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No Free Lunch
Missing Ramos-style governance

By Cielito Habito
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 04:29:00 11/09/2010

Filed Under: Governance, Economy and Business and Finance, Civil & Public Services, Government

WITH THE missteps being made by the Aquino administration, which has admittedly faced daunting expectations from Day One, I often look back to the 1990s with fond nostalgia. For most of us, it was a time when things seemed to be consistently looking up, whether in the economy, social and human welfare, or governance. As one of the country?s economic managers then, I was witness to how we drew standing-room-only audiences wherever we held investment briefings abroad. Our foreign hosts would tell us of how before our time, they would book the smallest rooms in the venues for such forums to avoid the embarrassment of half-empty audiences. But we were told that they were now booking the largest rooms available and still running out of seats. Interest and confidence in the Philippines were clearly running high. The way our stock market zoomed to record highs, and even became the best-performing stock market in the world at one point, was but one tangible manifestation of this.

As head of the National Economic and Development Authority then, I recall how we at NEDA often felt affirmed every time we exceeded our economic growth targets?and it was not because the targets were too modest. We in fact constantly debated those growth targets with the visiting team from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), who were often in town breathing down our necks because we owed them money big time. Almost always, they would insist that our growth targets were much too ambitious?and thus held the Bangko Sentral to what the latter felt to be overly rigid limits on money supply growth. And so we at NEDA were often delighted to be able to get back at them later and say, ?See, we told you so!?

If the economy was flying high then, it was largely because government was working well. Morale was high, whether in the Cabinet or in the rank and file. Teamwork and positive chemistry were quite palpable within the Ramos Cabinet, and our team captain exercised effective leadership by bringing out the best in his team. He had set the tone for such teamwork at the very outset: In the very first Cabinet meeting right after his oath-taking at Rizal Park, he gave us a ?sermon? where he made clear in no uncertain terms that he expected ?UST? from us?that is, unity, solidarity and teamwork. There were to be no public debates or disagreements among Cabinet members, especially through the media. Decisions were to be made by consensus, and debates were to be kept behind closed doors; should some of us disagree with the consensus or majority outcome, he/she was expected to shut up, or if this was untenable, resign. No policy decisions or appointments came out of a ?midnight Cabinet??there was none. All endorsements for presidential action were to be subject to ?CSW? (complete staff work), with all implications properly analyzed, proper consultations undertaken and all necessary inter-agency coordination done, to be evidenced by transmittals signed and endorsed by all Cabinet members concerned.

To President Ramos, inter-agency coordination was a religion. He formed countless coordinative bodies to ensure collegial decision-making on key policy concerns and issues. As such, many of us in his Cabinet lamented (but did not complain) that practically all of our regular office hours (and often beyond) were spent attending various meetings, especially of inter-agency coordinative bodies like Cabinet clusters, NEDA Board committees, and countless councils, commissions and task forces. At one point, I asked my staff at NEDA to count exactly how many such bodies NEDA belonged to, and was told there were 443?about half of which NEDA chaired, being a so-called ?oversight agency.? But then and now, I have on balance seen it all as a good thing, as I feel that never before?and after?had there been as effective teamwork and coordination in the government as in the Ramos era. Yes, we had a lot of meetings, but these were crucial to achieving the ?UST? that Ramos preached.

It didn?t matter, by the way, that many of us whom he appointed to his Cabinet were unknown to him prior to his election to the presidency. It didn?t even seem to matter if we had even voted for him at all (I was never asked). And unlike his successors, he never withheld the pork barrel from any legislator, or the internal revenue allotment (IRA) from a governor or mayor because they happened to be in the political opposition. Ramos, it seems, didn?t really care. What he did care about was that his Cabinet and other officials could deliver on his tough demands. And it was hard not to as he led by example, keeping at least 16-hour working days, seven days a week. Most of us experienced receiving phone calls from him as early as 5 a.m., by which time he was already on top of the day?s news. I recall frantically scanning the front pages of the major dailies before taking an early morning call from him whenever they came, to make sure I knew what I might have to answer to.

With the tough schedule he kept, there was one little concession I did seek, and got, from this 7-days-a-week President: When I had to be with him on a trip on a Sunday, I was permitted to bring my family along. Being his youngest Cabinet member then, with five young growing children who saw their father more on television than in the flesh, I had to insist that Sunday was my day for the family?and to his credit, President Ramos respected that.

How I miss him. He could teach the incumbent President a thing or two.

* * *

E-mail: cielito.habito@gmail.com

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