Just a decade ago, private-sector governance reforms began to make significant inroads into economies around the world.  However, very few people thought that in addition to improved economic performance, the reforms would contribute to the spread of democratic institutions.  Today, the Philippines is one of the countries that can prove the skeptics wrong. 

A well-known former finance minister of the Philippines, Jesus Estanislao, noted in a speech at the Center for International Private Enterprise last year that the process of democratic change in his country has been far from easy.  “It has been almost 20 years since the Philippines overthrew a dictatorship and reestablished democracy,” he said.  “The first few years of that transition were understandably painful.  But after a promising first decade, the country has been lurching from one crisis to another.” 

To give you just one example of a political crisis that has just ended in the Philippines – or maybe it has just been temporarily suspended – the Philippine legislature has decided not to impeach President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.  Instead, the country is now embarking on an effort to redesign its institutions and replace the presidential system with one based on a parliamentary system of government. 

In fact, the key institution behind much of the instability in the Philippines has been the Senate.  Each senator is elected at large, not from a district or region.  Therefore each senator probably wakes up the morning thinking, “I could just as easily be elected president.”  With twenty-four potential presidents, it has been rather difficult to reach a decision on the most basic of issues.

All of us underestimate how complicated it is to establish a real democracy.  That is, to form one that is stable and predictable, boring even.  Part of that is because we have a conceptual democracy deficit – a deficit in how we think about democracy.  Most of those working around the world to advance reform think of democracy as a system of elections based on political rights and civil liberties.  Some would add a few extras, such as freedom of association, religion, and the like. 

This is where the deficit comes in.  Most commentators would agree that “democracy is about more than just elections.”  So what is that more?  It is about how decisions are made day-to-day.  It is about democratic governance.  But democratic governance doesn’t just happen; you have to work for it.  There have to be ways for people to participate in decision-making, to question their elected representatives, to hold unelected governmental officials responsible for their actions, and to weed out corruption.  That is the deficit in our thinking.  We assume that democracy will produce democratic governance, but it isn’t automatic.  Elections don’t create good governance, and without the rest of the machinery of democratic decision-making, you end up with elected dictators or a bad government.

Returning to Manila for some good news, Jesus Estanislao is holding a conference there this week to showcase work being done all across the country to develop solid democratic governance at the local level.  His group, the Institute for Solidarity in Asia, along with CIPE and a few other organizations, has been working with local citizens’ groups all over the country to produce roadmaps for reform.  Over 20 mayors have agreed to make their cities into “Dream Cities” that will be the testing ground for increased public participation, anti-corruption programs, environmental improvements, and a host of other initiatives.  In short, they are building democratic governance city by city.

Here is how the program works.  The Institute for Solidarity in Asia took a novel business improvement program called the Balanced Scorecard and adapted it for use with public-sector governance.  The cities participating in the program pledge to develop strategic plans on how to meet key goals that they themselves identify.  The strategic plan is called a Public Governance System Roadmap and lays out specific goals and measurable benchmarks to attain the goals.  Citizen participation is key to setting the goals, participating in attaining the objectives, and certifying the results.  Eight cities are now deeply immersed in the program and 12 more have recently signed up.  Much of the work is being done by volunteers who are trained in the Public Governance System, as the program is known in the Philippines.

Moreover, they have now started mobilizing national sectoral groups as well.  Encouragingly, these include the business community, academia, the media, national youth movements, and a coalition of professional groups.  Even the Philippines Military is beginning to look into how it can form its own roadmaps for improvement. 

Estanislao and his team are realists.  They are not plunging into a national program for the country just yet.  Their goal is to create good, democratic governance in key cities and to improve the way the key sectors and professions function at the national level.  When the time is right, the momentum will lead to a full national program.

Meanwhile, we asked a number of the mayors, business leaders, media representatives, and civil society leaders attending the Manila conference what they thought about the Cha-Cha, or charter change, as the Philippine press calls the constitutional reform effort.  Quite a few expressed real skepticism about adopting a parliamentary system.  One of the main reasons was the belief that a parliamentary system needs well-developed political parties, whereas most parties in the Philippines are based on the personality of the leader.  Others felt that it was just another distraction from the kind of fundamental economic and institutional reforms needed to combat corruption and sustain economic growth.  What we are seeing is that the ISA’s coalitions are building the demand for change from the grassroots level up.  Their efforts will be the real solution to the democracy and good governance deficit and could be the Philippines’ contribution to similar problems abroad.