People power and the SSS

The resignation of Vitaliano Nanagas as president of the Social Security System has become for many thoughtful Filipinos one more occasion to reflect on the wisdom of people power and to warn against its dangers.  The prevalent view is that a reform-minded official has been sacrificed to appease a mob bent on resisting any change at the agency.

This is a serious issue that we may understand better if it is broken down to a series of questions.  Did the protesting SSS employees have a right to air their grievances against their new president?  Did they behave like a mob?  Has it now become more difficult for the government to institute necessary reforms at the SSS and to investigate past instances of corruption because of the replacement of Nanagas?  How do we prevent people power from degenerating into mob rule?  What lessons does the SSS crisis teach us?

Did the SSS employees have a right to stage a protest?  Without going into the validity of their cause, I think the protesting employees were within their constitutional rights to articulate their grievances against the leadership of the organization.  The exercise of these rights is protected and regulated by our laws.  For instance, they can protest for as long as they do not disrupt the delivery of public service.  Government employees take risks when they overstep the limits of these rights.

Did the employees behave like a mob?  To call a protest crowd a mob is the best way to discredit it.  The label is laden with pejorative connotations but it has little analytical value.  A mob is an unruly crowd. The thrust of its movement is anarchic and destructive. No accountable and identifiable leadership coordinates its actions.  None of these elements seem to apply to the SSS protest.  The employees held daily pickets during lunch breaks. Their most extreme act was their 3-day walkout from their offices, which effectively paralyzed operations.  Those who walked out could be held individually liable, but nothing in their behavior conveys the existence of a mob.  When they thought they had won, they went back to their work, even offering to make up for the loss of service hours by working extra over the weekend.  These are not the actions of a mob.

Has the ouster of the SSS president as demanded by the union made it more difficult for the government to institute reforms at the agency?  This is a possibility, but it will only happen if the government, through the SSS commissioners, allows itself to be taken hostage by its own employees.  The new SSS president, Corazon de la Paz, has a mandate from President Macapagal to improve the delivery of services and protect the interests of SSS members by pursuing necessary reforms and conducting investigations into allegations of corruption.  Ms. De la Paz’s authority is bolstered by this assurance from the President, just as her effectiveness as a leader will be enhanced if she conducts adequate consultations with the staff before she institutes major reforms.  The philosophy of consultation is the new element here; it was not part of the old ethos of bureaucracy.  It has made the task of leadership a bit more demanding.

How do we prevent people power from degenerating into mob rule? The key lies in the leadership of any popular mobilization.  Leaders must take responsibility for the mass actions they initiate.  The Edsa 3 protest crowd degenerated into the Mendiola mob because after whipping the crowd into a state of frenzy, its leaders promptly disappeared.  The spirit of people power will often be invoked for the most parochial interests.  This does not however diminish the value of the concept.  As a rule, mass mobilizations are difficult to sustain over time; illegitimate uses of people power will by nature tend to have a very short life.

What lessons does the SSS crisis leave us?  Public institutions like the SSS are governed by their trustees.  These are the commissioners in the case of the SSS.  Most of them are directly appointed by the president of the country, while others hold their seats as ex-officio members.  Together, they are supposed to represent not only the interests of the SSS members but also of the larger society.  Ideally, the internal problems of the SSS should have been settled by the SSS commissioners as a collective body.  The appointment in the middle of the crisis of a new chair, a position concurrently held by Lanny Nanagas, should have signaled the active intervention of the board in the settlement of the ongoing conflict before it worsened into a virtual strike.  But the commissioners chose ominously to be quiet, and Nanagas was basically left alone to defend himself.

At a time like this, the worst thing we could do to ourselves is to start regretting or fearing people power.  Surely, it is not an easy time to be in government service.  A people newly-awakened to the magic of direct collective action as a political weapon will take time to accept the old routines of stable bureaucracies.  Some of these bureaucracies are ossified tyrannies; they will have to adjust to the new realities.  The executive must learn to respond to mass clamor before it matures into open conflict.

It is true that people power may sometimes be deployed to oppose reforms and to protect entrenched interests within the bureaucracy. In such instances, it will be necessary for the larger public to call the entire institution to task.  The flood of editorials and columns decrying the removal of Nanagas from the SSS precisely carries this message. One only wishes the media and leaders of government who now loudly proclaim the need for reform at the SSS had spoken earlier.


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