Earning his keep
Roberto “Bernie” Vergara, president of the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS), is the highest-paid government employee currently. Earning a reported P16 million a year, he earns more than P-Noy, his salary pegged to the performance of the GSIS in terms of income and savings.
At the start of his term with GSIS, said Vergara, whose hair has turned from black to salt-and-pepper in the years since he began guesting at the media forum Bulong Pulungan sa Sofitel, the board members of the insurance system for civil servants observed that “it was not right” that the president should be earning less than some of his senior executives. So the GSIS board, with the approval of the Governance Commission for Government-owned or -Controlled Corporations, readjusted salary levels, with the GCG pegging salary rates to the performance, not just of the GSIS, but of all government corporations.
So perhaps the active members and pensioners of GSIS, far from griping about Vergara’s stratospheric (a columnist describes it as “obscenely excessive”) compensation, should take comfort from it. For it means that the GSIS is not only a careful and judicious steward of government employees’ contributions, it has also succeeded in growing the assets of the firm, ensuring that in the long term the GSIS will still have enough to pay for the pensions of government retirees and the needs of its members who count on it for much-needed loans and assistance.
One of the innovations being tried under Vergara’s leadership are the “stakeholder gatherings” held in various parts of the country, including one in the National Capital Region in Pasig. The assemblies, observed Vergara, have by and large become “blockbuster” occasions, drawing hundreds of members who wanted to find out all they could about GSIS policies, practices and benefits.
Trying to recall what drew the most applause and approval during the assemblies, Vergara said he can distinctly remember the crowd’s “loud approval” when he announced that the GSIS “has stopped and would no longer be buying paintings.” The practice of investing in art pieces—especially an expensive painting (“Parisian Life”) by Juan Luna, and storing and maintaining it in its own museum—had been widely criticized. Since Vergara’s assumption of his post, “Parisian Life” has been donated to the National Museum and the GSIS now invests its funds in safer, less speculative ventures.
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MORE than answering members’ concerns and questions, the stakeholder gatherings are meant to encourage members to speak out and share their thoughts and sentiments with GSIS officials, Vergara said.
“Members have a right to speak out when they think the GSIS is straying from its purpose,” he observed. Which may explain why for this year, Vergara and other GSIS officials will be traveling throughout the islands, holding one assembly outside the NCR and one in it each month.
Beyond striving to meet members face to face, Vergara said the GSIS leadership is also seeking to continue reaching out to members wherever they are, the better to respond to their needs.
The GSIS, he said, is determined to establish more “access points” for members’ use—mainly free-standing machines through which members can check their account balances, transact loans and even manage their pensions. Most recently, the GSIS signed an agreement with the Robinson’s Group to set up a GSIS teller machine in its malls, while talks with the SM Group are ongoing. At present, he added, 95 percent of loan applications are now done through the mall kiosks.
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SUCH efforts have not been ignored.
Most recently, the Civil Service Commission awarded the GSIS its “Seal of Excellence” for scoring high in its annual assessment of the quality of service rendered by frontline agencies. Vergara is proudest of the fact that the GSIS head office led its branches in “excellence in service,” an honor that, he said, he sought dearly because “it would be embarrassing for our branches to be regarded as excellent while the head office does not measure up.” This is simply his way of practicing “leading from the front,” he said.
The high honors are all the more gratifying for Vergara considering how far he has had to push the GSIS on the road to delivering excellent service. In 2011, he recalled, GSIS was rated by the Civil Service Commission as “one of the three worst government agencies” in terms of serving its constituents. No wonder he takes great pride in attending every recognition ceremony these days, as these attest to how far the GSIS has travelled in terms of responding to and anticipating the needs of its members.
That is no small accomplishment. GSIS caters to the needs of some 1.44 million active members, while servicing some 400,000 plus pensioners. In total, it serves a constituency of 1.83 million, all of whom count on the GSIS and its stewards to marshal its resources carefully and judiciously.
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VERGARA famously “volunteered” to join the Aquino administration shortly after P-Noy’s inauguration. At that time, he was enjoying a successful career in insurance in Hong Kong, where he was living with his family. Though he “did not know anybody” in the Aquino inner circle, and before his appointment did not know P-Noy personally, Vergara sent in his credentials, saying he was willing to serve in any capacity.
“I did not volunteer to gain the experience [or earn my salary],” said Vergara. “All I wanted to do was to restore the institution.” That he has certainly done. Asked how he would measure the “impact” he has had on the GSIS and the government as a whole, Vergara had a simple answer: “You measure it by the thousands of people whose lives you have touched.”
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