Ants, Robredo’s mascots
In 2000, when Jesse Robredo, then 42 and Naga City mayor for three terms, received the Ramon Magsaysay (RM) Award for Government Service, I was assigned to write a front-page story on him. In 2010, when he was appointed secretary of the Department of the Interior and Local Government, I dug up that story for a column piece.
Not many can and will be DILG secretary, but there are thousands of mayors and mayors-to-be out there who can learn from the way Secretary Robredo served. After news of Robredo suddenly plummeting into the sea and soaring to the eternal skies, I recycle that 2010 piece as a tribute to him. A great man has passed and the Commission on Appointments—shame on you!—did not know it. We should be mourning for ourselves.
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It was with bated breath that we waited for Jesse Robredo of Naga City, one of the ablest mayors this country ever had, to finally be sworn in as DILG secretary. And then everybody was sworn in except him.
The post had been unabashedly coveted by former Makati City mayor and now Vice President Jejomar Binay who did not hide the moistening in his eyes. But President Aquino was not about to hand the post to him. It was Robredo’s, or so we thought, and then, the wait.
What a relief when Robredo was at last handed the DILG post and he accepted.
As an RM awardee, Robredo had shared “the story of a small, faceless but inspired community which got better by continuously trying to better itself.” When he took over in 1988, Naga was “in bad shape” economically, service delivery was bad and political patronage was the order of the day.
Mere words wouldn’t have worked for a cynical citizenry. But leadership in action proved irresistible and couldn’t be ignored. Still a little creative gimmickry went a long way to make people “hit the ground running.” Symbols and slogans were among the secret ingredients.
Robredo had to offer his constituents a dream they could visualize and aim for—a place where they could live happily. “Ang maogmang lugar” (the happy place) became a catchphrase to describe the Naga dream, along with slogans: “Kauswagan kan Naga, kung bako ngonian, nuarin pa?” (Progress for Naga, if not now when?) And the busy ant, that does not work alone but in community, became the mascot. These, Robredo called his “communications strategy.”
Robredo said “participative visioning” was a key. This involved three essential elements: a core development perspective, a mechanism for updating the corporate vision/mission from time to time, and a strategy for communicating that vision. But first, he said, one had to do “environmental scanning” in order to know what Naga and its people were all about.
Robredo, a mechanical and industrial engineering graduate of De La Salle University and who has an MBA from the University of the Philippines, was a San Miguel executive in Manila until he heeded the call of former President Cory Aquino for young people to help build People Power at the grassroots level. Robredo packed his bags and headed for home.
Robredo used corporate jargon to describe his strategies but, more than that, he was a hands-on leader in touch with the grassroots.
Said France Clavecilla, a community organizing veteran who had worked in Naga: “He delivered fast. Housing for the poor was among his priorities.”
“Growth with equity” was at the core of Robredo’s administration philosophy. This meant that every citizen was a partner-beneficiary in the city’s development.
He recalled: “Almost no one believed us when we said that Naga would reclaim its reputation as the premier city of Bicol before the end of my first term in 1992, more so when we envisioned Naga establishing its niche as one of the best managed local governments in the country.”
But first, Robredo said, there had to be confidence-building, confidence in the leadership, the bureaucracy and the citizenry. “Leadership must be bold and inspiring, energizing, enabling and ennobling.” To show this concretely, Robredo described how he curbed illegal gambling, corruption, prostitution and drugs. “Our message was: your government not only works, it always does things better.” He put in long work hours.
City hall got the message: this guy meant business and they must do the same. “Everyone was given the opportunity to prove his worth,” Robredo said, “but it also became clear to everyone that a no-nonsense leadership was at the helm.” The efforts paid off.
But the citizenry had to be included. “The leadership must not only be empowering, it must be inclusive,” Robredo stressed. “It is precisely for this reason that very early on, we reached out to the city’s NGO-PO community instead of simply confining deliberation within a group of elected officials.”
“The Empowerment Ordinance of Naga City” was a revolutionary legislation that forged a partnership between the City Hall and the Nagueños. The fruit of this ordinance, the Naga City People’s Council, enabled people’s representatives to join and vote in deliberations and even propose legislation.
Naga City had, by then, garnered a string of international and national awards, among them the plum RM Award, which Robredo said, was rightfully deserved by the Nagueños.
Robredo did not stop learning. After his term ended in 1998, he attended the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. After three terms as mayor, Robredo left government although he could have run for another public post. It was important, he said, that he spent more time with his wife and children.
In no time, Robredo was back at the helm for nine more years. And the rest is Naga history.
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