EXPLAINER: Seniors didn't get the message on cash aid: must be conflicting or unclear -- or did some people muddle it?

Pachico A. Seares

THE INCIDENT. Just after the June 5 official meeting, which was depicted or confused as a belated birthday party for Cebu City Mayor Edgardo Labella, came the June 10 gathering of about 200 elderly persons in front of City Hall, which initially showed disregard of health protocol and physical strain on the seniors.

No formal complaint or evidence was presented on the alleged party. An investigation has been ordered by the mayor on who spread the alleged false information about the seniors' cash.

WHAT WE KNOW. From news clips in the archives of two print dailies and one digital news site, this we know:

[1] On April 15, the city's public information office announced in its news site the mayor's Executive Order #68 setting guidelines on the grant of cash aid to the city's seniors during the enhanced quarantine or ECQ.

[2] A provision (Section 2, letter f) says failure of a senior to claim the money during the distribution period and to claim it from Osca within a grace period of 10 days "from the lifting of community quarantine" will forfeit the cash and revert it to the general fund.

[3] Shortly after the EO's release, Mayor Labella announced in the news media he had "waived" the 10-day grace period and a house-to-house distribution for those who could not personally make the claim would start on April 25.

[4] The 200 or so people who gathered last June 10 at City Hall must be mostly those who didn't get their March-to-May stipend who feared they would forfeit the P3,000 cash each.

THE QUESTION. Were the seniors induced by false information, deliberately or unintentionally spread by social media users?

Mayor Labella and City Administrator Floro Casas Jr. suspected that fake news was spread to gather the seniors at City Hall. The result was doubly embarrassing: junking of health measures and seeming cruelty to old and presumably ailing people.

Labella ordered an inquiry by the city legal office and the police. Casas posted on Facebook screenshots of the scene in front of City Hall and the accusatory comment of former city councilor and BOPK stalwart Sisinio Andales. Andales seemed to revel in the embarrassment of city officials, thus looming as one probable suspect in the eyes of Casas.

WHAT WENT WRONG. The inherent problem: many seniors don't follow the news, get only snatches of it or hand-me-down information. The annoying fact: social media gives "breaking" news but it's mostly incomplete or inaccurate. Some are false and mean.

City Hall needed to adopt a well-thought-out policy. The arbitrary "forfeit" provision was some booby trap. The seniors wouldn't want to lose money on a technicality -- and with such a short window (10 days). It tended to set off an implementation nightmare. The mayor later abandoned the policy, indicating it could've been studied more thoroughly.

There were also some mixed signals. In the EO itself, the forfeit provision in its title mentioned ECQ and the specific provision mentioned "community quarantine." When the issue was raised in the media, City Hall argued that the "forfeit" provision could not apply yet because the quarantine has not yet been lifted. But the ECQ was lifted June 15; thus the 10-day period must already be running. But then, in reply, the mayor already 'waived" the forfeiture. The message must not have gone through, not to the 200 people who massed at City Hall.

CLARITY OF MESSAGE is the basic requirement. And more:

(1) Repeat it often and plainly enough to avoid any confusion or misunderstanding.

(2) Public officials involved in messaging or implementing the policy must not give mixed signals. On the matter of forfeited cash: Andales reproduced a screen-grab of a supposed exchange between a netizen and an Osca official wherein the official said the deadline was June 15 and thus the expiry would be 10 days after. Osca apparently forgot about the mayor's "waiver."

(3) Any change in procedure or policy needs to be communicated quickly and repeatedly. The mayor said house-to-house distribution. Was that information not adequately relayed or did other officials announce a contrary policy?

(4) The need for P.I.O. not just to release information on a policy or procedure but to correct any actually wrong or confusing part of that information. It requires close monitoring of the news sites and social media comments: which "falsehood" needs a pinpoint response? The nasty and mean in social media cannot keep the falsehood alive if promptly City Hall can rescue it with its "truth."

THE POLITICS FACTOR. Cannot be avoided, especially in the Cebu City setting where the opposition is not waiting for the next election season, or the pandemic to be contained, to slam the sitting officials.

City Hall has its information or propaganda machine. It can very well refute any false or misleading accusation. For instance, on the cash distribution, City Hall just needs to show that it has already paid on the latest release 75,000 or more of 80,000 beneficiaries. As to those who showed up to collect their money, city officials showed that it promptly moved those assembled at City Hall to the Cebu Coliseum where they were protected from rain and seated, physically distanced, while waiting.

It would be difficult for investigators to stick any charge of malice, through misleading but not entirely false information. The administration just has to return fire with fire: on facts and logic and the political slant.