One of the things dear to my heart that President Marcos Jr. mentioned in his State of the Nation Address was the improvement of the ease of doing business with the government. This fits in nicely with his desire to rightsize the government. The two complement each other.
But rightsizing won’t be easy. I remember discussing with former president Rodrigo Duterte many times the need to massively reform the bureaucracy from the many-headed hydra it had become. He was never able to effect it; the entrenched hydra was too deep.
Mr. Marcos might want to reflect on this. Not only did Duterte fail, but every president since Roxas has promised to reform, rationalize, reengineer, rightsize the bureaucracy. Every president has failed. I fear he will, too. So I have a suggestion, break it into bite-sized chunks. Do two things first. 1) Strengthen and widen the scope of the Anti-Red Tape Authority (Arta). It’s a proven success at improving and simplifying bureaucratic action. 2) Pick one department to streamline as a first pilot example. The obvious one would be agriculture, but that’s possibly the most complex and difficult. So perhaps another to learn the ropes. I propose the Department of Finance. Its agencies, the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) and Bureau of Customs (BOC), are ones we all deal with and are most in need of modernizing.
Much of the improvement defined by rightsizing will be in digitizing the agency’s services. That automatically will result in fewer people, and simpler, faster services. But in instituting it, he will need to watch out for one thing: Sabotage. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, there are a few government employees who’ve benefited from an inefficient manual system and will see not only their jobs but their revenues impacted. They’ll find ways to sabotage the system that’s being put in place.
At the same time, he needs to change attitudes. Or more correctly, change the environment in which government employees work so that their attitudes can change.
They must be able to do their job without the threat of a lawsuit hanging over them for any action they may take that someone might object to. That threat results in inaction. You don’t get into much trouble for doing nothing, you just have to explain to your supervisor why you haven’t acted, and you can be forgiven, or gently reprimanded.
If rightsizing the BIR and BOC is successfully accomplished, another department or two can be addressed. I believe history has shown us that a whole-of-government approach is doomed to failure.
While doing this, he can also expand the role of Arta. Arta was created to address one of the principal frustrations of business, doing business with the government. Upon the recommendation of the business sector, Duterte appointed me to the board of the advisory council. As an engineer always seeking the most streamlined way of doing anything, I was delighted to accept. Bureaucracy is something I despise. The less of it, the better.
Arta has achieved a lot since its inception. The excellent work of its director-general Jeremiah Belgica supported by his deputies Ernesto Perez, Carlos Quita, and Leonardo Tapia led to reform throughout government toward the now famous “3, 7, 20”: three days to process simple applications for business licenses, permits, approvals, etc.; seven days for more complex ones; and 20 days for highly technical ones. Coupled with frequent meetings and well-engineered programs that Arta introduced, multiple agencies brought their long-outstanding approvals up to date. And introduced the programs Arta had developed to meet the 3, 7, 20.
Local government units were also brought on board. Some like Quezon City and Valenzuela excelled at providing 3, 7, 20, both online and through physical presence. A single window was all an applicant needed to approach. No more hustling from door to door, or, worse, building to building.
So this can be a good place for Mr. Marcos to start his rightsizing and improving how business deals with the government. He can widen the scope of Arta to bring bureaucratic improvement to all citizen applications for service under its wing.
He should keep the team that is there in place. They have more than proven their worth, their capability to do the job, so why change? I’ve never understood why every president seems committed to changing everyone on his team. Why? So I hope he’ll keep this team.
To succeed a different approach, such as this pilot idea, is needed if rightsizing is to succeed. Fully concentrate on succeeding in one department before going on to the rest.
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