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All the president’s men

In the series of presidential debates and in campaign rallies, one constant is the candidates’ announcement of their various plans for the government once elected into office. These are the necessary pronouncements to entice and convince the people in their search for leaders. Indeed, is there a politician without a promise?

“Plataporma” is distilled into slogans and acronyms that are a candidate’s avowed priorities. Health, corruption, peace and order, drugs, infrastructure, sovereignty, social welfare, and justice are among the common issues tackled. The solutions are known in the literature of best practices. The key question is — who will make the plans happen?

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The country suffers from severe institutional weakness because of the lack of dedicated and competent managers. An institution in the executive department is composed of the secretary as CEO, the senior and middle management, and the supervisory, operations, and frontline personnel. Every president must search, vet, and select at least 5,000 appointees to various positions. It is the most difficult task. Imagine the challenge of hiring a good manager, one reliable driver, and a single trustworthy assistant.

From a management perspective, a leader only has to pick the most qualified individuals, and he can effectively govern as the key decision-maker and arbiter of conflicts that may arise. Delegation is the competency required for any successful chief executive.

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The criteria for appointment are well known. If not followed, a newbie will start with a steep learning curve. In my estimation and with a lot of hard work, that would take at least six months up to a year or longer, if the candidate’s background does not jibe with the needed competencies for the office. In the private sector, a company will recruit only the best and brightest to ensure the survival of the enterprise. Key persons are identified and retained. A succession plan is in place with a continuous program to train the next set of executives. The government does not do this well, if at all. It leads to mediocrity in the service that becomes a disservice to the public.

The president needs to deeply understand technical, legal, and regulatory frameworks, the multiplicity of stakeholders and interest groups, the insiders and fixers, and above all, the constituents who are relied upon to run the bureaucracy. He also needs to assemble his own team of at least 10 to possibly 50 people to head major units. This is another trial.

In the meantime, the demands of the office come in deluge. There is no time to pause and to think. Every day is a breathless exercise of playing catch up and trying to set priorities. Actions are invariably reactionary and piecemeal. This is not counting emergencies or controversies that may or will flare up.

Soon after the oath is taken, the budget season descends with only half a year to pass one. As it is, only half of the previous budget is aligned with the priorities of the current leadership. Fast forward to the midterm elections now less than three years away with new alignments. Then, the sprint at the end of the term with the last few months devoted to a new campaign, with new promises amidst a government in standstill. There is not much in between to get the right things done properly. The bureaucracy grinds and bears, and survives.

A month after our national elections, the Cabinet is yet to be formed. Announcements of appointees are made amid speculations and the lobbying of power blocs, one name at a time. It is only when they are revealed that the possible direction of the departments takes shape. It is good for drama but bad for governance.

It is recognized that certain accommodations may be made as part of the political landscape. But awareness of their impact on the here and now and in the legacy of future generations compels a handholding or close supervision at the minimum to lessen the risk of failure. Putting in place a team of professionals and specialists will serve a similar purpose.

In many other countries, presidential candidates present their initial team at the beginning of the campaign season. More important than a set of promises, it is the lineup of men and women who are honest, competent, and dedicated that will determine the sincerity and success of any administration. In a sense, winning an election is the easier part of the journey. What comes after — the burden of governance — is the test upon which any president rises or falls.

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Perhaps, in the future, a brave and pioneering soul can start a new tradition of matching plans with the men and women to implement them. It will establish certainty in the departments, whether for continuance or change. It will also forestall infighting among allies. Most importantly, it will allow the citizens a preview of what kind of government to expect.

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Geronimo L. Sy is a former assistant secretary at the Department of Justice.

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