The best role for the VP
VICE PRESIDENT-ELECT Leni Robredo, or any vice president of the country for that matter, need not be a mere “spare tire” to the president. Given the right role, there is so much more that the person occupying the second highest position in the land can contribute to the presidency.
Ever since President Corazon Aquino gave Vice President Salvador Laurel the concurrent post as secretary of foreign affairs in 1986, it has become a tradition for Philippine vice presidents to be assigned a substantive role in the Cabinet. President Fidel V. Ramos made Vice President Joseph Estrada “crime czar” as head of the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission. Estrada subsequently made Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo secretary of social welfare and development. Arroyo appointed, first, Vice President Teofisto Guingona Jr. as concurrent secretary of foreign affairs, and, later, Vice President Noli de Castro “housing czar” as chair of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council. President Benigno S. Aquino III did the same with Vice President Jejomar Binay.
To my mind, the way to have the vice president serve best is to put him/her in a role that demands effective coordination across government departments and agencies. For any administration, achieving such coordination and teamwork can be a formidable challenge, as all administrations are organized into ministries or departments defined along sectoral lines. What makes it even more challenging is the common tendency for a silo mentality, where departments do not share information and knowledge, goals and priorities with others in the same administration or organization. Exacerbating the challenge is a fierce turf consciousness that seems to be the norm among officials. These all get in the way of maximizing complementarities and synergies that potentially exist among the units making up the whole.
I recall how FVR preached “UST”—unity, solidarity and teamwork—in his Cabinet starting from Day One of his presidency, at our very first meeting immediately after his inauguration. He also constantly reminded us that one plus one should not just equal two, but could add up to three, four or much more if we draw on the synergies among us. He formed interagency and multisectoral bodies to tackle various challenges faced by the government. These ranged from broad concerns like sustainable development and social reform, to very specific ones like optimizing the use of lands under the Iwahig Penal Colony. That was his way of achieving good teamwork within his administration, and while it proved taxing for his Cabinet officials, it was an approach that served his presidency and the country well.
One important body formed by FVR was the Social Reform Council (SRC) to pursue his Social Reform Agenda (SRA), which constituted his administration’s response to poverty in its multiple dimensions. The SRC, which he himself headed, mobilized the different government line agencies as well as local government units in a holistic approach to poverty reduction. It also included representatives of the basic sectors, namely: farmers, fishers, children, indigenous peoples, organized labor, urban poor, senior citizens, students, women, the disabled, informal-sector workers, disaster victims, business, and the NGO (nongovernment organization) community. A secretariat, headed by then Agrarian Reform Secretary Ernesto Garilao, backstopped the SRC in its coordinative work.
Republic Act No. 8425 (the Social Reform and Poverty Alleviation Act) institutionalized the SRA and SRC beyond FVR’s presidency. In place of the SRC, it created the National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC) chaired by the president, assisted by a lead convenor who is a member of the Cabinet and heads the NAPC secretariat. Members include the heads of 25 national government agencies and presidents of the four leagues of local governments, along with representatives of the 14 basic sectors. In concept, the NAPC provides the mechanism for effective coordination of the various government instrumentalities and sectors to permit a concerted, holistic and integrated effort to reduce poverty.
In practice, however, the NAPC can only be as effective as its lead convenor can get the various institutions making up the council membership to allow themselves to be coordinated, by a supposed primus inter pares in the Cabinet. And that is where silo mentality and turf consciousness become formidable stumbling blocks, especially for a Cabinet member who happens to be low in the totem pole. Unfortunately for him/her, traditional protocol, and even seating arrangements during full Cabinet meetings, dictates the pecking order in the Cabinet to be a function of the age of one’s department since its official creation. In the forthcoming Duterte Cabinet, only the freshly created Department of Information and Communications Technology keeps the NAPC head, our supposed “poverty czar,” from occupying the bottom rung.
With any other appointee, then, that post is likely to be ineffectual, hence unattractive. But not so if that poverty czar happens to be the vice president. More than a first among equals, the VP is, after all, the second highest official of the land. The very position obliges the various agencies of government to allow themselves to be coordinated, silo mentality and turf consciousness notwithstanding. If President-elect Rodrigo Duterte is to leave the legacy of truly uplifting the lives of the Filipino poor, he would do well to give the NAPC the clout it needs to be effective, and designate his Vice President to be his poverty czar. That, after all, is where Leni Robredo herself believes she can be useful and help the presidency best.
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