Going ‘Local’ with Public Services in the Philippines

‘A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.’
 John Le Carre

It’s not only about going digital after all…

In the city of Cotabato, Philippines, there is plenty of food and medicine for the old and the infirm but getting to it is a challenge. The bureaucratic hurdles to obtain a senior citizens card and grocery booklet can leave many short of food and susceptible to illness.

There is only one government office that provides the card and booklet, and for many it is a journey that can take a day to get there, and still not get the job done.

Across the Philippines, public service delivery in small cities and towns faces multiple challenges: it is difficult to access, riddled by red-tape, there is a lack of technology, and poor decision-making. The country’s decentralized system that has led to diverse administrative systems that are poorly managed and do not link up with one another. Geography creates its own set of challenges, with many residents living on remote islands or in mountainous areas.

Compounding the problem are a host of other factors, some areas are disaster-prone, some plagued by inter-religious strife, and others by nepotism, or chronic poverty, which make for challenging situations. So there is no model of development to replicate or best practices to adhere to. All these conditions make the situation a “darling of development” — scaling through replication — impossible.

Our approach, a new user-centered model for service delivery: co-design prototypes to fit specific contexts, test them, and eventually scale them throughout the country, while adapting to specific geographic and economic factors.

The first step was to try to understand the context through ethnographic research in the field, followed by stakeholder consultations, and validation of findings with citizens. The lens through which we looked at service delivery evolved significantly over 10 days of research and observation. We came up with several big groupings that needed attention: service delivery processes, ICT infrastructure and capacities, resource mobilization and prioritization, use of data, and transparency and inclusion. Here are the key takeaways after meeting, shadowing, and interviewing several local public servants, end users, and other stakeholders.

1. Reality beats the office

We learnt fast that the preliminary categorization of local government units (LGUs) — highly urbanized, disaster-prone and post-conflict — fell short. Factors such as local leadership and resource base cut across categories and often turned out to be very important.

Beyond government unit typologies, there were multiple anecdotes of how mayors, public servants, and citizens are inventive in overcoming “path dependencies” — conditions that define a particular pattern. In one of the cities, to overcome lack of fiscal revenue, a mayor has set up — hold your breath — a tax lottery. A person receives a receipt for buying goods, which has a number that is eligible to win a prize. This has resulted in more citizens seeking receipts for transactions, resulting in more taxes for the city.

In another city in Mindanao, its sole resident IT officer has designed six different software solutions for different departments, from business registration to asset assessment.

But this variation creates greater complexity and complicates legibility, making it difficult to for government units to impose a common service master plan.

2. Rules that bind us?

As our safari into service delivery progressed and observations galloped along, we discovered a multitude of variations. A majority of government units have citizen charters and standard operating procedures, however, the way those are presented differs widely. In some units, charters and operating procedures were not easy to find, and in other places rules were not being followed, or worse yet public servants were not fully aware about the rules themselves. Needless to say, citizens’ charters are often presented in a way that is difficult to comprehend for lay people. Again, something one wouldn’t discover sitting behind a desk.

Many processes are highly repetitive and paper-based. The fact that many units lack information sharing systems further magnifies duplication and puts a heavy burden on both providers and users of services.

3. ICT: Mind the Gap

While most processes are still paper-based, there is huge variation across government units. In some units, traditional typewriters are still the most used piece of technology, holding firm despite being adjacent to desktops. One reason: less than a handful of public servants know how to use a computer. And even where computers are used most of inputs are made on paper and then digitized, a considerable duplication effort. Yet, there are some units that have managed to digitize both front-end and back-end service provisions, to simplify services but also to reduce physical contact between service providers and users, in an effort to reduce corruption.

4. Data! What data?

Importance of data and visual representation while deemed important is not without controversy. While talking about the importance of data, many mayors and bureaucrats were at pains to pinpoint what data they needed and how they would use it. Use of data for local service delivery is precluded by a prevalence of paper, lack of communication between different data sources, and delays in access and availability of data that often needs to be vetted by the central government. As it happens, data is frequently seen as a tool to be used by public servants, not by the citizens. In short, having access to robust data is necessary but not sufficient, but what there needs to be is a culture of data use.

5. Citizen engagement: We are all (online) friends now

Variations reign again starting with communication channels and ending with official web-pages of municipalities. There is no common design or approach, and some municipalities promote websites that are no longer active.

While many municipalities retain suggestion boxes for paper-based feedback from the citizens, it is difficult to track if these suggestions are reviewed and acted on. In many units, the suggestion box was well-hidden from citizens. What seems to be working very well is social media. Most municipalities maintain vibrant communication with citizens via social media accounts or through weekly radio shows, and often these are the preferred channels for feedback and follow up.

6. Too many left behind

Finally, although internet and digital technologies ease engagement of end users and make service delivery more transparent and speedy, geography can still be an obstacle. This is especially true for barangays situated in mountainous regions or on islands, where telecom companies do not provide services. In other instances, social and welfare service access points are situated in remote and hard to access locations, a hazard for the disabled, pregnant women, or senior citizens.

Next steps

In the coming months, we will be developing service prototypes together with service providers and users, in several local government units. The objective is to ensure that new services are user-centered, simplified, integrate digital tools, and use data when available. We aim to work with neighboring government units to pool resources, facilitate mutual learning, and generally create a cooperative work culture across units.

The big question: How to move from a series of successful prototypes to systemic change in local public service delivery, across the Philippines. This is where UNDP plans to incorporate platform-thinking to facilitate learning between central and local government, and guide improvisation by scaling new models of service delivery.