Putting Local Governance at the Forefront
BY GODFREY T. DANCEL
INTERIOR AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT SECRETARY BENJAMIN ABALOS, JR. STRESSES THE IMPORTANCE OF MAKING THE PEOPLE, FEEL THAT THE GOVERNMENT IS READY AND ABLE TO RESPOND TO THEIR NEEDS.
To say that the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) is in good hands would be an understatement. With his background in the fields of law, local governance, as well as local and national legislation, Secretary Benjamin Abalos, Jr. was among the first Cabinet members that President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. named as part of his official family.
Abalos readily accepted the challenge of leading one of the most important executive departments, even as he noted the DILG’s important role in promoting peace and order and bringing together local government units (LGUs) with the goal of ensuring the effective and efficient delivery of basic services to every Filipino. And with the first year and a half of the Marcos administration having gone by, he wants to make the most of the remaining four and a half.
“What I do right now are things that I only dreamt of doing when I was a mayor, but I cannot do because of the limits of my office then. Now it’s an opportunity for me to do things that I know will make a bigger difference,” he says. “So for each day that is given to me right now, knowing that the next years will go by very fast, I try to give it my best. No time is wasted.”
Favorable public opinion as reflected in surveys such as the one by RP Mission and Development Foundation earlier this year only serve to fuel the secretary’s will to serve. “Lo and behold, I was surprised with the rating [because] all that I did was just do my job. You know, it’s as simple as that,” he says. In said survey, Abalos had the highest trust and performance rating among Cabinet members. His marks were virtually same as those of the president and vice president.
SOLID BACKGROUND IN LOCAL GOVERNANCE
Abalos’ sterling performance comes as no surprise. After all, he has been in public service for almost three decades. He first made his mark as a member of the Mandaluyong City Council, being elected to the body in 1995.
Three years after, he became the city’s chief executive, eventually cementing his place in Mandaluyong’s history by transforming it into the “Tiger City of the Philippines.” He built on the gains from the foundations laid by his father Benjamin Abalos, Sr., who had served as mayor from 1986 to 1998 (with a brief break in 1987). By 2002, during the younger Abalos’ second term as mayor, Mandaluyong had become a boom city, according to the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the Asian Institute of Management (AIM) Policy Center’s Philippine Cities Competitiveness Ranking Project (PCCRP). With Abalos at the helm, Mandaluyong became a leading business and industrial center in the country, with its annual income rising from Php41 million in 1986 to Php1.2 billion in 2001.
After a three-year gap during which he served as the city’s congressman, Abalos returned to city hall in 2007 for the first of three consecutive terms. Recognizing the mayor’s leadership, his peers from all over the country elected him as president of the League of Cities of the Philippines (LCP). He concurrently headed an even bigger organization, the Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines (ULAP), composed of over a million elected and appointed local officials, including provincial governors, mayors, and Sangguniang Kabataan officials.
Abalos’ term as representative of the Lone District of Mandaluyong was marked by the same brand of competent leadership he showed as mayor. One of his major contributions was Republic Act No. (RA) 9397, which made it easier for the government to dispose of parcels of land to beneficiaries of government’s housing programs.
In January 2021, Abalos was named chairperson of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA). He adopted “MMDA at Your Service” as the agency’s slogan and endeavored to provide quality, efficient and prompt services in order to bring about a safe, livable, and workable Metro Manila for everyone. Abalos also successfully led the unified efforts to combat COVID-19 in the National Capital Region (NCR).
Following his appointment as DILG secretary, Abalos echoed the call for national unity. His is the unenviable task of assisting the president in exercising general supervision over local governments as well as the Philippine National Police (PNP), the Bureau of Fire (BFP) Protection, and the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP).
“WE GOT THREE THINGS GOING. NUMBER ONE, WE VALUE FAMILY AS AN INSTITUTION. NUMBER TWO, WHATEVER RELIGION WE HAVE, ALL OF US ARE VERY, VERY RELIGIOUS. AND NUMBER THREE, THE SPIRIT OF BAYANIHAN, OF HELPING EACH OTHER. THESE THREE THINGS WILL CARRY US THROUGH IN THE WAR ON DRUGS.”
The Ateneo de Manila School of Law alumnus identifies three issues he wants to focus on at the national level, knowing how clear strategies that have been applied in Metro Manila could work not just in other regions but in the whole country.
“Number one is having a uniform policy on solid waste management,” Abalos shares. “During my time at the MMDA, I had the chance to work on something like this.” The secretary notes two important things about solid waste management: that it is hard when LGUs have their own policy that is not attuned to those of others, and that using the landfill system comes with various challenges.
“The problem with landfills is that once they get filled up, you will have a very big problem,” he says, recalling how he had to act proactively in order to avoid the possibility of a garbage crisis in Metro Manila when he was still at the helm of MMDA. “But what if you’ve got this waste-to-energy program? Meaning in each landfill site, we will convert the energy from trash into electricity.” Abalos recalls how he talked to the operators of the three biggest dumpsites where Metro Manila trash goes, and told them he does not want any garbage crisis, and the way to do this is through a trash-toenergy system.
“But it should be self-sustaining,” he adds. “If you have a waste-to-energy project, [you will be able to address your garbage problem]. At the same time, you produce electricity, which could even be given for free to the whole city.”
A uniform traffic system akin to the one in Metro Manila is another Abalos priority. “With the help of Atty. Romano Artes of MMDA and all of the mayors, Metro Manila has adapted the unified single ticketing system. The dream: for this single system to be applied to the whole of Metro Manila [after the pilot run] because the 17 LGUs have very porous borders. They’re very close to each other. That was the secret in the war against COVID-19: having a single policy. If you could replicate this approach with regard to other issues like traffic, that will really help a lot.”
“The goal here is for people not to be inconvenienced. Just imagine how convenient it would be for people. You are issued a traffic violation ticket in one LGU and that ticket will be recognized all over. It’s always for public convenience mostly.” It is this kind of convenience that Abalos wants motorists all over the country to also experience.
“The war on drugs is also very important for me,” Abalos continues. “Now we have this Buhay Ingatan, Droga’y Ayawan (BIDA) Program, which means that we focus not only on supply reduction. The focus is no longer just the apprehension of drug pushers, et cetera by the PNP, Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), and National Bureau of Investigation (NBI). Equally important is supply reduction, addressing the issues about drugs on the ground and how to keep the number of those already using drugs from rising.”
The BIDA Program, as described in the DILG website, is the department’s response to the need for “an intensified and more holistic campaign against illegal drugs to reduce drug demand in the communities.” It underscores various law enforcement agencies’ “continued intensity in the war against drugs within the framework of the law, with respect for human rights, and complemented by rehabilitation and socioeconomic development.”
It should not only be to penalize, but to correct and rehabilitate, Abalos says of the criminal justice system’s approach to drug offenders. “They must be penalized for what they did. That’s the price they have to pay. But at the same time, their behavior should be corrected.“
Such an approach, he says, will also solve the problem of jail congestion. He reveals that 70 percent of those presently incarcerated have drug-related cases.
With repeat offenders at almost 30 percent, Abalos says government must still be present in the ex-convicts’ lives so that they do not end up in jail again.
The answer, he says, is to create halfway houses. These will serve as temporary homes for ex-convicts as part of their reintegration to society. Skills they learned in jail, such as baking and handicraft-making, will come in handy as they prepare to have gainful employment.
Abalos subscribes to the idea that it takes more than one sector of society to solve serious problems. The BIDA program is one showcase of such. While the DILG takes the lead in the areas of policy formulation and overall program implementation, LGUs are in charge of mobilizing stakeholders and operationalizing program components on the ground.
“Each and every sector of society, each and every group [in the community], has a role to play here,” Abalos states. This includes individual families, schools, private companies, even religious groups.
Abalos is confident that BIDA’s unified approach to the drug problem will bring positive results, especially as it is in sync with the Filipino culture. “We got three things going. Number one, we value family as an institution,” Abalos states. “Number two, whatever religion we have, all of us are very, very religious. And number three, the spirit of bayanihan, of helping each other. These three things will carry us through in the war on drugs,” he stresses, while also underscoring that the program includes anti-drug abuse education being part of national government projects, LGU events, and school activities.
Among the national government agencies that have expressed support for the multipronged anti-drug program are the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), Department of Justice (DOJ), Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), Department of Education (DepEd), and Commission on Higher Education (CHED). Local government leagues, like ULAP, LCP, League of Municipalities of the Philippines (LMP), and Liga ng mga Barangay have also pledged support. Religious entities such as the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Manila, Imam Council of the Philippines, and Iglesia ni Cristo, as well as professional organizations, like the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) and Junior Chamber International (JCI) have likewise assured the DILG of their support.
BRINGING GOVERNMENT TO THE GRASSROOTS
With his vast experience in local governance, Abalos believes that it is best for government officials to go down to the grassroots and bring essential services to the people. He looks back at his successful Pamahalaan sa Pamayanan program when he was still Mandaluyong City mayor.
“Every Saturday, I would gather city hall employees, from those dealing with health, to legal, to business, and bring them to one barangay. There, we provide government services because weekends are when people are in their houses,” he recalls. “So you will see children getting vaccinated or free haircuts and the elderly having medical and dental checkups and receiving eyeglasses. You even see pets getting vaccinated or neutered for free. Even the legal and business-related services are free. And then you get a dialogue with the mayor. So we bring the government to the grassroots.”
“That’s what I’ve been doing here in the DILG, bringing institutional changes,” he says. “Yes, bringing government to the grassroots, but now it’s much broader. Broad, so you could always see me Dahil nagawa mo ito, doon papasok ang pagkakaisa (It is important that the people, especially those in need, feel the presence of government. Once this happens, you can say that you have succeeded. You have brought services to them, and made them aware of their rights. With this, unity couldn’t be far behind).” With a competent and experienced leader like Abalos at the DILG’s helm, local governance will surely be given the attention it needs. And with this, Filipinos, even in the remotest of communities, will be given the kind of genuine public service that they deserve. going around. You see, the concept is so simple. Just have people feel government, and that in itself is no small victory.”
Abalos reveals going to remote places, islands-provinces, even the Municipality of Kalayaan in Palawan province, to interact with the people. “Importanteng maramdaman nila ang presensya ng gobyerno. Lalo sa mga nangangailangan. Kapag maramdaman nila ito, doon mo makikita na talagang naging matagumpay ka. Dahil ibig sabihin, naibaba mo ang serbisyo at naipaunawa mo sa kanila ang mga karapatan nila.
Dahil nagawa mo ito, doon papasok ang pagkakaisa (It is important that the people, especially those in need, feel the presence of government. Once this happens, you can say that you have succeeded. You have brought services to them, and made them aware of their rights. With this, unity couldn’t be far behind).”
With a competent and experienced leader like Abalos at the DILG’s helm, local governance will surely be given the attention it needs. And with this, Filipinos, even in the remotest of communities, will be given the kind of genuine public service that they deserve.