity in a country is usually fueled by the presence of inclusive economic and political institutions.
This entails a clean and democratic form of government, properly regulated markets that are open to innovation and competition, and other related components.
Acemoglu and Robinson’s thesis reflects long-held views on what it takes to make countries and cities great. In spite of the rise of populist ideas across the world, many institutions continue to show that the data still holds true today.
The city government of Balanga, Bataan is a case study of the power of inclusive institutions to effect lasting change in society. Led by the then mayor, Jose Enrique “Joet” S. Garcia III, the city government embarked on an ambitious transformation program during his nine-year in office.
Looking at the example of other LGUs, the city government chose to adopt the Performance Governance System (PGS) as its governance framework. With its goal of becoming the Silicon Valley of the Philippines, Balanga has pushed for strengthening its education base and providing the necessary government support to help encourage tech start-ups or businesses to set up in the city. Along the way, reforms both internal to city hall and within the locality have produced breakthrough results for the city.
The city government was able to grow its number of registered businesses from 1,818 in 2007 to 3,859 in 2015. Consequently, recorded sales of these businesses also grew from P1.3 billion to P6.88 billion within the same period. The city’s dependence on the Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA) dropped from 73.26 percent to 57.86 percent from 2007 to 2015.
More than the economic gains that the city has achieved, however, the LGU considers the transformation of its people to be one of the bigger rewards the system has produced.
One of the biggest hurdles that Balanga faced was encouraging city hall employees to participate in the governance process. Getting the buy-in of the employees was difficult, but eventually reaped significant benefits for the LGU.
Things changed when the city government decided to adopt the PGS. While only the department heads and the city mayor were initially involved in the program, the PGS was eventually cascaded to the rank-and-file employees, who were invited to be part of a Vision Aligned Circle (VAC). One of the hallmarks of PGS, VACs are project teams in city hall composed of 5 to 10 regular employees tasked to implement projects in support of the LGU’s strategy. For example, there is a VAC that supports Balanga’s Huwag Maging Smoker, Alcoholic, or Drug Addict (SAD) initiative which aims to promote a healthy lifestyle among its citizens. Huwag Maging SAD is the latest component of Balanga’s anti-smoking and anti-alcoholism campaign.
Today, the city has virtually eliminated smoking in public places, and outlawed beer houses within the locality.
Another VAC led the installation of free public Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the city. Balanga is one of the pioneers of this initiative among cities, a project that was rolled out even before recent efforts of the national government for local connectivity.
Involvement, of course, was not limited to just the city hall employees. A multi-sector governance coalition (MSGC) was established to provide an avenue for the private sector to collaborate with the LGU in achieving its vision. One of its flagship projects was to set up Barangay Learning Hubs (BLH) in the city. These were meant to support the city’s goal of becoming a hub for tech start-ups by equipping students with a stronger knowledge base and a better appreciation of how their learning could be used to enter into tech-related fields in the future. A BLH contains computers installed with the learning application Khan Academy and free Wi-Fi connection to help students access a wide range of lessons that expand on what they would normally already learn in school.
Given the success of the BLH initiative, the LGU has already adopted the project with plans to apply it to all barangays within the city.
According to Acemoglu and Robinson, such forms of participation and inclusivity are characteristic of strong institutions. Balanga is a testament to the enduring value of democratic ideals and institutions in our country—an example that other LGUs can follow.
The bigger challenge for the city now is to be able to sustain the reforms that have been instituted. But what it can certainly be sure of is the commitment of its people to continue pushing for change.
Jan-Ace Mendoza 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 email@example.com learn more about the group’s work through isacenter.org.