P-Noy’s first test of governance
YESTERDAY’S STATE of the Nation Address by President Aquino culminates the season for assessing his first year performance in office that began with his presidency’s first anniversary last June 30. The grades he has been getting have not exactly been flattering, even from groups that may be considered supportive. As one would expect, the two main yardsticks that people tend to hold him accountable for are the economy and governance.
I have already written much about the first. On my “PITIK” test that focuses on presyo (prices), trabaho (jobs) and kita (income) or P-T-K as the main economic outcomes ordinary Filipinos care about, the news is good on two out of the three. Strong confidence in the new leadership has boosted domestic private investments dramatically, more than offsetting a region-wide drop in foreign direct investments due to continued uncertainty in the global economy. This has led to positive news on jobs generation and overall income growth. It is on price increases that P-Noy is being unfairly faulted, even as this can be traced mainly to worldwide oil price hikes, hence out of his hands.
In fact, the current inflation rate of 4.5 percent, though higher than last year’s 3.8, is actually low by both historical and regional standards. As the country’s chief economic planner in the 1990s, I found a 7 percent inflation rate an elusive dream, after coming from as high as 19 percent, also due at the time to world oil price surges. Now, Vietnam is struggling with 22 percent inflation, typical of our erstwhile dynamic neighbors. Thanks to our Bangko Sentral, our current 4.5 percent is actually on the low side in the region. Thus, I would actually rate this government positively even on the presyo yardstick, even as some are throwing unwarranted brickbats at the President for it. Hence, I’d say that P-Noy is actually doing fine on three out of three in my “PITIK” test—which is not to say that he couldn’t have done better.
It is on governance, however, where he truly could do far better. After suffering in recent years under a government short in legitimacy and integrity, we now see the result of having one that may rate high (though still struggling) on integrity, but is short on competence. The now common critique on the President’s KKK (kaibigan-kaklase-kabarilan or friend-classmate-shooting buddy) basis for filling key government posts is weighing him down. Perhaps, P-Noy cannot be faulted for seemingly placing a premium on trust in his choice of key officials. After all, history has shown us—at least twice in the last 40 years—what happens when power is put in the hands of competent but untrustworthy leaders.
It is his equating trust with familiarity that is problematic. To me, some of his high-profile appointments of “trusted” individuals reveal him to be not a very good judge of competence and character. To be fair, none of us can ever claim to be. But it is precisely for this reason that he would be well advised to consistently rely on an objective and rigorous search and selection process for filling up critical government posts. As my fellow columnist Winnie Monsod argued in last week’s Inquirer Briefing, the President’s KKK criterion is fine if he uses it to choose from a short list resulting from a prior careful and thorough selection process.
Having said all that, I’d still say that the first test of good governance is in the way government delivers front-line services to its citizens. This is especially so because the only direct contact millions of Filipinos have with government is when they must obtain a document or clearance from or make a payment to a government office. In recent weeks, so many readers have written to me about how punishing it can be for one to obtain a National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) clearance, an exit clearance for overseas employment, a passport, a driver’s license, a Social Security System ID, retirement benefits from the Government Service Insurance System, and yes, even to pay one’s income tax. Any administration should be able to see that the easiest way to look good to its citizens (and thus win votes) is to make dealing with government a pleasant rather than a punishing experience.
Instead, we have seen what seems to be a pattern of systematic institutionalized punishment in the way government offices provide the above and many other services to the people. Long queues and endless waiting times have become the norm. But as I wrote last week, these could all be avoided especially in this age of information and communication technology (ICT), in which we Filipinos are not lagging behind and in fact are ahead in certain aspects. A reader wonders why other government offices can’t follow the example of the National Statistics Office, which allows us to request for certified birth certificates online and thus avoid those long queues. Others volunteered the answer: those lines are a source of power for bureaucrats who use it to extort illicit income from people willing to bribe their way to get ahead of the line. That is why “fixers” have become a common fixture in such offices. It is not a problem of technology, which we can readily access (Filipinos, after all, are among the best programmers and system developers). It is, rather, the will to apply that technology to make life easier for the public that is not there.
P-Noy can still reverse his ill-advised move to downgrade ICT into a mere office under the Department of Science and Technology. He can yet cause the creation of a Department of ICT that could be the vanguard for the “matuwid na daan” that he has promised our people. I earnestly hope he does.
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