Engaging with constituents
DENR Secretary Gina Lopez hit the ground running by meeting the agency officials together with the civil society leaders upon assuming her post. This was a first in the history of the department and was widely lauded. It brought a renewed sense of hope that there will be major changes in decision-making in the controversial bureau. This includes what advocates had long desired — that is to have access to information and documents, be involved in the decision-making process, which are all part of basic constitutional rights guaranteed to each citizen, apart from the rights to life, health and a healthful and balanced ecology.
It cannot be helped that the agency is dragged into speculations as it has a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide” personality. While the general mandate of the DENR is the protection and conservation of our natural life support systems, it has powers to issue licenses and permits for exploration and exploitation of our natural resources.
When stakeholders are given the run-around when requests for documents are made, with all kinds of reasons including that their documents are “privileged’ communications, then one knows that some interests are involved which makes access to public documents a tremendous challenge.
We have experienced this appalling treatment not just from the national agencies but from local government units as well. It is in these instances when one can see the disparity between Law and Justice. It is not enough that one is knowledgeable of the Law, the mandates of the agencies, our human rights, but we have to exercise, assert and claim said rights against the State, not just for oneself but especially for those who are vulnerable and most abused, who have no choice but to be silent and cower in fear.
The same goes for our defense of Mother Nature who is the source of all the elements of life to flourish in this planet. Have we been good stewards? No, in fact, we are the most vicious destroyer of planet Earth. We have contaminated the land, air, water resources and systems and the pillage continues, despite laws put in place to protect and conserve biodiversity and ecosystems and all of humanity.
Who is expected to defend her but us who are given the power to discern and make good choices to make living on earth sustainable now and for the future generation.
Here in Cebu, because of the vast challenges we met, advocates have to be creative and strategic in our approach to ensure that our inherent and constitutional rights are respected especially by the duty holder, the government.
We rely not just on environmental laws, but all other related statutes which impose the duty upon government agencies and instrumentalities to protect our life, livelihoods and health, to make records accessible, government service efficient and effective, to engage in serious public consultation, among other mandates. One such law is the Anti-Red Tape Act of 2007 or RA 9485.
Making the law’s provisions alive is the best antidote to corruption, bureaucratic inefficiency and gross neglect of duty by public servants.
It is a source of immense pride and fulfillment by this columnist that the Citizens’ Charter, the signage on ‘No-Noon Break’, feedback mechanisms, among other requirements and standards of service under the law, are now being displayed in many government offices and bureaus, not just in Cebu but nationwide. Ignorance of the law was used as a reason not to comply with its provisions.
In the early days of the law’s implementation, the University of Cebu partnered with the Civil Service Commission to evaluate and assess the performance of assigned department and bureaus. Our students were very much engaged in the implementation, helped popularize the law and its empowering provisions and became empowered themselves as leaders of their respective spheres of influence.
Initially, there was fear that what they were doing — writing public officers of the lack of the delivery of services in their community, with RA 9485 as basic reference point — will end up with a backlash. But it did not, of course. The recipient officials were interested to know more about their mandates and tried to effect solutions to the issues raised by their constituent.
UC was recognized by the Civil Service Commission as a partner in the implementation of RA 9485. Most important, the project made the students feel that as citizens, doing their duty and helping government do theirs is one fulfilling journey, while still a student.
I hope more citizens would care to know that these measures under the Anti-Red Tape Act are meant for them to be given the most efficient service that they deserve to be accorded by government. But they have to do the extra mile to assess the performance, and to make sure that the agency is made aware of that and will effect enhancements in the delivery of services.
I was quite delighted to hear of young officials I met in my travels planning of coming up with performance rating that the public would be willing to engage in. The Chiang Mai International Airport has such electronic scorecard which we can easily adopt. We hope this will be a reality soon.
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