It’s the system, st*pid!
Now that the dust of the presidential election has settled and Rodrigo Duterte is the presumptive President, the country awaits the change that his candidacy has promised.
During the course of the campaign, there were plans and programs galore.
However, the electoral discourse was silent on a longstanding issue in the Philippine public management system—the need to reform the model of governance in place. (Although this should not be surprising as elections Philippine-style are personality-based, not platform or party-based.)
The Philippine system is still deeply rooted in the traditional model of public administration—highly bureaucratic, steeped in red tape, dichotomy between policy and administration, civil servants subservient to political control, poor delivery of services, etc.
New public management
In the early ’80s, countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia recognized the need to reform their government systems. They moved away from the traditional bureaucratic model and introduced a new era, which has come to be known as the age of new public management. This was a time when such concepts as “reinventing government,” “marketization” and “corporatization” of government became buzzwords in the public sector.
This movement came as a result of growing public disenchantment with government, which was deemed no longer capable of delivering public services effectively and efficiently.
Similarly, Duterte’s overwhelming win validates the widespread agreement among the general public that this is the situation of the Philippine government, for too long now. Pundits attribute Duterte’s popularity to a massive public outcry for change.
International financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, tried to bring principles and practices of new public management to developing countries like the Philippines as conditions of aid. However, the externally dictated reforms clearly have not taken root.
Admittedly, the outgoing administration of President Aquino has made great strides to stabilize the socioeconomic environment. However, the government is still perceived as inefficient, vulnerable to corruption and with weak institutions. Mamasapano, Yolanda, laglag bala and the Disbursement Acceleration Program controversy are but a few examples that give credence to this perception.
Enter Duterte. People seem to think that the incoming President may be the country’s political messiah.
What Filipinos need to understand though is that changing the captain of a dilapidated ship will not solve the problem. The country needs to fix its ship! The Philippines can reach the port of long-term sociopolitical and economic stability, but it will not be on a ship that is anchored on the antiquated traditional system of governance.
There has to be recognition among all policy actors and stakeholders that the underlying problem is the system, which like the governments in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand before their reforms, is no longer delivering the results that the public expects. At the heart of the problem in the case of the Philippines is the absence of a long-term strategic direction to reform the whole system of governance.
It is noteworthy that among the presidential candidates, only Duterte talked about system issues. In fact, he declared he would push for a shift to a federal form of government. His spokesperson Peter Laviña made further postelections pronouncements, saying Duterte also wants to overhaul the Constitution and shift from a unitary to a parliamentary form of government.
These structural changes maybe steps in the right direction. However, changes in form should be accompanied by changes in the way of doing things.
A particular feature of the current system that Duterte, along with the other policymakers, should address is short-termism.
Under the current Philippine system, the President appoints heads of departments and a ridiculous number of other positions in government. And so every six years, most if not all senior leaders in departments, are replaced, except for a few career officials who rose from the ranks and remain in their positions. This is the unfortunate reality and the permanent, professional, nonpartisan civil servants have been resigned to this practice. This turnover every six years may need to change.
Because of this cycle, leaders in the executive branch tend to run short-term programs as there is no incentive for them to plan longer term. Incoming secretaries usually come up with their own programs and do not build on the successes of their predecessor.
Some programs do survive the change of administration. An example is the conditional cash transfer program started by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, which was continued by the Aquino administration. This was because Mr. Aquino decided to retain Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman and not because we have institutionalized a system to ensure good programs are continued. Generally, government programs have a short shelf life.
New Zealand model
With short-termism inherent in the system, thorny issues that require sustained and long-term implementation remain largely unresolved, such as poverty, education and crime that are inextricably linked.
To address this, Duterte and the country’s policymakers should consider adopting aspects of the New Zealand model of having chief executives as heads of government departments who are not political appointees but recruited on the basis of merit with a tenure that does not coincide with politicians’ term of office.
This ensures a level of permanency and continuity of programs across administrations. In the interim, while a law formalizing this policy is not yet in place, Duterte may want to consider retaining some members of the Aquino Cabinet. For instance, as recommended by Filomeno Sta. Ana of Action for Economic Reforms, Duterte can retain Director General Emmanuel Esguerra of the National Economic and Development Authority so there can be continuity in the management of the government’s fiscal policy.
A system similar to the New Zealand model would also avoid the spoils system, which does not always put the right people in the right job. Too often, appointments to positions are made as political payback. For example, past Presidents rewarded an influential religious group that practices bloc voting for its support, giving it plum posts in the Cabinet. This brings up another problem of the system—ethical culture.
Compounding the problem of short-termism is the damaged ethical culture in government. The sad thing is even those from the current administration who claim to run government through daang matuwid (straight path) are themselves engaging in questionable practices.
For example, a Cabinet secretary who is a senior leader of the administration party, openly went around the country campaigning to staff members of his agency, telling them to vote for administration candidates. This is an obvious use of people’s money for political ends. It was not only the flaunting of the unethical practice that was disconcerting but the system’s tolerance of it, too.
There are also issues on the transparency of government transactions. For years now, the freedom of information bill, which mandates the disclosure of public documents has been pending in Congress. Again, the Philippines can learn from the New Zealand experience. In 1982, New Zealand signed into law the Official Information Act (OIA), which gives the public access to official information and promotes accountability in government.
New Zealand has consistently ranked high in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index because of the high level of transparency and corruption-free reputation of its public sector.
While the OIA practice in New Zealand does have its own challenges, they pale in comparison with the shameless unethical practice in the Philippines, which is getting worse. Before, politicians would get kickbacks from government projects, but now, the projects are no longer implemented and the money goes straight into their pockets.
In the Philippine case, Allen Schick proved prophetic in his warning to developing countries about trying New Zealand-style reforms without first addressing fundamental issues. In an effort, or perhaps more appropriately, in the guise of using modern public management methods of contracting out public services, government took a shortcut that ended up being a dead end! Government tried to contract services out to nongovernment organizations (NGOs).
Unfortunately, some of the NGOs turned out to be bogus (of the Napoles type) and used as dummies to channel funds from government coffers into lawmakers’ pockets!
The executive branch itself got entangled in allegations of bribery after confessions from senators came out that the Department of Budget and Management (which holds the purse) gave additional pork barrel to senators who voted to convict the late Chief Justice Renato Corona during his impeachment trial.
Ethical issues are not happening only at the top. A Bureau of Customs union president made the news recently for opposing the placement of CCTV cameras around the bureau. He practically admitted an open secret of corruption at customs.
No doubt the ethical culture in government needs to be addressed. There needs to be a sustained program to strengthen ethics in government. A good step will be to implement the law, such as the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, and the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act. Critics allege the outgoing administration applied the law only to their political opponents and not to their allies.
Until most leaders and civil servants learn to live such values as integrity, honesty and trust, and until they are perceived to be doing so, government will continue to be dysfunctional and public confidence will continue to erode. As Bownman and Knox said, “Ethics is fundamental to the quality of democracy and its administration (Bowman and Knox, 2008).”
Hungry for change
There are tremendous expectations for the new President. People are hungry for change. The rhetoric that endeared him to millions of Filipinos and catapulted him to the presidency will not be enough to bring about that change.
The early pronouncements from Duterte’s spokesperson about some of the things he plans to do, such as implementing curfews or imposing a liquor ban, may be helpful policies to address criminality. But these are just pieces of the bigger problem.
Real change can happen only if the system, including its structures, practices and values, those which run and enable programs, is fixed to meet the demands of governance in the 21st century. The environment has changed. The system must adapt correspondingly to this change. The present system, based on the traditional model of public administration, is simply no longer fit for the purpose.
No matter what programs Duterte initiates, it will remain difficult for the country to achieve equitable and sustained progress unless the system is fine-tuned. Why? Because we need to address the fundamental problem. And paraphrasing Bill Clinton’s strategist James Carville, “It’s the system, st*pid!”
(Janryll Fernandez graduated with a degree in Public Administration from the National College of Public Administration and Governance at the University of the Philippines Diliman. He is currently a postgraduate student of public management at Victoria University of Wellington School of Government in New Zealand.)
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