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Let’s get vertical

Blog | February 7, 2017 | Joy Aceron and Francis Isaac

Whenever we talk of reform or transformation, we implicitly recognise the social wrongs and ills that we want to change for the better.

The question is, how does change for the better actually happen, and how can it be sustained under changing circumstances?


Transparency, participation and accountability (TPA) to make governments responsive and effective is a reform solution that has been popular in recent decades. A diverse range of TPA initiatives have shown mixed results; some worked, others failed. The gains made along the way varied from functional, to instrumental, to transformational. Solutions became problems requiring new solutions; sometimes, this led to innovations that distracted from fixing the basics.

So there is a need to sift through what works and what doesn’t, how and why. Our recent research report – Going Vertical – shines the spotlight on seven social accountability initiatives in the Philippines. It contributes to a growing body of knowledge which argues that strategic approaches are a promising route to delivering meaningful results from TPA initiatives. Strategic approaches, as described by Fox and Halloran, involve using multiple actions and tactics over time to achieve a goal, and an awareness of the complex and dynamic governance landscape, and the power shifts needed to achieve goals.

The research investigated how one strategic approach to citizen accountability - vertical integration – enabled seven reform initiatives in the Philippines to gain meaningful results. These initiatives all took place during a period when the goal of social accountability had strong traction in civil society, and an ecosystem of champions within government. But now, times have changed.

TPA in crisis? Philippines after the 2016 elections

The six-year presidency of Benigno Aquino, during which numerous reform initiatives undertaken to open government and enhance citizen participation thrived, ended with the election of Rodrigo Duterte in May 2016.

While the effects of reform initiatives under Aquino varied across localities and sectors, they constituted multiple spaces for citizen engagement, and achieved a broad consensus on participatory governance. The country’s position on international governance and anti-corruption rankings improved; the government claimed that this contributed to the steady increase of the country’s growth rate.

Although the new administration has taken initiatives towards open government – such as the passage of an executive order on freedom of information – it has also abolished an internationally-recognised reform programme on participatory budgeting. While making the state ‘strong’ – that is, effective and responsive in solving public issues – is central to its development strategy, this has not deterred the extrajudicial killings hounding the current administration.

These shifts in the open government agenda in the Philippines provide rich points of reflection for our work on transparency, participation and accountability, and a reality check for what the achievements of the Aquino period mean in hindsight.

Two aspects of our research speak to these questions: the balance between government-led reforms and citizen-led campaigns, and integrated actions and their impact.

Empowering citizens versus government-led reforms

The reform initiatives described in the Going Vertical research – in agriculture, indigenous rights, housing, health, education, disaster risk reduction and mining – each involved a variety of actions and tactics used by diverse actors to engage multiple levels of decision-making. While there were many engagements with state actors, citizen power was at the centre of these efforts, providing the necessary scale to connect actions, actors and voices across levels of decision-making, and thus to make a difference that mattered to citizens themselves.

But most of the TPA reforms undertaken during the Aquino period were government-led. How did this affect continuity? And did the government’s leadership of TPA reforms affect the capacity and independence of civil society? To some extent, over-reliance on reform champions and overly-centralising reform efforts of the state may have limited independent and autonomous citizen power.

In the TPA field, there has been a tendency to focus on providing mechanisms that make information accessible, with less consideration of the complexity and dynamics of how information and participatory mechanisms are used to hold power to account. The role of citizens – the actions they take, and the analysis that informs their actions – is sometimes side-lined. The Going Vertical study frames citizen action as central to meaningful engagement – a form of self-aware citizen action that involves thinking whilst acting, and vice versa. This kind of citizen action, needed now more than ever, is grounded in an analysis of power.

Strengthened accountability through integrated action

The Philippines is known for its vibrant civil society, and civil society efforts have been seen as solutions to many of the country’s ills, among them corruption. Despite TPA gains, good governance is perennially challenged while institutions remain weak and vulnerable to political capture. Philippine civil society initiatives on open government are in a situation of ‘low accountability trap’ and weakened political clout.

Nonetheless, the case study campaigns discussed in Going Vertical generated response and accountability from government. Acting at different scales through coalitions spelled the difference, turning the whole into greater than the sum of its parts, effectively withstanding pressures from anti-accountability forces whilst simultaneously maximising opportunities at different levels. They show that citizen action to strengthen accountability in governance must mirror the forces of anti-accountability and impunity, which are also integrated between levels.

In light of these findings, it is interesting to ponder whether depth, scale and ‘integratedness’ of the reform efforts of the Aquino administration era affected their sustainability. Did they engage broad and diverse set of actors who independently and competently undertook both advocacy and monitoring? And did they lead to the ‘thickening’ or broadening of civil society, or did they result in limiting the repertoire of what civil society can do?

Insights on ways forward

One finding of the research that is especially relevant for citizen action in the Philippines as it moves forward is the need for synergy of actions and tactics that have formerly been dichotomised and divided: between advocacy and monitoring, between adversarial politics and constructive engagement, between reform spaces in state and society.

While some of the reform initiatives of recent years were strong in advocacy, others were strong in monitoring – but there has been little synergy between the two. At the same time, there has been a strong emphasis on engaging the centre of government, perhaps to the detriment of developing broad and deep grassroots leadership that can check power at different centres. Different tactics and strategies for citizen action are part of a continuum. Working towards synergy can rebuild democratic citizen action in the country that makes a difference.

There is so much to be learned from the experiences of TPA that peaked under the last administration. Hopefully, lessons from the Philippines will continue to improve the way that TPA initiatives are designed and undertaken, leading to better results that truly empower citizens – which, at the end of the day, is the change for the better we want to see.

Meanwhile, how well Filipinos learn from their experiences to reclaim strong and vibrant citizen action that truly makes a difference to citizens might just spell the difference between deepening democracy in the country, and paving the way for authoritarian solutions.


About the author

Joy Aceron directs G-Watch, an action research initiative on citizen action and accountability that aims to deepen democracy. Francis Isaac is an independent researcher who has written a number of papers on elections, social movements, human rights and agrarian reform in the Philippines.
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