TRANSPARENCY is at its most effective when it is institutionalized, and not dependent on the whims, or even the good nature of whoever is presently in charge.
This appears to be among the significant discoveries among community journalists who took part in a field exercise in Marikina City as part of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism’s advanced investigative reporting workshop this week.
Eighteen senior community journalists and editors descended on Marikina City Hall to see for themselves how one local government unit implements its own transparency initiatives. Marikina is one of several local government units that was recently awarded the Seal of Good Housekeeping by the Department of Interior and Local Government.
The community journalists are editors and journalists who were selected from the Visayas media to take part in the PCIJ’s investigative reporting seminar titled Governance by Numbers: Investigative Reporting and Numeracy. The first leg of the seminars kicked off over the weekend with the 18 community journalists from the Visayas region. The seminar is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
The first thing that struck the seminar participants was the use of glass walls throughout city hall to make the activities of all employees and officials transparent. From the central hall of city hall, a visitor would have a 360 degree view of virtually all the officials and employees at their desks. From one office, a visitor can peer into the goings-on in the adjoining offices.
“This is the first city hall I have seen na talagang transparent, literally,” said one community journalist. (This is the first city hall I have seen that is literally transparent.)
“It is see-through to the point that you will know if an employee is sleeping or working,” said another.
Another seemingly small detail: city hall employees wore uniforms that clearly displayed their names and the offices that they work for. Aside from making employees and officials more accountable to their constituents, the practice also resulted in a leveling of sorts, with no distinctions between ordinary employees and high-ranking officials, said one journalist.
During the field exercise, one community journalist said he was talking to one city hall employee who appeared to be unusually knowledgeable of the local government’s policies. Later it turned out that the employee was actually a ranking official of city hall.
Interestingly, the visit coincided with recent developments on the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill, which media organizations and civil society groups have been pushing Congress to enact in order to establish an institutional framework for transparency. Earlier this week, the Senate passed on third and final reading its version of the FOI bill, while a subcommittee of the House committee on public information and mass media continues working on its own version of the bill. For his part, President Benigno S. Aquino III refused to certify the FOI measure as urgent, saying it was up to the public to push Congress to enact the bill.
Media groups have been pressing for an FOI law for a decade and a half now, saying this was needed to force government officials to allow easier access to information that is in the public’s interest to know. The Aquino government however has waffled on the issue of the FOI, instead introducing its own transparency initiatives that, while laudable, would still not have a sense of permanence that a law would provide.
One journalist also noted how the even implementation or enforcement of laws and ordinances encourages citizens to take the laws more seriously.
“Kahit ang mayor nila hinuhili nila pag wrong parking,” one journalist said. “Pati senators, sinisita nila pag hindi tama ang parada.” (They apprehend even their own mayor when he parks his vehicle the wrong way. Even senators are apprehended.)
“Kung consistent ang implementation ng batas, there is no problem for the community to follow,” said another. (If the law is implemented consistently, there is no problem for the community to follow.)
The visiting journalists also took note of initiatives by the city government in disaster preparedness, and how these initiatives were being cascaded down to the barangay level. Local officials showed the journalists various disaster management plans tailor-fitted for various contingencies, from flooding to earthquakes and landslides.
Marikina bore the brunt of the effects of typhoon Ondoy in 2009, with more than 60 percent of Marikina being submerged by floodwaters. Since then, the local government has partnered with various national and local governments, civil society and professional groups, in order to draft measures to respond to natural disasters.