CSW, coordination and coherence
“CSW” was an acronym all too familiar to those of us who worked in the Cabinet of President Fidel V. Ramos in the 1990s. We would see it in red letters written in his own hand with his trademark red Flair pen, on the margins of documents he would send back to his officials to signify the need for more work on the matter at hand. “Completed Staff Work” was something the former General Ramos brought from his military background, and a standard that, as president, he later held his officials to in leading the government and the entire country in 1992-1998.
All of us in his Cabinet knew what it meant. Getting a document marked with those letters back from the president amounted to a rebuke, essentially conveying that “you haven’t done enough homework” or “you need to coordinate further with other officials concerned.” He would not affix his signature on any executive or administrative order, presidential appointment or other presidential issuances unless convinced that his standard of CSW had been satisfied. (Contrast this with the reputed penchant of his successor for signing appointments and directives vetted only by an informal “midnight Cabinet.”) I recall how he once explained that a concrete indication of CSW to him is when all concerned Cabinet members jointly endorse the transmittal letter or memo to him, proof that proper consultation and coordination had been made.
After all those years, it is only now that I actually looked up CSW—by Googling it, as any online researcher would now do. Wikipedia indicates that the earliest description of the concept of Completed Staff Work appears in US Army publications; some sources trace it even farther back to the Canadian Army. Ramos must have imbibed it during his military training at West Point, and put it to good use in his military career. Formally defined, it is a principle of management stating that subordinates submitting written recommendations to a superior are responsible for ensuring that the latter need not do anything further than review the submitted document and indicate approval or disapproval. The subordinate must document the research done, facts gathered, and analyses made of alternative courses of action, and then conclude with a specific recommendation for action by the superior.
In practice, the more difficult a problem is, the greater the tendency for subordinates to ask the decision-maker for guidance and present the problem to him/her piecemeal. But the CSW doctrine holds that it is the subordinates’ job to advise the leader on the appropriate decision or course of action, not to ask what they must to do. The leader needs answers, not questions, and is not to be burdened with long explanations. CSW protects the leader from half-baked ideas, voluminous memos, and tentative conclusions. It implies a lot of work for the subordinates, but allows greater freedom and focus for the leader.
Friends in government tell me it’s not uncommon for President Aquino to raise detailed and unexpected questions on matters presented to him by the Cabinet clusters or at the National Economic and Development Authority Board. At the level of the Cabinet or Neda Board where final approval is expected, there are instances, I’m told, when the President would remand matters back to the relevant departments for further study. This to me is both good and bad news. It speaks well of the President, who shows that he has a critical and discerning mind and will not hesitate to defer a decision if he sees something amiss, to ensure that the decision or action he and his Cabinet take is the correct one. But such instances, when they arise, also suggest that the concerned government departments and interagency bodies had fallen short of delivering CSW. Indeed, in witnessing so many failures around us, one is led to think that we could use more CSW in the way government currently works.
Coordination is always a major challenge in a government that is not only organized along sectoral lines, but is also structured in a way that supposedly promotes checks and balances, yet too often easily lends itself to political gridlock. Further exacerbating this is the frequent incidence of conflict between national policies and the authority asserted by local governments, and the lack of a definitive arbiter to settle such inconsistencies when they arise. Name the issue—port congestion, streets that get flooded at the slightest downpour, lousy international airport terminal facilities and services, breakdown-prone mass transit systems, and so on—lack of coordination among government entities invariably lies behind them.
Ramos, to my knowledge, had the best approach to this. He presided weekly meetings of the full Cabinet and of the Legislative Executive Development Advisory Council, created hundreds of interagency committees and task forces to address specific concerns, organized large multisectoral “summits” to tackle pressing issues, and more. His successors seemed to see all these to be a waste of time, but his was a government where people took part in governance and policy-making, and where the left hand knew what the right hand was doing. And when disagreements arose, he forced his Cabinet to a quick consensus. There is a small meeting room in Malacañang where he made disagreeing Cabinet members meet to find common ground. He later revealed one of his “secrets”: he would instruct Palace staff to switch off the air-conditioning in that room so that the discomfort would lead the protagonists to reach agreement quickly. His methods were tough, but they sure made for a coherent government—and the country was the better for it.
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