(Header: Examples of “the house of good governance” created during training. All photos by Ying Gao).

“It’s not easy being a local government official!”

This was the message I heard over and over again in January, as I crisscrossed northern Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines. A team of local civil society organizations was rolling out a training program for barangays (villages or wards) in this region, and MIT GOV/LAB was partnering to evaluate the impact. My task was to monitor project implementation by training the facilitators and giving feedback at the practice run and first trials.

When not observing the training sessions, I also spent a lot of time with staff members from our partner NGOs, local citizens, barangay officials, other government officials, and just about anyone who would talk to me. In keeping with the honored Filipino tradition, we shared a never-ending chain of long conversations, interrupted by hearty meals of chicken adobo, fried milkfish or fast food, sweets and savory snacks, and many cups of coffee. It was during these roadside talks that I unexpectedly learned most about the challenges and need to build a more equal footing between citizens and officials.

What’s so difficult about being a local government official?

“Talking from my point of view as a barangay official,” a veteran barangay official declared in one of our chats, “if there is one thing that barangay government needs, [it] is…closer engagement by the people.” But if citizen engagement is so essential, what is obstructing a more interactive citizen-government relationship? According to her it is officials themselves. She explained, “We are not having that [closer engagement with the people] because of the wrong understanding by those in the government.” In other words, officials themselves were the bottleneck.

Part of the problem touches on information. The official explains the issue as such: elected officials do not always possess the correct, up-to-date and actionable knowledge about local government code and rules. It turns out that local leaders have not mastered every detail of their job description according to the law. And misunderstanding breeds misperception. The official stressed again, “because of the misplaced assumption that people [either] don’t have the right to participate, or, shall we say, [are] very adamant to participate,” officials and citizens could end up in unhealthy exchanges. As a result, from some officials’ point of view, demands for participation by citizens looked like meddling or pressuring, when, in fact, such active citizens were going to help the government serve the people better.

Capacity is another pillar in the challenge. In the Philippines, barangays are the most devolved level of government, meaning that they are the government that is closest to people. Barangays as administrative units are the size of village. The population of a typical barangay is 2,000 in rural areas and 5,000 in cities. So, the barangay’s small size is a limitation when it comes to officials trying to fulfill specialized legal and administrative tasks. A former city government bureaucrat lamented on this aspect. He described that the city’s finance department often virtually prepared the budget for barangays under its jurisdiction, going beyond advising, just to avoid budget cycle delays. He added that, even though the city had implemented a multi-stakeholder consultative committee of citizens, the practice was yet to reach barangays. A lack of know-how transfer from the city officials to barangay officials was to blame, in his opinion.

Social ties and perceptions play a role. But describing the hurdles faced by officials would only illustrate half the issues. I noticed something else in the training sessions. Some barangays had women leaders and included more women officers. Other barangays had officials who were mostly men. In all barangay meetings, the citizen participants were women and the elderly, not surprising since our partner NGOs focused on the poor. This is where it gets interesting – in barangays with women leaders, local officials would sit together and mix easily with citizens, more than in barangays with mostly men officials. What a simple observation like this tells us is that citizen-official relationships in the local community can vary quite a bit depending on social ties and perceptions that already exist in the village affecting both groups of people. For example, citizens with lower education levels feel intimidated to speak up to officials. How people view each other and themselves, however, can help overcome the gaps in power, as gender seemed to play such a role in some barangays.

Designing collaborative trainings

The uneven playing field between citizens and officials is often called a “power asymmetry,” meaning the relative power of the two stakeholders are not equal. As described above, aspects like information, capacity, perceptions, and social relations can all shape local power dynamics and asymmetries. In the Philippines barangay training, we invite citizens and officials to participate together, and collaborate on learning about barangay budgeting. We do so precisely to address this problem of unequal footing.

Examples of “the house of good governance” created during the trainings. Teams of local government officials and citizens work together to create a “house of good governance” using colored paper in the province of La Union, the Philippines.

Our local NGO partners were the true creative minds behind our training module’s innovative design. Early in the training, for instance, we ask citizens and officials to do a team-building activity called “the house of good governance.” The exercise basically goes like this: First, the facilitator assigns mixed groups of officials and citizens. These teams receive a lecture about constructive engagement and social accountability. Next, the teams are given paper cutouts of concepts and actors (“transparency” “information” “communication” “accountability” “citizens” “officials” “good governance” etc.). Using the cutouts and colored paper, each team creates a vibrant representation of how good governance should work in the shape of a house. Teams are urged to discuss and agree on an original name for their “house.”

Citizen representatives present the results of group work in front of both citizens and officials.

Finally, each team selects a representative to explain their joint creation in front of everybody. They are asked to share and explain: Why is transparency represented as the door? What does it mean to have good governance as the house’s roof? In some communities, we repeat the training in exactly the same way except with teams made up only of citizens. Having designed a local governance training material that is intuitive not just to officials but also to citizens, the aim is to find out if the collaborative module that trains citizens and officials “in the same room” would have unique benefits. Next step is to untangle and test the effects, which is our research team’s exciting work at the moment.

A barangay official captures the “house” conceptualization of good governance in her phone.

Implications for citizen-government accountability and engagement

What does this all mean for the broader picture of government accountability and citizen-government engagement? Empowering citizens in local governance: this is the ultimate goal of our project in the Philippines. It is the objective of numerous development projects aimed at capacity building. But the comments from citizens and officials alike in the Philippines remind us that governance is a complex multi-party game.

The World Bank’s recently published World Development Report 2017: Governance and the Law emphasizes this complexity, defining governance as “…the process through which state and nonstate actors interact to design and implement policies within a given set of formal and informal rules that shape and are shaped by power” (World Bank, 2017, p. 3).

Power asymmetries between government and non-government stakeholders loom large in this conception. Poor citizens have a steep learning curve to be proficient, organized, and confident participants in local governance. But elected officials also have much to learn. Perhaps the metaphor of the barangay as a house of good governance is hinting at something key: everyone can take part in holding up the roof, but only with more equal footing.

Ying Gao is a second year graduate student in the doctoral program at MIT Department of Political Science with interests in urban and local political behavior of development. This was Ying’s first experience supporting an MIT GOV/LAB research project.

We would like to express our gratitude to Recite, Inc. (RECITE), Concerned Citizens of Abra for Good Government, Inc. (CCAGG), and many Local civil society organizations, who were essential in guiding and leading the implementation of the research project, and Making all Voices Count (MAVC) and MIT GOV/LAB, who supported the project.