06 November 2010

Peripheral yet Central: Notes from a 20-Year and Going Urban Democracy Project in the Philippines

Presented on October 5, 2010 during the Second General Assembly of the IFP Philippines Alumni Association (IFPPAA) at the MMLDC, Antipolo City.

WHEN we were about to get our degree from the Department of Land Economy in Cambridge in 2004, a Cypriot classmate, who is an expert in real estate finance, asked me what my plans are after graduation.

I asked: How about you?

He said he will probably work for one of the leading London-based property conglomerates. At that time, I really had no doubt he will succeed. An indication that it came to pass is the fact that he used to sponsor one of the annual student awards at the Department in honor of her grandparents.

For my part, I said then I will go back to my native city, where I think I stand a better chance of making a difference.

Looking back at that brief conversation, I think that on the whole, my decision to go back to the city government of Naga after completing my IFP fellowship turned out to be a good decision. But to say that the outcomes of that decision was a clear example of an either-or proposition – economists like Assad Baunto would love to call it a zero-sum game
totally misses the point. Which should nicely lead me to a discussion on the dilemmas we face as IFP alumni.

A Good Decision
But before I do so, allow me to explain why I believe it was a good decision. I will highlight three points:

1. Professionally, going back to Naga enabled me to make good use of my schooling. My graduate work at the Department of Land Economy focused on planning, growth and regeneration. Today, my work as head of the city’s planning and development unit enables me to apply the theories and principles on urban planning to Naga’s development.

For instance, the way Philippine local governments today conduct their planning has been revolutionized and rationalized, aided by a study conducted by UP SURP and enshrined in a joint memorandum circular issued by the DILG, DBM, NEDA and DOF issued in 2007. While we are taking measured steps towards delivering these documents, I can fairly say that we have a better handle of the process, thanks to stuff I learned from my Cambridge professors and the English experience with the so-called “urban planning machinery” that drives housing and urban development.

Almost a month ago, I was gratified to hear a high-ranking functionary of the DILG speak about the need for greater civil society participation in generating baseline LGU performance indicators in its flagship Local Governance Performance Management System (LGPMS).

This was precisely our experience and realization several weeks back during our planning workshop in crafting Naga’s comprehensive development plan that used LGPMS data. Essentially, it boils down to the fundamental weakness of the system – which has to do with its self-rating nature. Without outsiders actively engaged in the process, there is that temptation to window-dress data driven by the urge to make one’s locality look good. But this of course comes at the expense of truth telling, which is a basic requirement of good planning.

2. Personally, going back to Naga enabled me to raise my family, and see my children grow before my very eyes in the same city where I work. This was the single biggest problem I faced when doing graduate work in Cambridge: a Ph.D title appended to my name would have sounded fine, but the best university in the world (according to the 2010 QS World University rankings) was simply not the best place for a homesick father of five (at the time) and faithful husband to his wife.

As an IFP fellow exposed to the comforts and opportunities of a First World society, I must admit staying put in the UK – regardless of what the PSSC and the Ford Foundation will say – crossed my mind. I am sure all of us, one way or another, had to face this temptation. But every time, the family card would trump all possible permutations where benefits outweigh the cost of leaving them behind.

So for me, it matters less that I am earning Philippine pesos and not British pounds; what matters more is that when I rise every morning, I get to wake up beside my best friend of 18 years, cook for and eat breakfast with my children, and drive them to school before I go to work. Yes, it is definitely a challenge to make the most out of a government worker’s salary, which often requires foregoing many comforts and luxuries that come quite easy for OFW families in our neighborhood; but these are tradeoffs I have learned to accept in exchange for the sheer pleasure of growing up with my children.

3. Psychologically, staying in the City Government of Naga actually brought me immense self-satisfaction. In my own little ways, I am making a difference.

For instance, the quality of local decision-making has improved because of my department’s newly acquired capability to do evidence-based policy analysis. Take for instance the currently raging issue of whether City Hall should raise rental rates at our newly rehabilitated public market. The study we did, in response to a directive from the Sangguniang Panglungsod committee on market affairs, has crystallized the available policy options to both the executive and the legislative. And to a great extent, the numbers behind those options have shaped the ongoing debate, in the process tamping down heated passion that used to carry the day.

Then, there’s also our enhanced capability to come up with trailblazing local initiatives. Just two days ago, we formally launched the Naga River Revitalization Project, a multisectoral effort that seeks to finally reverse the decline and degration of the city’s major waterway. In May, when I submitted it to a pioneering training program for local governments jointly sponsored by the World Bank and the Singaporean government, even my city hall colleagues were not convinced, thinking there were other more urgent matters that the city government should respond to.

But after a highly successful 10-day stint at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore last July, where we developed an action plan to implement the Naga River project under the supervision of WBI and LKY faculty, the World Bank has apparently decided to adopt riverfront development as the overarching theme for its second round of training. If things hold up, we will most probably be invited back to share our experience to the next batch of Asian cities chosen to participate in that event in July 2011.

There’s also that ongoing effort the come up with a new joint memorandum circular to govern the use of the Special Education Fund (SEF) by Philippine local governments, which is central to my work on and abiding interest in Local School Boards. Of course, it helps that my former mayor is now the acting secretary of the DILG (for how long, I don’t know). But I find it truly fulfilling to have been invited to actively comment on the several drafts of the JMC, and with some of my recommendations actually being adopted – at least in the most recent version I saw. With all the mishaps and missteps attending P-Noy’s young administration, I am not sure whether that JMC will actually see the light of day – and I really pray that it does. But whatever happens, my experience shows that it is entirely possible to do good work in the periphery sufficient enough to impact central policymaking.

Finally, there’s of course the 2009 Presidential Lingkod Bayan Award accorded to our Public Service Excellence Program (PSEP) Team, of which I am the deputy team leader, at the Naga City government. Our team is primarily responsible for bringing about three editions of the Naga City Citizen’s Charter, the pioneering effort of the Naga City Government to empower its citizenry by promoting transparency and accountability in service delivery. England, by the way, has a long tradition of promoting services charters.

Naga’s Citizen’s Charter, the first of its kind in the country, predates by seven years Republic Act No. 9485, more popularly known as the Anti-Red Tape Act (ARTA) of 2007” that requires all national and local government agencies to come up with their own service charters. RA 9485 only came into effect when it was signed by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on June 2, 2007.

In recognition of this, the Civil Service Commission accorded to us that award, the highest recognition “conferred on an individual or group of individuals for exceptional or extraordinary contributions resulting from an idea or performance that had nationwide impact on public interest, security and patrimony.”

But coming home to one’s country armed with a degree made possible by our fellowship, which should make Mareng Winnie Monsod proud even if we are not her students at the UP School of Economics, is not all bed of roses. Truth of the matter is, we are faced with two formidable dilemmas:

One, was it worth my while? Correct me if I’m wrong, but from what I sense from our Yahoo e-group, a good number are having difficulty finding jobs that pay well, not so much psychologically but financially. This, to me, is a gut issue, and we don’t have to invoke Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to make it so.

Compounding the problem are the raised expectations that come with completing that fellowship, both from our end and from others. From our end, the fellowship is the nearest thing to being an OFW: in my case, I am able to set aside some money that I regularly send home to support my family. But it was only as good as it lasted; homecoming meant going back to the real world, warts and all. And then there’s the unwarranted expectation from others, especially from relatives, that having a degree from a university abroad is the “Open Sesame” that automatically unlocks the door to fabulous riches described in the stories of the Arabian nights.

Secondly, with the uncertainties of the future, did I really do the right thing? Doubts about the wisdom of coming back to the country starts to creep in when our current realities – that is, the opportunities supposed to come with our schooling – do not match up with expectations. This is exacerbated when one begins to compare himself with better-off OFWs who are actually doing well financially, and they did not have to go through the rigors of what we went through, starting from the pre-academic trainings mandated by PSSC down to the thesis and dissertations we had to submit as requirements of the our degree!

A Way Forward
While these dilemmas can be very unsettling at times, I never fail to derive inspiration from one movie I recently saw and enjoyed with my family, so much so that my children would watch it over and over again.

I am referring to the 2009 Bollywood hit entitled “3 Idiots,” a highly engaging 2-hour 44-minute comedy – which incidentally illustrates the huge gulf separating Indian and Philippine cinema.

The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) website describes the movie’s storyline as follows: “Two friends embark on a quest for a lost buddy. On this journey, they encounter a long forgotten bet, a wedding they must crash, and a funeral that goes impossibly out of control.” This, of course, does no justice at all to that movie, so I suggest that you take time downloading a copy on your favorite bittorrent application and watch it yourself.

There are, however, two memorable quotes from IMDb that I would want to share:

“Today my respect for that idiot shot up. Most of us went to college just for a degree. No degree meant no plum job, no pretty wife, no credit card, no social status. But none of this mattered to him, he was in college for the joy of learning, he never cared if he was first or last.” – Farhan Qureshi

This, I think, goes at the very heart of our motivation for pursuing higher education. The typical perspective, represented by Farhan’s, is that getting a degree is merely a means to achieving higher ends – a good job, financial security, a happy family, a higher standing in society.

But there is that other perspective represented by Rancchoddas Shyamaldas Chanchad aka “Rancho” – the joy of learning is by itself a worthy end, and everything else is secondary: the icing on our cake, the gravy to our chicken.

“Pursue excellence, and success will follow, pants down.” – Rancho

This second quote, I think, is the movie’s central message. To me, this is a powerful response to problems created by the two dilemmas I outlined above. Its effectiveness in resolving these issues in our own individuals lives will pretty much depend on ourselves.

And my little experience of staying put in Naga shows that one can choose to wage his battle even in the periphery, outside of the power center that is Imperial Manila; yet by pursuing excellence with passion, he can do enough good work as to impact society at various levels, from the grassroots to a town or city, from a province to a region and even the nation itself – and make a difference.


01 September 2010

Post-mortem to the Manila hostage crisis

TODAY'S headline story at the ABS-CBN News website confirms what I have believed all along: my former boss and now DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo could not have been on top of that bungled Manila hostage crisis.

Immediately after the incident, Vice Mayor Gabby Bordado told me his cellphone was flooded by text messages: Where on earth was Secretary Robredo while Rolando Mendoza's caper was happening? The bottomline: this was not the Jesse Robredo we knew. Knowing the guy up close, what just happened was very un-Jesse.

Our former mayor became equally famous, not only for his being a legendary spendthrift (the close-fisted "boksingero" in local parlance, as opposed to the open-palmed "karatista"), but also because of his ingrained habit of being one of the first, if not the first, to rush to the scene of incidents requiring government presence. It's perfectly in synch with his fundamental governance philosophy -- you cannot ask of others what you yourself are not willing to do.

In all the crises that our city faced over the last two decades -- from the fires that hit the Naga City Public Market and private dwellings, to the supertyphoons that lashed our homes -- his reassuring presence strongly signals what have become a certainty: come what may, Naga will surely overcome.

I'm not sure what typhoon it was that buried the city center in foot-deep mud, but one unforgettable sight that Conrado de Quiros immortalized on one of his columns was of Robredo shoveling the dirt by his lonesome the morning after.

Legend has it that one of his kagawads had the temerity to ask why the mayor was doing the shoveling, when he can command his people at City Hall to do it for him. He was said to have replied: "Do you really think I'm enjoying this? But someone must start doing something."

Yes, hindsight is 20/20 vision. But my gut feel tells me that if only President Noynoy Aquino trusted the political instincts of his DILG secretary more, things would have turned out differently.


15 July 2010

It's also about the mindset

I CAN ONLY commiserate with the Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA), which again bungled its job of providing accurate forecast on the path of Typhoon "Basyang" that caught Metro Manila residents on their pants once more.

But while I agree with the Inquirer editorial's point on securing the necessary equipment, that is built on the faulty premise that it is the only solution to our woes. And if we are to follow this line of reasoning, it will need P1.8 billion in government spending and two more years before the Doppler radars are finally made operational.

For a country lying on the typhoon alleyway like ours, this is not an acceptable option.

And the premise easily crumbles in the face of David Michael "Mike" Padua's accurate forecast of Basyang's track. As early as 2 pm last Tuesday, in a meeting hastily called by Mayor John G. Bongat, Padua's latest map tracking the typhoon clearly showed Metro Manila as its target.

"Medyo nagbaba an direksyon as of 12 noon, kaya mahanggilid sa northern Camarines Sur and Camarines Norte, pero at most 50 kms away from the city," city disaster pointman Erning Elcamel explained, interpreting Padua's table of strike probabilities on Naga. It used data from the Institute for Astronomy of the University of Hawai‘i.

Now, how did an unassuming guy, armed only with his love of storm tracking and equipment either bought out of his own pocket or donated by friends, admirers and other partners, got it right -- while the entire PAGASA machinery got it wrong?

It's all about the mindset. From the looks of it, our state weather bureau's instinct is of the pre-internet days -- which is to rely on its outdated data gathering methodologies anchored on internally generated info from field men and their outdated equipment.

By holding on to these methods and procedures, it becomes like the proverbial ostrich that buries its head in the sand.

Instead of sniping on Padua's work, which some of its local people do out of spite, it's about time PAGASA listens to what the guy said:

"...the problem with PAGASA’s forecast went beyond the procurement of new equipment. You will need more training to go with the new equipment. But more than how to use the new equipment, training in the new methods of meteorology and storm tracking.

"Padua recommended training under experts from the National Hurricane Center in Miami. He also said PAGASA should use resources on the Internet for information on coming storms. 'There are many websites officially recognized by many agencies,' he said."
Actually, instead of relying on the state, what communities and local governments should do is to create space for more Mike Paduas to flourish and encourage them to pursue their hobbies with renewed vigor.

The academia would be a perfect place to start. After all, Mike Padua by day is a professor at the Naga College Foundation.


09 February 2010

The humongous elephant in the room

WHAT DO you know? It seems my favorite Vox Bikol columnist and my favorite Bicol Mail editorial writer have decided to tag team me.

As of February 4, 2010, I just became editorial material of the Bicol Mail, "Bicolandia's only regional newspaper" which claims, among others, that it will "serve no master except the Truth" -- whatever that means.

This ongoing conversation has definitely become more exciting. And who am I to refuse? I therefore obliged them with the following reply:

Allow me to make the following points in response to last week’s rambling editorial entitled “Cat out of the bag”:

1. The article tries mightily to make a controversy out of statements I made at the Ateneo de Naga forum on Kaantabay sa Kauswagan, the city’s social housing program, where Atty. Jose Maria “Che” Carpio was resource person. Unfortunately for your editorial writer, there is no cat to speak of, much less one that springs out of the bag – enough for Bicol Mail to shout “Eureka!” as if a historic discovery has just been made.

2. The political dimension of public policy making is well documented by literature. My dissertation on Kaantabay -- submitted in 2004 to the Land Economy Department of Cambridge University, which explains my abiding interest on the topic -- in fact used political economy as a key theoretical frame, precisely because in the real world, policymaking does not exist in a vacuum.

Nicola Acocella, in his book The Foundations of Economic Policy, ascribes it to two realities:
Firstly, “the economic system is not composed of anonymous agents but rather of classes or groups of individuals with shared characteristics or needs. These individuals tend organize and act jointly to ensure that their preferences prevail over those of other groups;” and

Secondly, “policymakers are equally not anonymous representatives of the public interest but can in fact be divided into politicians and bureaucrats who are faced with agency problems.”
The Bicol Mail’s editorial writer would of course insist on a simplistic analysis because it would perfectly serve his purpose -- which is to find fault with everything and anything remotely related to City Hall in general, and its outgoing mayor, Jesse Robredo, in particular.

He is, of course, free to call my defense of City Hall “image building”. My parting words to Attorney Carpio are worth repeating here: “I will not take it against you: you are entitled to your beliefs, in the same manner that I am entitled to a vigorous defense of the city’s position against continuing distortions that mask reality.”

3. This much is clear from his claims -- which are among the issues raised by Attorney Carpio in his critique of the Kaantabay program -- in the second paragraph of the article. Urban Poor Affairs Office (UPAO) chief Rolando Campillos already explained these to the attendees; he joined me in that forum precisely to answer questions previously raised by Carpio in his Vox Bikol column pertaining to the SPUKOI housing project. In all probability, Carpio ignored Campillos’s explanation in his version of the event, which he emailed to Bicol Mail. That’s already strike two, after that Standard and Poor’s fiasco that Vox Bikol conveniently swept under the rug in its latest issue.

For your editorial writer’s sake, let me repeat what Rolly said at the Ateneo: In providing for a 10-year holding period (not payment period, as he erroneously stated, because the term for a Kaantabay homelot ranges between 7 to 15 years) prohibiting the sale or conveyance of a homelot acquired under the city’s social housing program, the city government’s ordinance -- which former councilor and 2nd District congressman Jaime Jacob authored -- is in fact more generous than Republic Act No. 7279, otherwise known as the Urban Development and Housing Act (UDHA) that former Sen. Jose Lina crafted. The latter perpetually limits the sale of any homelot acquired under its social housing programs.

Incidentally, this underscores two basic features of Kaantabay: (a) It is not a doleout, unlike what long-standing political opponents of the Robredo administration, and their wanna-be apprentices, dangle before Nagueño voters every election -- “Kun kami an iboboto nindo, an mga lote libre!” Penalties and surcharges may be condoned from time to time, but not the principal and its interest. To its credit, the sector in general saw through the crap and rejected what amounts to a snake oil salesman’s pitch time and again. (b) It has empowered the urban poor sector in Naga. Over the last two decades, the sector -- through its city-level federation of urban poor associations -- has emerged as a strong interest group. For them to negotiate and secure these favorable policy concessions from City Hall is a testament to their political empowerment.

4. As to the voting requirement, I will not second-guess the Sanggunian’s intent in incorporating that particular provision; as I explained to Elmer Abad when he interviewed me right after the forum, I am pretty sure its merits and demerits were deliberated fully by the local legislature. As with any major policy proposal, Jacob’s proposed ordinance went through the close scrutiny of the Sanggunian’s legal luminaries, among them the venerable retired Judge Esteban Abonal and Mila Raquid-Arroyo, now director of the Ateneo de Naga University Social Involvement Council (USIC).

Instead of seeing ghosts, why doesn’t your editorial writer do a research on the subject -- basic for any journalist worth his salt -- by consulting the records of the 5th Sangguniang Panlungsod, which is responsible for passing the Kaantabay sa Kauswagan Ordinance among other landmark legislations it crafted? This option should yield a more definitive answer to that particular question, and will serve Bicol Mail readers far better than the malicious insinuations and conspiracy theories he had been spinning with clockwork regularity.

5. Which leads me to my final point: in its consuming obsession with these non-existent cats, why is Bicol Mail deliberately ignoring the humongous elephant in the room?

To be more specific about it: why find fault with the inaccessibility of the staffing plan of the Naga City Government through the internet (although he himself acknowledged printouts can be had for a fee), when other local governments in the Bicol Region -- including its six provinces, six cities and 107 municipalities, which the newspaper purports to serve by “depicting the realities of our society” and “serving as a forum for intelligent discourse on issues and concerns affecting the region” -- have not made available their annual budgets online, not even a single page, and would rather keep them out of print and out of sight?

The guess of every discerning Bicol Mail reader is as good as mine.

Those interested in my dissertation can check the following:
The Kaantabay Case Study


31 January 2010

A little more honest, but...

MY FORMER City Hall colleague, Jessie Natividad, must have been following my ongoing conversation with Atty. Che Carpio.

When I woke up this morning, I got an email from him containing the link to Carpio's latest column, which Vox Bikol published in its website a day after our face-to-face at the Ateneo when he talked about Kaantabay sa Kauswagan, Naga's urban poor housing project.

I of course obliged him with the following reply:

Dear Attorney Carpio:

This pertains to your latest column entitled “Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang,” which continues to amuse me.

First off, this is an ongoing conversation between us. Since I first emailed you last Jan 17, you will take note that the message came from my email address; and it was my name that appeared as its author. It is only in your mind that it was Mayor Jesse Robredo responding, not I.

Having said that, anyone interested in finding out what I emailed you the second time around can check my weblog. I stand by what I wrote; if your or anybody else’s sensibilities are offended, then I’m sorry for that and the attending hurt or discomfort. But I will never apologize for correcting distortions and data selectivity that would amount to intellectual dishonesty.

Let me now address your clarifications point by point:

1. The only reason why the S&P report is not available in the website is because S&P marked it confidential. That much is clear from my email to Julma when I forwarded it to her per your request.

2. To the contrary, your claim that “intermediate is a dismal 50% rating” and a “failing mark”” is what I will call a spin. Because nowhere in that report did S&P conclude that way. They were your simplistic conclusions that do not do justice at all to the report in its entirety.

Consider, for example, the following snippets from the Financial Management Assessment (FMA) Report’s “Overview of Naga City’s key strengths and weakness” (underscoring mine):

Not withstanding the systemic constraints and institutional weaknesses afflicting Naga City, the strongest areas of financial management which drive the overall score for the city government include annual budgeting at Intermediate, financial reporting and disclosure at Intermediate Plus and debt management at Intermediate Minus.

Despite the lack of budgeting or accounting software, the city has been accurate in its budgeting performance on both revenue and expenditure. And as mentioned, its audited financial statements are free of material qualifications, a rarity among Philippines LGUs. This is a significant driving factor behind the city’s overall score as well. Naga city has also proven to have the capacity to managed debt and demonstrated a relatively high level of quality in its debt monitoring.

The city’s financial statements had received clean audit opinions from COA in the last few years. No notable discrepancies appeared on Naga’s audited statements except for the usual inconsistency in the valuation of physical assets, and COA reported that the city is expected to resolve them by end 2008. Naga’s transparency in its reporting of financial performance is also noteworthy, with the comprehensive publishing of its annual budget, interim annual and quarterly financial statements released on a timely basis on the city website. However its financial reporting score is constrained by the lack of accounting software that would potentially reduce paperwork and offer easier access to financial information within the city administration. Nonetheless, Naga has still managed to consistently produce reliable financial statements despite the lack of electronic solutions.

Likewise, despite the absence of any budgeting software, Naga’s annual budgeting performances have been strong and demonstrated relative accuracy on both revenue and expenditure planning. It is conservative on revenue budgeting, with final outcome more often than not exceeding initial budgeted amount. Correspondingly, expenditure outturn has been lower by an average of 1.6% from budgeted amounts in the period 2005-2007 (albeit with some volatility from year to year). Though Naga’s annual budgeting process is still largely characterized by incremental-based, it is one of the few LGUs to have at least adopt some form of programmatic expenditure planning. Currently, around 15%-20% of the city’s budget is estimated to be program-based.

The Naga city government demonstrate adequate capacity in debt management. Unlike most LGUs who have monthly debt repayment automatically deducted from their monthly IRA transfers, the Naga administration keeps good track of its amortization schedule and issue checks on timely basis to directly repay lending banks. Furthermore, all of the city’s loans are negotiated with clauses that allow prepayment without penalties. The city government actively monitors borrowing rates and would seek cheaper refinancing whenever the opportunity arises. However, like most LGUs, Naga’s debt management score is weakened by the lack of a coherent and explicit debt policy. Alleviating this is that the city’s medium-term investment plan (LDIP) has acted as a pseudo-debt policy of the current administration.
Together with the FMA is the Credit Rating Report on Naga, whose section entitled “Comparative Analysis” contains the following:
International peers
The Russian entities of Nizhny Novgorod (BB-/Stable/--) and Tver Oblast (B+/Negative/--), as well as the Ukrainian capital city of Kyiv (CCC+/Watch Neg/--) and the Turkish city of Istanbul (BB-/Negative/--) are suitable international peers for the City of Naga (which is was given a credit rating of BB-/Stable)

Like some of its peers, the City of Naga has been able to partially fund aggressive capital expenditure programs in recent years with operating surpluses, which has helped to limit its borrowing requirements. However, the overall average level of capital expenditure relative to total expenditure reported by Naga (18.5%) is still below that for its international peers (30%) from 2005-2007. Although its physical infrastructure is relatively well-maintained by national standards, it is largely inadequate in the international context.

Naga’s direct debt level has been steadily declining, unlike Istanbul’s. Coupled with a healthy and fast-rising cash position, the city’s overall debt profile is favourable and compares well to that of Nizhny Novgorod. Likewise, Naga’s strong budgetary performance stands out among its peer group. However, this is in part a function of the city’s weaker capacity to administer capital projects (stemming from lack of benefits of scale), and also a function of the systemic borrowing constraints faced by Philippine local governments.

Local peers
Unlike its domestic peers who are located in Metro Manila like Quezon City, Taguig and Mandaluyong, who have relatively more diversified service-base economies, Naga is predominately engaged in the agrarian sector. The lack of a distinct geographic or industrial advantage has resulted in lower property value and smaller-scale businesses operating in Naga, which in turn limits the city’s real property and business tax collection. In mitigation, its local economy has been relatively more insulated than Metro Manila peers in this current global downturn. In addition, outside the capital region, Naga’s tax base and per capita income would compare more favorably than those of Iligan and Tacloban.

The city’s budgetary performance is nevertheless stronger than all rated Philippines cities, despite the fact that other cities have far more revenue streams at their disposal. This reflects to some extent the more advanced financial management practices of the Naga city government than its peers. Likewise, despite its more limited resources, Naga has been able to maintain robust liquidity coverage and a direct debt burden better than the average for its peer group.

This is hardly the picture of a “failing” city and its local government.

This is precisely why I challenged Vox Bikol to publish it wholly and let its readers decide. To me, it is an unadulterated take on the strengths and weaknesses of the city’s economy and the city government’s stewardship of its financial resources.

I will have to check if our point person in this credit rating project has already secured the needed clearance from S&P to publish the report in the city website. If yes, rest assured that we will make it available. Nonetheless, I am uploading the report in my blog, albeit unofficially, because I believe that its potential to educate us clearly outweighs its confidential nature.

3. I am happy that you have now acknowledged Naga’s score relative to its peers, the glaring omission that actually prompted that “intellectual dishonesty” remark in my previous email. Consequently, I will now gladly reconsider that assertion.

4. I will concede your point on the scope of that World Bank-funded pilot project, which is only limited to eight cities thus far. But I am confident that this inference is in order for the following reasons:
  • To have been considered, and more importantly, included in a pilot project on the credit rating of Philippine cities (out of the 120, because the League of Cities of the Philippines is still contesting the controversial SC decision affirming the cityhood of the other 16) already says enough about Naga. The mayor’s SOCR already covered this. But clearly, there is something about Naga that merited the Bank’s attention.
  • Quezon City, the richest LGU in the Philippines today, is among the pilot cities. So are Marikina, incidentally the most innovative and most awarded city in Metro Manila; Mandaluyong, Malabon and Taguig. But as you yourself acknowledged, albeit grudgingly, Naga more than held its own compared to these richer localities and their much more diversified economies. Unlike you, I therefore like our chances.
  • Your asides about transparency notwithstanding, the report clearly recognized, and it bears repeating here, that “Naga City is the only city assessed so far to have consistently received a clean opinion from COA on its financial statements, which placed the quality of its financial reporting considerably above domestic peers.” I have every reason to believe we will continue to be so, even if credit rating covers the entire universe of Philippine LGUs.
  • My experience with Philippine local governments -- and my work on public education has brought me to a number -- is that for the most part, they have continuing difficulty with disclosure and openness in regard to their finances. (For instance, I will be very interested to see whether the CWC is making money or not. By the way, I have written COA twice, requesting that it put online its 2008 Audit Reports for the Bicol cities and provinces; thus far, they have only obliged us with Masbate province and city.) To my knowledge, and of course I will be happy to be corrected on this matter, only Naga publishes its proposed and approved annual budget, as well as its quarterly financial statements.
5. Finally, that “consuelo de bobo” thing again highlights the fundamental difference in our respective positions: you may have become a little more honest in laying down the facts, but the “half-empty” perspective continues to color your opinion.

In your static world view, that condescending put-down (that Naga merely topped the class of Philippine failures) is consistent with your negative perspective; if one reads closely, it smugly implies that Philippine cities do not have what it takes to be world-class -- simply because their best started out with a measly “Intermediate” rating when S&P first came to local shores, courtesy of the World Bank.

In that world view, its credit rating of BB-/Stable for foreign currencies -- mind you, better than the capital cities of Ukraine and Turkey; BB+/Stable for local currencies; and AA+ in the national rating system -- only a shade lower than AAA, S&P’s top investment grade given to “the best quality borrowers, reliable and stable” -- it proposes for Philippine local governments do not matter at all.

Unfortunately for you, the Naga city government not only looks at the glass half-full, but believes it is our responsibility to fill it up the brim. Instead of sulking and fault-finding, we celebrate affirmations that come our way, like that S&P report, because they tell us we must have doing some things well and right all along. Thankfully, its FMA points out precisely where and what we need to do make the system better. I am confident that our current and next leaders are as bullish about the future and have the same positive, can-do attitude.

Again, I will not take it against you: you are entitled to your beliefs, in the same manner that I am entitled to a vigorous defense of the city’s position against continuing distortions that mask reality.

And I don’t have be a Mayor Robredo to be able to do it.:)

Those interested in the S&P report can go check the following:

Credit Analysis of Naga City

Financial Management Assessment (FMA) Report on Naga City

Appendix - Overview of the Philippine Inter-Government System


28 January 2010

Malolos City is short, however one looks at it

INTRIGUED by the close 7-6 vote by the Supreme Court on the voided law creating a separate Malolos City congressional district, I checked the dissenting opinion penned by Associate Justice Roberto A. Abad.

I have a feeling these are more or less the arguments that were invoked or will be invoked by Rep. Dato Arroyo and his PALAKA cohorts in support of their reapportionment of Camarines Sur's former 1st and 2nd congressional districts.

The money quotes (underscoring mine):

The Court has always been reluctant to act like a third chamber of Congress and second guess its work. Only when the lawmakers commit grave abuse of discretion in their passage of the law can the Court step in. But the lawmakers must not only abuse this discretion, they must do so with grave consequences.

Here, nothing in Section 5, Article VI of the Constitution prohibits the use of estimates or population projections in the creation of legislative districts. As argued by the Solicitor General, the standard to be adopted in determining compliance with the population requirement involves a political question. In the absence of grave abuse of discretion or patent violation of established legal parameters, the Court cannot intrude into the wisdom of the standard adopted by the legislature.


R.A. 9591 is based on a “legislative” finding of fact that Malolos will have a population of over 250,000 by the year 2010. The rules of legislative inquiry or investigation are unique to each house of Congress. Neither the Supreme Court nor the Executive Department can dictate on Congress the kind of evidence that will satisfy its law-making requirement. It would be foolhardy for the Court to suggest that the legislature consider only evidence admissible in a court of law or under the rules passed by the Office of the President. Obviously, the Judicial Department will resist a mandate from Congress on what evidence its courts may receive to support its decisions.
It is however Paragraph (c) of Justice Abad's disquisition as to why a Ramos-issued executive order governing the use of NSO demographic projections that I find flawed mathematically. It relies on the annual application of the 1995-2000 population growth rate (PGR) of Malolos City (certified at 3.78% annually by NSO Region III Director Alberto Miranda) from 2001 to 2010, which would conveniently yield a projected population of 254,036 this year -- enough to meet the minimum 250,000 threshhold.

But it is not an accurate projection for two reasons:

1. It does not square with the actual 2007 NSO count. The 2007 NSO census for Malolos (223,069), which is available here, is 4,208 lower than the projected count of 227,277 -- putting the 3.78% certified PGR at the high side.

2. The PGR between 2000 and 2007 should have been used. It would have yielded a more accurate projection, being closer to the year in question. Demographers and city planners can easily compute this, using either geometric or exponential formulas.

I plugged these formulas and the basic data in this spreadsheet, which I uploaded to Google Docs. I will urge you to check it for accuracy. In sum, my computations yielded a PGR between 3.44% (geometric) and 3.5% (exponential), significantly lower than what Director Miranda certified.

In both instances, Malolos City falls short of the threshhold by a low of around 3,600 to a high of around 4,000.

They only reinforce the majority decision penned by Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, which spells trouble ahead for the PALAKA coalition in Camarines Sur.


A pyrrhic victory for PALAKA?

UPDATE (1:35 PM): The SC decision voiding the Malolos City congressional district is now accessible here.

THIS PHILIPPINE STAR story should give pause to the unabated media war being prosecuted by the media groups of Rep. Dato Arroyo and San Fernando Mayor Perry Mabulo, aided by Gov. L-Ray "Bebe Ko" Villafuerte.

If the SC decision penned by Justice Antonio Carpio were to serve as precedent, they may just end up -- together with DBM Secretary Nonoy Andaya and Rep. Luis Villafuerte, author of the bill reapportioning what used to be the 1st and 2nd Districts of Camarines Sur -- holding an empty bag, owners of a pyrrhic victory that caps the total unraveling of yet another best-laid scheme of mice and men by the Partido Lakas-Kampi (PALAKA) coalition.

The key portion of the story, found towards the end, deserves to be quoted fully:

‘Invalidate splitting of Camsur’

Meanwhile, sources in the House of Representatives said the SC could also invalidate the splitting of the first congressional district of Camarines Sur.

They said like Malolos, the two districts do not meet the population requirement of 250,000 per legislative constituency as prescribed by the Constitution.

President Arroyo’s son Diosdado is the incumbent representative of Camarines Sur’s first district, which has been split into two.

The new district is composed of the towns of Libmanan, Pamplona, Pasacao, Minalabac, and San Fernando, and the second district has the towns of Gainza and Milaor.

Libmanan is Rep. Arroyo’s adopted town. He is seeking reelection in the new legislative constituency, now denominated as the second district.

What remained in the original first district are the towns of Del Gallego, Ragay, Lupi, Sipocot, and Cabusao.

Budget Secretary Rolando Andaya Jr., who represented the district for nearly nine years, is seeking to reclaim his House seat. The Andayas are from Ragay.

The present second district becomes the third district and is composed of the remaining towns of Pili, Campo, Camaligan, Canaman, Magarao, Bombon, and Calabanga, and Naga City.

Rep. Luis Villafuerte, author of the law splitting the first district, represents the second (now third) district.

The third district becomes the fourth. It will continue to compose the towns of Caramoan, Garchitorena, Goa, Lagonoy, Presentacion, Sangay, San Jose, Tigaon, Tinambac, and Siruma.

The fourth district becomes fifth. Like the fourth, its composition -- Iriga City and the towns of Baao, Bato, Buhi, Bula, and Nabua – remains intact.

Secretary Andaya, a lawyer, said if he and Rep. Arroyo win on May 10, they would both lose their congressional seats if the Supreme Courts declares the splitting of the first district as unconstitutional.

Sen. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III and Naga City Mayor Jesse Robredo have asked the Supreme Court to invalidate the division of the first district for failing to meet the population requirement.

Local officials, led by Gov. Luis Raymond Villafuerte, Rep. Villafuerte’s son, initially opposed the splitting of the first district because they wanted a general redistricting of the province, which they said was entitled to six districts, instead of five.

In their letter to the Senate, they said Rep. Villafuerte’s bill would cripple the existing first district in terms of population.

“The remaining towns of Del Gallego, Lupi, Ragay, Sipocot, and Cabusao have a combined population of 176,383, 30 percent short of the population requirement prescribed by the Constitution,” they said.

When Rep. Villafuerte’s bill was pending in the Senate, Aquino had suggested that all the existing districts be reconstituted so that each would hurdle the population standard and the province would be entitled to six, instead of five districts. But his suggestion was ignored.
As my friend from Minalabac puts it colorfully, "gurang nang komedyante, nasuwi sa entablado."


26 January 2010

A case of intellectual dishonesty

ATTY. CHE Carpio, in his latest column, channels Shakespeare in his defense. But I don't think the Bard of Avon will be of any help -- to one who is engaged in the selective use of data to support his preconceived notion.

A clear case of intellectual dishonesty.

And unfortunately for Bicol Mail, its editorial writer swallowed Che's propaganda hook, line and sinker in its latest broadside against the city government.

This compelled me to fire the following rejoinder (which benefited from a little tightening), with cc: to the Vox Bikol staff.

Dear Attorney Carpio,

I am amused by your latest column entitled "The insolence of office."

1. I don't think even Shakespeare can help you mask the fact that you have cherry-picked your data to support a tenuous claim. This is a clear case of intellectual dishonesty.

2. You may be entitled to your own opinion, but definitely not your own set of facts. In support of the quote from the report (summary) which I highlighted in my previous email, you surely must have seen the Final Credit Rating Report and the accompanying spreadsheet comparing the cities covered by the pilot World Bank project on the credit rating of Philippine cities, which I emailed to Julma (Narvadez) per your request.

Only a biased columnist driven by the need to cherry-pick data favorable to his preconceived opinion will deliberately ignore the report's contents in its entirety. On this note, why doesn't Vox Bikol publish the main text of the (whole) Credit Rating Report so that its readers can judge for themselves who is really engaged in spinning lies and half-truths? Let's see if Fr. Wilmer Tria will be up to it.:)

3. I don't think disparaging the Standard and Poor's methods will help you get out of this mess. Not happy with its message, so you now want to shoot the messenger? Is this how a "liberal" strives to find the truth?

4. Finally, nice try on that SPUKOI issue to muddle our conversation; Rolly Campillos of the Urban Poor Affairs Office (UPAO) is more competent to clarify that matter. But no, let's stick to the topic, please; the least that will come out of it is the education of Bicol Mail's editorial writer who swallowed your propaganda hook, line and sinker.:)
As I am writing this, Julma emailed she will take up my request with her editor, Eric Lagdameo.

But just in case Vox Bikol decides it's not up to the challenge -- which would have been a great contribution to Ateneo de Naga University's ongoing Philosophy Week celebration -- the internets, courtesy of Scribd, should do just fine.
Credit FA_Naga_ Final 31July09


17 January 2010

Hijacked by personal partisan agenda

WHILE WE'RE at it, I actually found the latest editorial of Bicol Mail's angry old man funny in a different sort of way.

I mean, how can the Bicol Mail people continue to put up with this kind of garbage that finds its way to its editorial space? Does its editorial staff even discuss among themselves the burning issue of the week that their paper must address -- as any well meaning newspaper worth its salt should?

Sadly, Bicol Mail's editorial has been hijacked to serve the personal partisan interests of its editorial writer. Like this one.

Questions that Councilor John Bongat has to answer

THE classic statement in the Spiderman movies that great powers demand great responsibilities does not end with a period. In fact it does not have a period. It has a relative phrase: that give rise to great questions that demand great answers. How true this is when one political term ends and another begins. The current issue on the great power of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to name the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court has given rise to great questions from senators, luminaries in the law, even bishops -- who demand great answers.

In the local scene, the great power handed down to Councilor John Bongat to lead the Liberal Party has with it great responsibilities that have given rise to questions that demand equally great answers. The funny thing is that most of the questions that Councilor John Bongat has to answer are not about himself or about what he has done as the Number One Councilor in the Sanggunian Panlungsod of Naga. The questions that he must face and must give truthful and off-the-cuff answers to are about his predecessor, City Mayor Jesse M. Robredo.
The title and opening paragraph starts well enough; in the context of the coming May 2010 elections, Councilor John Bongat's fitness and readiness to become Naga's next mayor actually deserves attention and scrutiny. But then the second paragraph unmasks the real object: it's not actually about Bongat, it's about the writer's continuing obsession with Mayor Robredo.

This is yet another proof of the once venerable Bicol Mail's growing bankruptcy of ideas. So, are we to judge now a candidate's fitness for office, not on his own merits and accomplishments but on the basis of a Q&A about somebody else, who's not even running anymore? How sad.
This is understandable because Councilor John Bongat is perceived to be an ally if not the clone of Mayor Jesse M. Robredo. For what has he been endorsed as the standard-bearer of the Liberal Party, most of whose candidates were of Aksyon Demokratiko, if has not been perceived as capable of providing the sequel to the great powers and equally great responsibilities experienced by Naga under Robredo’s term?

There are great questions that are raring for great answers that Councilor John Bongat must be prepared to give truthfully, off the cuff -- preferably without any coaching from Mayor Jesse M. Robredo -- preferably after having taken a glassful of wine for, as the saying goes, in vino, veritas (in wine, there is truth).

So John Bongat now needs to drink wine to be able to tell the truth -– and about somebody else? Is the wine-sipping Bicol Mail editorial writer also implying that Bongat is a liar for the most part of his waking hours, when he has to make do with water and other non-alchoholic drinks?
One question is on the investment code in the City of Naga. Has this code been truly implemented, its provisions followed to the letter, its organizational set-up manned with elements who independently perform their duties and responsibilities as provided for in the code without any intervention from those sitting in the executive and legislative branches of the local government of Naga?
What does this have to do with Bongat's credentials to be mayor if and when he wins in May? This is a question better addressed to Robredo, who is still the sitting mayor and therefore accountable for the investment code's implementation. And Bongat will have every opportunity to do his thing in regard to the code and the Investment Board, which the editorial writer may or may not like, when his time comes.
Another is on the loans contracted by the City Mayor as authorized by the Sanggunian Panlungsod. How much really are the loans -- in government banks and in other non-government banks, if any -- that the residents of, and those to be born in, the City of Naga have to pay? Transparency has always been claimed by the administration of Mayor Jesse M. Robredo but this item has not been included, wittingly or unwittingly, in his State Of the City Report (SOCR) or in the website www.naga.gov.ph.
This is as stupid a question as stupid gets. Simply because the answers are actually available in the internet, especially the 2010 budget in the city website, which lists Naga's statutory obligations, and this news article and the SOCR for the amount of the most recent Coliseum loan. At least, Atty. Che Carpio, when he asked for a copy of the S&P report, said he did an internet search first.
Still another is on the Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net worth (SALN) of Mayor Jesse M. Robredo, from the time he entered the political arena in Naga City some twenty-years ago until this year when he is tasked to head the campaign of Noynoy Aquino–Mar Roxas tandem in the Bikol region. What were his assets and liabilities, his salary then, compared to what he has today -– his assets and liabilities, including his net worth and salary?
This should be compelling topic for an investigative report, ala PCIJ. Well, I guess it's because the Bicol Mail is not PCIJ.

But come to think of it, why in the first place should Bongat answer for Robredo's SALN?
These are just three of the many questions that Councilor John Bongat has to give truthful answers, barring the excuse that the most qualified person to give the details is Mayor Jesse M. Robredo.

If Councilor John Bongat shall keep us in the dark by evading the questions, he is literally telling us that we are in for a long, long dark night.

If the Bicol Mail continues to churn out garbage like these, then its readers are in for a long, dark night of inanity and stupidity.


Choosing to see the glass half-empty

THROUGH my Newswires widget. I came across this Vox Bikol column by Atty. Jose Maria "Che" Carpio. The article is taking issue with the 2009 State of the City Report of the Robredo administration, which can be accessed here.

To set the records straight, I sent him the following email:

"Dear Attorney Carpio,

"I just read your Vox Bikol column, which raises the question: "Is 'Intermediate' the 'Best'?”

"I cannot fault you for taking a negative stance on the matter. It's the classic hall-full glass: in your effort to find fault with the city government, you have chosen to ignore the obvious, which I am quoting below. Funny how you can miss this when it is found on the very same page quoted in your column.

The overall FMA score of ‘Intermediate’ for Naga City reflects its moderately developed level of financial reporting and fairly high level of disclosure, adequate performance in annual budgeting and debt management skills which are more sophisticated than most local peers. On the other hand, the score takes into account the basic practices of Naga in elements of FMA like expenditure management and medium-term planning.

Notably, Naga City’s overall FMA score is the highest among assessed Philippines LGUs to date, reflecting the city’s more balanced developments in its FMA practices for most key areas, as opposed to some local peers who may demonstrate sound practices in certain elements such as revenue management, but at the same time scoring poorly in other areas like debt management, budgeting etc. Nevertheless, the Naga city government’s lack of computerization in most aspects of financial management such as annual budgeting, financial reporting, tax collection and disbursement have emerged as a constraint on these respective scores. A comprehensive computerization of the city’s system could potentially see improvement in Naga’s overall FMA and individual element scores. (Underscoring mine)
"So, to answer your question, an "Intermediate" score is the best among Philippine LGUs according to that S&P report. But you opted not to see that, and would not accept it, because you chose to see the glass half-empty, as you always have with the city government."


13 January 2010

Show me the money!

TV INFOMERCIALS of the leading presidentiables suddenly flooding the airwaves last night forced me to check their platforms, whose links Manolo conveniently put up here.

After reading through them, I felt somewhat like Cuba Gooding, Jr's Rod Tidwell character in Jerry Maguire and shout at Noynoy Aquino, Manny Villar, Gibo Teodoro and Dick Gordon: "Show me the money!"

C'mon, guys! You're promising us heaven (especially Manny Villar, who proclaims he will finally write finis to poverty as we know it). But from the looks of it, whoever wins will be so cash-strapped his administration wouldn't even have enough money to support the current level of basic government programs and services.

I did some pencil pushing using data on the proposed 2010 national budget, which can be found at the DBM website. You can see for yourselves the tables, including my notes, assumptions and computations, which I uploaded as a Google spreadsheet. Sheet 4 contains the table reproduced above.

Assuming my calculations are accurate, the incoming administration, when it prepares its first budget proposal for 2011, will barely have P125 billion left to fund P174 billion worth of other obligations in the 2010 budget, assuming these are carried over next year.

This "free resource" -- arrived at after taking out personal services (salaries and wages for government employees, which will be pushed upwards by at least P50 billion annually over the next four years, thanks but no thanks to the Salary Standardization 3 law), the allocation to local governments (including their Internal Revenue Allotment or IRA), debt servicing, pension and gratuity for retirees, and the maintenance and other operating expenses for government agencies in the executive, legislative, judiciary and other constitutional offices -- further dwindles to P69 billion in 2012, and to only P9 billion in 2013.

What are these other obligations? Table II-2, which details the Special Purpose Funds included in the budget, includes the following:

  • Budgetary Support to Government Corporations, which include GOCCs like the National Food Authority; specialized hospitals like the Lung, Kidney, Heart and Children Center; the Philippine Convention and Visitors Center; the Philippine National Railways; the housing agencies NHA, NHMFC and Home Guaranty Corporation; Cultural Center of the Philippines; and research instituions like the PIDS and the DAP.
  • AFP Modernization Program
  • Calamity Fund
  • DepEd-School Building Program
  • E-Government Fund
  • International Commitments Fund, and
  • the Priority Development Assistance Fund, more popularly known as the pork barrel of the Senate and the House
And this assumes that government is able to fully fund its annual expenditure program; in other words, the BIR, the Bureau of Customs and the LTO are finally able to meet their annual revenue targets. Otherwise, it will continue to finance these deficits (which reached P234 billion in 2008 and should easily breach P300 in 2009) through another borrowing binge. Which will of course add more pressure on our debt position.

Several questions therefore I would like to ask our esteemed presidentiables:

1. Given these constraints, how are you going to fund the programs you committed to undertake in your respective platforms, particularly the money-draining populist ones intended to win you votes?

2. How will you plug the deficit, which will surely plague your administration?

3. If it is by raising more revenues, what new taxes will you certify to Congress as urgent? Which government properties will you sell or privatize? And what makes you think you will squeeze out more of BIR, BOC and LTO and other revenue generating arms of the national government?

4. If it is by reducing costs, which agencies will face the chopping block first?

It's time to cut through the bull, guys.

We deserve better than the motherhoods you've been serving up so far.

Show us the money, baby!