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High blood

A legacy of public service and frustrated dreams

/ 05:05 AM September 01, 2019

More than 20 years ago, my late father contributed a High Blood piece to this paper. I am now retired and in my early 60s, and looking back at my father’s experience, I cannot help but see some parallels in our lives — not in terms of grand success, but of a passion for public service and reforms in government that also ended up as unrealized dreams and frustrated struggles. His sensitive work as a public auditor only brought him death threats from unscrupulous contractors whose irregular transactions he thwarted, or scorn from agencies whose extravagant and unconscionable perks and activities he questioned.

I do not think I can measure up to my father’s achievements and personal sacrifices. The closest I can compare myself with him is in his desire to serve the government with honesty, dedication and competence. My father was a visionary at heart, and my elder brother and I somehow mirrored his reformist leanings in our life choices, although ironically our father even seemed to counter them.

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After finishing college, I resolved to work in the public sector, but my father discouraged me; he knew so well the relatively low salaries and the travails of a career in government. He very much regretted my elder brother’s decision to study at the University of the Philippines, because this was how my brother got involved in student activism during the First Quarter Storm that led to his joining the underground communist movement during martial law.

I now look at this seeming self-contradiction not as an attempt to prevent his children from following life vocations that entailed sacrifices and radical challenges, because this was the kind of life he himself led. It was more of the normal parental desire to see their children in a better economic situation than what they had in their lifetime.

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My activist brother eventually left the underground movement and also ended up working in the government, where he courageously challenged the corrupt bidding and procurement practices in his agency. Until his early death, he felt frustrated at the institutionalized corruption that thrives and merely changes hands from one political dispensation to another.

My government stint was likewise not without its share of pained struggles and frustrations. Together with other similarly motivated members of the organization, we pushed for the institutionalization of a new ethos and orientation in government budgeting. Essentially, the objective was to build a system not overly fixated on making agency managers account mainly for how much budgeted money was spent (“financial absorptive capacity” in technical terms), regardless of their impact on the welfare of their target beneficiaries. Budget performance should mean being accountable for the delivery of measurable outputs and outcomes that improve the quality of lives of the citizenry (generally described as “results-based budgeting”).

But as in previous reform efforts, the desired systemic changes have failed to take root. They are either thwarted or diluted by the lack of political will and presence of corruption at all levels of the civil service; the bureaucratic inertia and antireform mindset within the budget bureaucracy itself; ineffectual systems of incentives to drive bureaucrats to change their old and ineffective ways; and the pork barrel system, one of the worst nemeses of good governance ever invented by politicians.

Proof of this is easy to see: the failure of the government to extricate millions of Filipinos from extreme poverty despite the ever-increasing levels of budgetary appropriations passed by Congress every year. The causes of our present malaise as a nation are of course many and complex, but I think the unreformed budgeting system has not helped much, as it should have, to reverse it.

In the twilight of his years, my father wrote about his utter frustration and sadness at seeing the deteriorating national situation on almost all fronts, and saw no hope in the Filipino dream ever becoming a reality.

After having reached my senior years and witnessing what the country has gone through and is going through, I find that it is not hard to have the same sentiment. And yet, if we truly desire what is good for our countrymen, and believing in a benevolent God that intended the redemption of all creation from the beginning of time, we cannot but hold on to the last shred of hope that we can muster, and do our part in nation-building no matter how small.

The legacy of failed ambitions and struggles can still become a legacy of hope for future generations of Filipinos, the paradoxes of life and of history notwithstanding.

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Gil P. Montalbo, 63, retired from the Department of Budget and Management in 2014 as assistant secretary after 36 years of service, starting as a researcher in the office of then Minister Jaime C. Laya (1978).

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