The establishment of intergovernmental relations (IGR) mechanisms is an innovative feature of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL).


Last May 30 in Cotabato City, the Ateneo Policy Center and the Institute for Autonomy and Governance launched the Access Bangsamoro website. This is an online and social media portal which aims to promote the free flow of information, analysis, and discussions for the effective implementation of the BOL.


READ: IAG, Ateneo School of Government launch knowledge portal on Bangsamoro


The collaboration of the two institutions aims to assist the Bangsamoro community in managing the many mandates imposed by the BOL, one of which is instituting IGR in the new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).


The concept of IGR is traditionally associated with federal systems. But many scholars maintain that IGR mechanisms can and do play a key function in unitary systems with embedded decentralization arrangements such as the Philippines.


Pertinently, Article X of the 1987 Constitution prescribes mechanisms that have some IGR features (See Sections 13 and 14). Moreover, the Local Government Code of 1991 also has a specific section on IGR (See Chapter III in Book I) — giving support to the observation by federalism scholars that we already have a quasi-federal set-up under the current charter.


IGR is explained in academic literature as modalities of interaction between orders of governments in a multi-level system which can include cooperative institutions and processes and non-judicial conflict resolution methods and procedures. The Regional Development Councils are an example of IGR in the cooperative context.


Taking the cue from the BOL, instituting an integrated and comprehensive IGR legal framework must now be seriously considered because it could finally lead to Malacañang and local government units (LGUs) working together in the right way.


This proposition harkens to the query made by the sublime constitutionalist, Fr. Joaquin G. Bernas, SJ, when the 1986 Constitutional Commission was discussing the form of government most suitable for Filipinos after decades of dictatorship, to wit:


“Should we continue a system where practically all governmental power must come from the central government, from Manila? Must we continue the overdominance of Manila over the rest of the country?” [Record of the Constitutional Commission, Volume 1, June 3, 1986, p25.]


Answering these questions is still very important because Article II, Section 25 of the charter clearly states: “The State shall ensure the autonomy of local governments.” And as per Article X, Section 3: “Congress shall enact a local government code which shall provide for a more responsive and accountable local government structure instituted through a system of decentralization.”


Notably, local autonomy as a mandatory prescription of the 1987 Constitution was contemplated by the framers to mean “a kind of maximum decentralization, short of federalization.” Therefore, the constitutional parameters for any local government code allow for the creation of a decentralization framework that can meet the goal of dismantling Imperial Manila.


So, just like with the BARMM, the new Congress can seriously consider instituting genuine IGR mechanism at the national level, especially if the administration decides to no longer pursue its federalism initiatives. Redesigning the current decentralization framework to fully incorporate true IGR would be a fitting reform alternative.


An IGR framework has three key elements. The first one is that there should be mutual respect between the different levels of government. There must be an unequivocal recognition of each side’s authority and accountability.


Second, there must be an ethos of interdependence. Each side must see the need to cooperate and collaborate to achieve the intended goal.


Third, the IGR mechanism must be a platform for civic participation. Hence, there must be space for civil society organizations to engage in the policymaking process as well as in the implementation phase of any development program.


With these three fundamental features, IGR can be the strong backbone of genuine and meaningful autonomy in the country as envisioned by the 1987 Constitution. But just a cursory analysis of these core requisites will show that incorporating IGR mechanisms will not be easy.


For one thing, the constitutional role of the President as the lord of the executive branch will be a huge obstacle in ensuring that mutual respect is part and parcel of potential IGR bodies.


Furthermore, the culture of dependency on the central government prevailing among local politicos can likewise be a major issue in implementing IGR mechanisms because a patronage mentality can prevent the development of an interdependence mindset.


Nonetheless, IGR is still the game-changer we need. A future where the monopoly of the central government in decision-making is replaced by mutual respect and interdependence is still totally desirable. For the country to have a coherent national development trajectory from planning to execution is a scenario still within reach.


The fact is many Filipinos today are utterly exasperated at the fact that despite the mandatory prescription of local autonomy in the 1987 Constitution, the national government still has an overly dominant role in the management of state affairs. This is the main cause of the country’s uneven economic development. And establishing a fully functioning IGR framework can correct this anomaly.


Correspondingly, Congress must make overhauling the current decentralization framework to incorporate IGR a top priority this year, even if the administration decides to postpone charter change. With more lawmakers now agreeable to enhancing decentralization in the country, represented by the newly elected pro-federalism senators, a robust discussion in the legislature about IGR should be forthcoming.


Indeed, it must be emphasized that a thorough public discourse about incorporating IGR in our local autonomy regime is absolutely necessary because it entails changing how we characterize the working relationship of Malacañang and LGUs.


The traditional omnipresence of the President in all aspects of government and the tendency of the central government to dictate public policy are old ways that need to be reconsidered. But in addition to a radical administrative reconfiguration, deconstructing Imperial Manila also means invalidating the centralized ethos that has been deeply entrenched in the minds of Filipinos.


According to peace advocate and development worker, Noor Saada, “When the real problem is ‘mental malaise,’ no amount of physical, legal and structural reforms will change the situation; we simply end with an overdose that never changed anything.”


Michael Henry LI. Yusingco, LL.M, is a non-resident research fellow at the Ateneo Policy Center of the Ateneo School of Government. This opinion piece first appeared on BusinessWorld on June 5, 2019.