Ground determines success

Three key competencies paramount to public managers in times of crisis are “managing stakeholders, political masters and collaborative networks.” In short, local bureaucracies need to move and will have to be anticipatory in orientation; similar to crisis management.
Note: This column originally appeared in The Manila Times on October 27, 2020.

There are a great many things to be learned from the local government units’ (LGUs’) handling of Covid-19. Some of the leading LGUs are Baguio, Dagupan, Marikina, Manila, Navotas, Valenzuela, Calapan, Legaspi, Iloilo City, Cagayan de Oro, the provinces of Cavite, Bohol, Cebu and many more. Some are positive and the rest are challenges that can be converted into opportunities for the ground to be better in terms of public sector management.

One consistent reform that needs to be looked into is the role of barangay (villages) in the pandemic and the need to reboot the mindset of villagers, to train them to be area specialists and ensure that barangay captains are managers instead of mere politicians because an important part of health protocols are barangay health workers, who need supervision and nurturing to augment and complement hospitals in the area.

The national-local collaboration should be clear about a decentralized norm that started way before the pandemic. The 1991 devolution should have been felt in the fight against the pandemic, but this was not the case. The devolution of health to the LGUs has shown consistent problems since 1993 and was very obvious in the days leading up to the pandemic and under Phase 1 of managing the pandemic. Any pandemic would have been readily dealt with had there been a consistent build-up of the capacities of at least the provinces and the cities. The provinces could have taken care of the various municipalities in their jurisdiction while the cities could have been left to handle the central and urban areas.

Part of the challenge of local governance these days is the supply chain. Under Phase 1 of the pandemic, the country was down on its knees because the National Capital Region (NCR) got sick. And when NCR goes under, the whole nation cannot see beyond NCR, and everything was done to save NCR. This does not augur well for advocates of devolution and decentralization. The flip of the coin is such that it gives impetus to federalism by creating centers that can very well stand up on their own and sustain local systems.

The national government sets the policies and standards. The local ones should implement and roll these out with budgets that can be through national-local counterparts or a direct allocation to the local by the national. The regional offices of the national should be the catalyst to put the synergy in intergovernmental relationships and building capacities of local governments. Administrative capacity is the key and plays an important role in dealing with the pandemic. “Administrative capacity is a major factor in determining whether societies will emerge from this unprecedented situation with resilience and optimism or despair and disconnectedness and whether trust in government will increase or decrease. Autonomous and competent public managers are key producers of such administrative capacity.”

Three key competencies paramount to public managers in times of crisis are “managing stakeholders, political masters and collaborative networks.” In short, local bureaucracies need to move and will have to be anticipatory in orientation; similar to crisis management.

Lack of administrative capacity at the local levels makes things harder in implementing national standards and protocols. But with enhanced administrative capacity and a proactive nature of facing the pandemic, LGUs become ready, and they are trusted more because constituents are assured that their LGU is risk-ready and prepared for any eventualities.

Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity or VUCA, after all, is not new. We were all preparing for it, especially at the national level. But it is foreign to LGUs. The VUCA concept stipulates that managers have to deal with a range of “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns;” not only in terms of projected outcomes, but also in terms of the required skills, strategies and parameters. Issues surrounded by volatility and uncertainty are more “known” but challenging in their own right. They require a certain degree of flexibility and adaptiveness as well as foresight and strategic planning capabilities. Situations characterized by complexity and ambiguity are least “known,” requiring experimentation and piloting as well as the engagement of unconventional expertise. Local chief executives, who are risk takers, could battle the storms, but local leaders, who are risk averse, could freeze and wait for the national to step in, believing that they do not have the wherewithal to take on the onslaught of an unknown enemy. When leaders freeze, the whole community suffers. When leaders deny the reality of Covid-19, the spikes become real.

Another lesson learned is to build trust. LGUs should be able to communicate well. With physical distancing and near isolation, communication is vital. “Communication is key” because even while Filipinos are physically isolated, they shouldn’t be socially or emotionally isolated. Human beings thrive on connection, and with so much instability and chaos requiring major adaptability, communication is more important than ever. Internal communication is needed to get the employees of the LGUs to move and sacrifice more to maintain government at that level. External communication is critical because that is the only means residents hold on to a sense of governmental presence in a pandemic.

Local governments have to learn to: “1) Invest in communicative capacity and social media skills to complement more traditional administrative crafts through recruitment as well as development of existing cohorts; 2) make an effort to engage stakeholders (supportive and adversarial), as winning them over will produce significant long-term gains in terms of legitimacy and support; 3) maintain a nodal position in competing streams of advice targeting political masters, as providing credible and usable information in a timely manner allows for a more critical stance when needed; and 4) strive to balance control and flexibility in collaborating with other actors and sectors while realizing not all risks can be mitigated in seeking added value from (ad hoc) partners.”

As a mayor said, “Listen to the people. Learn from them, and the ground teaches one of compassion.” A local leader will have to act and confront Covid-19. Doing something and not freezing is the most important act a local leader is expected to do. Reboot, recalibrate and redefine are the things expected after eight months of the pandemic. Covid-19 is a disruptor, and how LGUs match against it are worthy of innovations in governance.

About the Author
Malou Tiqiua is the Founder/General Manager of PUBLiCUS Asia Inc. A noted political management expert in the Philippines and Asia, she brings over 20 years of professional experience in public, private and the academe combined. Author of the comprehensive book on electoral campaigns in the Philippines, "Campaign Politics", Malou is a graduate of the University of the Philippines with a Political Science degree and a Master of Public Administration. She completed her second master's degree (MA in Political Management) from the Graduate School of Political Management, George Washington University.
Other Articles