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No Free Lunch

An unappreciated agency

After two articles on the challenge of coordination in government, I thought I’d write on the travails of one government agency tasked with making such coordination happen, apart from the Office of the President. I refer to the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda), one of the so-called “oversight” agencies tasked with “poking its nose into everybody else’s business” (another one being the Department of Budget and Management). Having coordinated the crafting of the Philippine Development Plan, Neda must see to it that the various government entities do their part in putting it into action.

Heading Neda is a job where you simply cannot be popular among your Cabinet peers, politicians in Congress or in local governments, the donor community, the business sector, civil society organizations, and yes, the president himself. I speak from direct experience; I was the second-longest holder of that job next to the venerable Gerardo Sicat, who led Neda through most of the Marcos years. In fact, if the Neda secretary manages to be popular with all or most of these groups, then he’s probably not doing his job well.

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It’s especially hard to be popular among your Cabinet colleagues and among politicians when you’re constantly seen as standing in the way of getting their pet projects approved and funded. As technical secretariat to the interagency Investment Coordination Committee, Neda does the due diligence to evaluate all development projects for foreign assistance or public-private partnerships. And due diligence takes time, especially when project proponents are often reluctant, if not outright unwilling, to provide the information needed to do it.

The reasons for this can range from not having done enough prior homework, to having something to hide about the true worth of the project (and about who would really benefit from snagging the project contract). Neda is seen as “asking too many questions,” “playing God” or doing analysis to the point of paralysis.

In short, in exercising your job of protecting the government and the president from potential congressional inquisitions later on, including beyond his/her term, you are often seen as a slowpoke responsible for delays in project commencement. Worse, in those congressional hearings that do get called later, even long after you’ve left government, you are also called in to testify and are expected to drop everything in order to be abused by grandstanding politicians in front of TV cameras.

Unlike sectoral departments with focused constituencies, Neda has the entire Filipino citizenry to serve in equal measure. It is thus its job to reconcile divergent interests and positions, and to seek compromises. Thus, it can never make everybody happy all of the time. At one time or another, it will make a particular group unhappy—and because people have long memories for what you do wrong and short memories for what you do right, you unwittingly make new enemies practically every day you spend on the job.

Neda monitors implementing agencies unable to get their foreign-assisted projects moving due to issues like right of way and informal settlers in project areas—and then gets blamed for billions of dollars in unutilized foreign assistance. It issues occasionally unflattering reports on the economy based on official statistical data, and then gets the flak even if it’s merely the bearer of the bad news.

Because of Neda’s oversight role, it is chair or member of hundreds of interagency bodies. With so many committee and council meetings to attend or chair, the Neda secretary spends most of his office hours in endless meetings. The rest are spent delivering speeches on every topic under the sun, because being the overall development expert in the Cabinet, he is expected to speak with authority on anything ranging from fiscal and monetary policy to the role of mushroom culture in national development.

I’m all too aware of the personal sacrifice Secretary Ernesto Pernia and his people make on a daily basis. It’s no fun being among the least known, least understood and least appreciated government entities—and yet being among the most overworked.

[email protected]

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TAGS: Cielito F. Habito, Gerardo Sicat, NEDA, No Free Lunch
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