29 June 2006

Doing more with less

IT WAS heartening to see Naga's underrated Geographic Information System (GIS) take centerstage, courtesy of a new blog called Metro Manila Philippines Makeover. Dedicated to exploiting Google Earth resources to "dream up a better Philippines...and all things possible in the virtual," the site is jointly being built up by Washington, D.C.-based Urbano dela Cruz and Bangkok-based Roby Alampay.

Three of the newer posts here, here and here are all about Naga's GIS efforts, "by far the most advanced application of Google Earth by a Philippine LGU that we've seen so far," says Roby. And we're not even in high-res maps yet (unlike the lucky ones described here), as the Google Earth satellite seems to have gone off target by a few kilometers when it shot its high-res images in Camarines Sur.

This singular development has sparked renewed interest in GIS among local techies, evidenced by the discussion thread on Google Earth's expanded Philippine coverage in the Naga community forum which has dominated the Community Forum sidebar in the city website for two days now. It is bringing together Senen Ebio, Naga's former EDP head who's now Makati-based; Nick Motos, our original GIS guy who, like me, left for a private sector stint but has since come back to handle the i-Serve project; and the EDP people represented by Dune Padre and Jessie Natividad.

Aside from the bragging rights, it will also serve my personal and professional ends. Early this month, I was assigned to spend time with the City Planning and Development Office to help update the city's development and land use plans. CPDO is actually my home agency when I joined the city in 1992. It is therefore a 14-year journey that has come full circle.:)


27 June 2006

Rediscovering Atlantic Bakery and the joys of motorbiking

EVER since my eldest (a high school sophomore) reported back to class at Camarines Sur National High School early this month, my morning routine also underwent a quiet makeover. The school's flag rites officially start at 5:50 am, although most of the times it stretches to 6. It meant dispensing with the usual home-made breakfast, and taking it instead at the centro, which is 10 kilometers away.

With my wife on leave, and fuel costs skyrocketing, taking the car is no longer practical. That's why I invested on a new motorbike, my 10-day old apple green-colored 97.1-cc Honda Wave 100R, whose specs can be seen here. It is actually my second underbone, succeeding the 125-cc Kawasaki Aura Classic acquired in 2000 and disposed of two years ago. Its odometer says we have covered 247 kms as of this morning—still within its break-in period where speed must be limited under 40 kph. So far I'm averaging around 50 kms to a liter, compared to the 10 km/liter fuel efficiency of my 10-year old Lancer.

What makes my morning nowadays after the daily 20-minute drive is having breakfast at Atlantic Bakery. Parking a bike there is never a problem, the cramped space notwithstanding. An institution in Naga that has recently expanded to other urban centers in Bicol, Atlantic is famous for its hot pandesal: a little crispy outside, succulent inside, but tasty and filling all throughout. Highly affordable too: a breakfast fare of four pandesals, a bowl of champorado and a cup of hot black coffee can be had for only P27. But it is enough to get me going for a long day ahead. Because by around 6:30 am, I would already be at the office, making me one of the earliest birds at City Hall.


26 June 2006

A memo on teacher hiring in Naga City

NOTE: I wrote this memo for the June 28, 2006 regular meeting of the Naga City School Board, where the agenda item on teacher hiring is one of the unfinished business.

LAST Friday, I sat to observe, as School Board representative, the 2nd round of interview of secondary school teacher-applicants we negotiated* with the Division of City Schools.

At the outset, there was hesitation on the part of the Division office, as well as the high school selection committee, to grant our request transmitted through a memorandum dated June 16, 2006 in response to the Registry of Qualified Applicants released two days earlier. The primary reason advanced was that the initial round had been completed and it would be unfair to applicants who took part. The memo however was triggered by the observation that 25% of those who applied (34 of 132) were not interviewed and subsequently administered the English proficiency test. These two criteria account for 50% of the total rating an applicant can get.

In the end, we were able to convince the Division that it is in the best interest of our public schools to give the 34 another chance. The School Board went to the extent of contacting them individually by phone and through text. It arranged with the Institutional Testing Center of the Ateneo de Naga University the conduct of an English proficiency test because the Division is worried its testing instrument might have been compromised already.

Aside from text messages sent, we reached 16 of the 34 applicants by phone. Thirteen of them showed up for the interview, and 6 took the English proficiency test at the Ateneo. The process added 8 teachers with complete ratings to the pool of applicants. It also gave us greater confidence that the teachers that will eventually be placed are the best available.

Several points need to be underscored here, especially in the context of the policy reversal in teacher hiring that the School Board is taking issue with the Department of Education:

1. The School Board's participation can enhance the teacher recruitment process. As early as March 2006, it has used the city website, radio programs and other related information channels at its disposal to circulate the information that the School Board is hiring 77 locally-funded teachers to augment the DepEd teaching staff. As a result, more than 200 teachers applied at the elementary level, and 132 at the secondary level.

2. The School Board's participation can enhance the teacher evaluation and selection process. Guided by its commitment to equalize opportunities (particularly on behalf of applicants who were not informed about the schedule and thus were not able to participate in the first round), it exerted efforts to reach them by all means available, instead of just relying on radio announcements and bulletin board postings. The Board therefore is in a good position to complement the DepEd's traditional information channel to ensure a deeper pool of applicants.

3. Moreover, even as a non-rating observer, I seized the opportunity to ask IT-related questions, coursed through the panel of interviewers. This was impelled by the fact that computer application skills account for 10% of the raw score on the interview. By ensuring a greater diversity in perspectives and tone down inherent tendencies to think alike (the panel consisted of high school principals and subject area department heads), the participation of the SP Education Committee chair as provided for under the previous policy can be expected to improve the quality of the interview.

The teacher hiring process and outcomes can get better. But it can be greatly facilitated by the Education Department's willingness to reconsider its current policy; and restore, welcome and encourage the participation of local stakeholders in its key processes, given the Naga City School Board's leadership and proven track record of productive partnership with the local schools division.


*It was negotiated as the current policy on teacher recruitment, evaluation and selection has reverted to an all-DepEd affair, excluding local stakeholders represented by the School Board. If the local schools division did not acceed to such request, it is well within its prerogatives under this policy. The Naga City School Board is advocating stronger local participation consistent with reforms initiated by former Education Secretary Florencio Abad.


25 June 2006

My blog, reloaded

I JUST finished reformatting my blog. It is now based on Jason Sutter's Jellyfish template; previously, it was Douglas Bowman's Minima Black. Both are options available from Blogger. I like this one better by a mile.

In the makeover process, I had to learn working with HTML tags. Now, I have practically zero experience with HTML (as I had with computing, being a largely self-taught but intrepid navigator of the PC realm), save for a uninteresting
half-day session I attended somewhere. But the website called W3Schools helped me overcome and come up, through trial-and-error, with a new look that is more pleasant and positive. Blogger's Preview button was a tremendously indispensable ally, able to right whatever went wrong.

The more understated but functional sidebar, especially, now looks closer to what I envisioned it to be when I started blogging almost a year ago, only to be stymied by the formidable HTML code underpinning the template. If formatting were only toolbar driven like Microsoft Word, I would have quickly found a way. Or even keyboard driven, like the good old Wordstar before the advent of Windows 3.1.

Because of their innate curiousity, I'm sure any adventurous gradeschooler in Naga—given the proper guidance and encouragement by competent teachers, more hands-on time in their CLICK computer labs by their school heads, and a more responsive curriculum that would match what the School Board has already invested in IT education—will be able to do more than a 38-year old guy with graying hair.

I hope to see that in my lifetime: confident Nagueño gradeschoolers who blog to their hearts' content, at par with any other anywhere in the world.


24 June 2006

SC upholds unique marital arrangement

YESTERDAY, the Inquirer carried a story about a landmark Supreme Court decision upholding a unique marital arrangement among Jehovah's Witnesses. As a member of that religious organization, I immediately searched the Supreme Court website for a copy. Unfortunately, it is not yet available, the latest ones having been issued only on June 20, 2006.

However, a copy of an earlier SC decision on the same case can be found at the Chan Robles Virtual Law Library. It lays down the facts of the case, and the bases for this new doctrine. The equally compelling dissenting opinions can also be accessed from the site.

Supreme Court spokesman Ismael Khan, Jr. provides an excellent summary in a September 5, 2003 article that appeared in the Inquirer, the relevant portions of which I took the liberty of quoting below:

The establishment and free exercise clauses are stated quite clearly in Article III, Section 5 of the 1987 Constitution, which provides that no law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The principal purpose of these clauses, which are complementary, is to promote and protect religious liberty. They are imbued with a secular purpose that does not promote or inhibit religion. They are aimed at preventing the government from imposing orthodoxy, or prescribing arbitrary parameters in ensuring freedom of worship.

For example, the fact that we are a predominantly Catholic nation does not justify applying the moral standards of the Catholic faith in judging the moral norms of other established religions.

This principle figured prominently in the resolution of the second case, Estrada vs Escritor (A.M. No. P-02-1651, Aug. 4, 2003). Soledad Escritor, a court interpreter in the Las Piñas regional trial court, was accused of cohabiting with a certain Luciano Quilapio, while they were still married to other persons. Their relationship of 23 years had borne a son. The complainant, Alejandro Estrada, alleged that this constituted disgraceful and immoral conduct under existing laws and civil service rules. In her defense, Escritor claimed that as members of the Jehovah's Witnesses, their living together had the approval of their sect as proven by a Declaration of Pledging Faithfulness which they executed in 1991. By virtue of this act, their union was legitimized by the Jehovah's Witnesses and they were, therefore, to be regarded as husband and wife. Ergo, no violation of any law or rule as this would be an unconstitutional violation of their religious freedom.

Speaking through Justice Reynato S. Puno, eight justices of the Supreme Court, a simple majority, sided with Escritor and remanded the case to the Office of the Court Administrator, and ordered the Solicitor General to examine her claimed religious belief and practice and to present evidence in justifying an exception to prevailing law and jurisprudence governing illicit relations.

In other words, the decision shows that the Supreme Court is prepared to adopt a policy of benevolent neutrality in its interpretation of the establishment and free exercise of religion clauses of the Constitution, unless it can be demonstrably proven that there is compelling state interest that would negate such an accommodation, such as a clear and present danger to established institutions of society and the law.

The far-reaching significance of this decision can readily be gleaned from the fact that if Escritor were not a Jehovah's Witness, her actuations and behavior would indeed constitute disgraceful and immoral conduct, as well as adultery and concubinage, under prevailing law and jurisprudence.


22 June 2006

Why I resumed blogging: A promdi's manifesto

AFTER a 10-month hiatus, I decided to blog again.

The opening of the new school year rekindled my interest. Education governance reforms, after all, are my enduring passion. The mainstream media touched off what has become an annual ritual decrying the sorry state of public education. A defensive regime tries to put as much spin as it can to pass the blame and muddle the situation—without actually assuming responsibility over what has become a three-decade mess—and gets away with it. As it did with the murdered impeachment process a year ago.

Then interest dies as soon as another controversy, another natural catastrophe, another scandal grabs the headlines. And so we fail to address the roots of the problem because things have moved on by order of our nature. We have become an attention-deficit nation, perpetually in motion, yet never truly able to focus: we are living proof of Newton's first law of motion.

For the past 10 months, I was the frustrated ostrich who opted to bury its head in the sand.

But I decided to blog again to pursue—and focus on—my passions: education governance reforms and all that matters to Naga and Bikolandia.

As our course in Cambridge was winding down, a Cypriot classmate once emailed me, asking about my plans after graduation. I said I will go back to Naga because it is where I can make a difference. This blog will try to be that—in the context of an 18-year and running urban democracy project in the city of my youth. For a promdi like me, it is bar none the most exciting place in the world to be :)


21 June 2006

TxtNaga takes a bow

LAST Saturday, I had the opportunity to present our latest 'baby' during the 2006 Mayoral Awards rites held in conjuction with Naga's 58th charter anniversary: the TxtNaga service.

("Our" refers to the Naga i-Governance Team, the multi-tasking City Hall unit in charge of developing ICT tools that will promote more meaningful engagement between ordinary city residents and the city government. Aside from me, it includes Reuel Oliver, Investment Board chief and team leader; Lawrence Nogra, SMS programmer; Nick Motos, i-Serve project coordinator; Dune Padre, EDP head; and Joe Perez, visitors center top honcho.)

TxtNaga is a mnemonic of (0917)8986242 or (0917)TXTNAGA, which Globe Telecoms graciously allocated to the Naga City School Board to serve as its hotline.

It was jumpstarted by the need to address the low completion rates in public schools. Our data shows that for every 100 students that enter Grade I in city public schools, only 83 would finish Grade VI, of which 77 will proceed to the secondary level. And of the 77 that enrolls in first year, only 57 will eventually finish high school. Student truancy contributes to this poor performance; by mobilizing the community to report incidents of truancy, and routing information directly to authorities for action, we thought the city will be able to improve the situation.

Our i-Governance initiative had been recognized by the Gawad Galing Pook for using ICT tools to engage ordinary citizens on the basis of "information openness." Naga's website (www.naga.gov.ph) exemplifies this: for two years running, it had been adjudged the best city website in the Philippines by the National Computer Center.

But all along, I believed the program's future lies with texting, for the simple reason that city residents have greater access to cell phones than they do with the internet. Our informal survey backs this up: 2 of every 3 households have a mobile, but only 1 our of every 3 residents can access the internet at home, at work, in school or through internet cafes.

Last January, my vision of an SMS-driven engagement mechanism began to take shape. Finally, we successfully bridged the gap in regard to SMS programming capability. The rest of pieces (funding, equipment, etc.) neatly fell in their proper places, including the green light from Mayor Jesse Robredo who saw the huge potential behind TxtNaga. So much so that he presented it during a plenary of the 2006 Mayors’ Asia-Pacific Environmental Summit (MAPES) on May 10, 2006 in Melbourne, Australia.

TxtNaga's upside lies in its customizability (multiple demand-driven applications can be designed), cheaper access cost (less than P1 per send) and faster routing of information (messages are sent directly to concerned authorities). Vice Mayor Gabby Bordado chuckled when I called it "TxtServe, Reloaded" during my presentation (reminding him of the Matrix trilogy), but it really is. TxtServe 2960 was the Smart Telecoms service that Naga used in its first foray into citizen engagement through texting.

For additional information, a copy of my presentation can be found here.


20 June 2006

Barcelona, the World Urban Forum and federalism

ON MY way home two weekends ago, I engaged Inquirer columnist and noted Bikolano cookbook author Honesto General in a quick chat while waiting for our flight. Tio Oning is a true-blue Nagueño who keynoted our Bicol Express cooking demo for Tipanan 2005 in Intramuros, Synergeia's signature annual cultural event. Inevitably, our conversation veered towards politics.

Among followers of his "Questions of Policies" column, General's aversion towards a parliamentary and federal forms of government, in that order, is well known. As one who has a soft spot for the latter, I wanted to know why.

From our conversation, General's beef against federalism can be summarized as (1)
structural - our reverse approach, which would call for the unitary Philippine state to break up into smaller regional states, has no precedent worldwide; and (2) operational - from the feasibility of adding another layer (the regional government) to the system, to such trivial but sure-to-be-divisive issues (e.g., which would become the regional center, Naga or Legazpi?).

These are interesting points that have merit, and they are questions that federalists must squarely and convincingly address if the advocacy were to move forward in a big way. If there is something that the academia in the region (perhaps jointly led by my alma mater Bicol University and Ateneo de Naga University) can concretely contribute to the debate, this would be it.

Offhand, my gut feel (as I intimated to Tio Oning) is that for the long run, a federal form of government can make things better for today's worse-off regions. It fits with and recognizes our regional identities. I don't believe that because something has no precedent automatically means it cannot be done; there
is always a first time. And operational headaches can be addressed by consensus building among elected leaders or through democratic mechanisms (a plebiscite or a referendum). The development and strengthening of regional identities towards something more concrete will be helped by finding common grounds instead of issues that divide. Toward this end, a groundbreaking academic inquiry on the feasibility of creating a Bikol state will certainly go a long way.

In this journey, Bikolanos and other regional groupings in the country should be interested in
what's happening in Spain nowadays. Just last week, Catalunya (which has Barcelona as seat of the regional government) voted themselves greater autonomy in a referendum, which observers say will only continue to weaken Madrid's central control. If the Catalans' accomplishment represent an approximate endpoint to our own journey, then a lot more needs to be done beyond mere rhetorics.

By the way, Barcelona hosted the 2004 World Urban Forum, whose 2006 edition opened yesterday in Vancouver. I had the privilege of attending a side event there, mainly to read a paper. Which explains above's serious visage of a 'lone wolf' having difficulty in taking a picture of himself in the city's own version of Arc de Triomphe:)


19 June 2006

Towards greater local control of the public school system

UPDATE: Newsbreak magazine has published the following piece in its online edition. It can be accessed here.

TWO weekends back, an engrossing discussion regarding the sorry state of the public school system took place (and continues to) in Dean Jorge Bocobo’s blog. The discussion started with the question: If every year the national government spends P120 billion on a centrally-managed public school system that has been underproviding on basic education services for decades, is there a better way?

I say there is, and it is about giving greater local control of the public school system to communities that will demand for it.

Take Naga City, for example, and imagine the possibilities: The P120 billion annual outlay translates to P6,667 per student, or P233 million for the city’s 35,000 elementary and high school students. Together with the P40M being spent by the city government annually, with P273 million

1. we can bring down the number of teachers from 1,200 to 1,100 by streamlining the curriculum (which translates to a workable teacher-student ratio of 32); and

2. raise the starting monthly salary of all teachers to P20,000—already higher than what call centers give. But everyone will have to meet higher teacher recruitment standards, start as locally-funded contractual teachers, and will have to prove themselves based on their student’s achievement test results prior to regularization. And that is just for starters.

A centrally-managed system for the long run will continue to yield the same inadequate results. Today, DepEd with its 400,000 workforce is the biggest bureaucracy in the national government, and will only continue to grow bigger as it tries to keep up with the rising school-age population. It will increasingly become difficult to manage such a bureaucracy, and expect it to respond to unique challenges that differ by locality. Moreover, there is very little chance to exact accountability over education outcomes from an organization whose local divisions and districts respond more to their regional and national superiors rather than the local communities they serve.

What opportunities come with demand-driven devolution of basic public education?

1. Local officials will become responsible for education outcomes in their respective localities. Non-performing school officials and teaching staff can be removed from service if they continually fail to deliver results. Performance of the public school system becomes an election issue, and parents can choose to remove local elective officials on the basis of unacceptable outcomes.

2. Local control also means greater consciousness over local needs that must be addressed, as well as locally available solutions to priority problems. In Naga, for instance, there is the possibility of creating an expanded voucher system that will optimize existing capacities: putting a cap on ideal class size in the public school system on the one hand, and redirect excess enrolment back to private schools on the other.

3. National and local funding for education can be aligned, and increased. Since the local DepEd and the local government becomes part of a single organization, common education targets can be set, and the resources required to attain the targets allocated more efficiently and effectively. For cities, their national share from the DepEd and the Special Education Fund being allocated through local school boards becomes a common education fund. More so with provinces, which are today’s winners in the IRA allocation scheme. (Cities and provinces are entitled to the same level of IRA—23% of the total—but there are now twice more cities than there were 10 years ago. On the other hand, only two new provinces were created over the same period.) Thus, because they become accountable for public education, governors can be motivated to share their Local Development Funds (which is 20% of the total IRA) to augment their comparatively smaller SEFs.

Of course, this scheme has its own pitfalls. One is the country’s mixed experience with decentralization under the 1991 Local Government Code, which devolved agriculture, health and social services, as correctly pointed out by a fellow blog commenter. Another is the fear that the system will be politicized. But these are manageable risks. That is why there is need to implement this selectively, demand being the primary criterion.

When local communities and their leaders demand for, and are given local control over public education, it is greater power that comes with even greater responsibilities. But when local stakeholders have a bigger voice in governance—which is what Naga has been pioneering in the Philippines under the leadership of Mayor Jesse Robredo—there are enough mechanisms for ensuring that the local state will behave and exercise this power responsibly.