Decency in public life

It took a fiscal crisis to force the government to take a hard look at the outrageous salaries that a few public officials are getting for the privilege of serving the nation.  If the crisis had not been recognized, if the habit of taking out loans to cover recurrent deficits had not been criticized, the virus of unequal pay for equal work would have quickly overrun the system.

What is particularly galling is that the nation’s top officials feign shock over these salaries as if they were learning of them for the first time. Not only are these juicy positions so well-known to politicians who regard them as sinecures reserved to a favored few, the laws that also excluded them from the scope of the Salary Standardization Law were passed by Congress and approved by the President.  The Commission on Audit, moreover, is supposed to submit to the President and Congress an annual report that describes the financial condition of the government and all its instrumentalities “and recommend measures necessary to improve their effectiveness and efficiency.”  If there were more integrity and less hypocrisy in government, our basic laws would suffice.

The basic law governing compensations in public service is found in Art. IX-B, Sec. 5 of the 1987 Constitution: “The Congress shall provide for the standardization of compensation of government officials and employees, including those in government-owned or controlled corporations with original charters, taking into account the nature of the responsibilities pertaining to, and the qualifications required for their positions.”

On July 1,1989, Congress passed R.A. 6758 or the Compensation and Position Act, which prescribes a revised compensation and classification system for the government.  This is the system that is now followed in all the offices and agencies of government, except in those agencies that were later exempted by law or were organized as subsidiaries of GOCCs under the general corporation law.  Budget Secretary Emilia Boncodin was thus correct when she said that the incredible salaries assigned to certain positions in some GOCCs and GFIs were allowed by law.  But, of course, not everything that is allowed by law makes good moral or managerial sense. The responsibility for ensuring that the law is not abused rests ultimately with the President.  Though long overdue, President Arroyo’s recent order to reduce these atrocious salaries is a step in the right direction. But it is not enough.

When private corporations or enterprises run into trouble, their managers are held accountable by their boards and ultimately by their owners and stockholders.  But when public firms are mismanaged or go bankrupt, who will make them answer for their deeds?  To whom are Napocor, the GSIS, SSS, the DBP, the PCSO, Pagcor, PhilHealth, and the PNOC accountable if not to the president? The mechanisms to monitor their performance are all in place.  Unless the Office of the President does its work, keeping in mind the basic principles of good housekeeping, it will not take long before the government breaks down.

The basic principles governing just compensation in the public service are clearly defined by the law.  These are: (1) equal pay for substantially equal work, (2) differences in pay must be based on differences in duties and responsibilities and qualification requirements, and (3) government compensation must be competitive with prevailing rates in the private sector, taking into account budget constraints.

In accordance with these principles, Congress created thirty-three salary grades under R.A. 6758.  The highest, SG 33, is assigned to the President of the Republic.  No other position is comparable.  SG 32 is assigned to the Vice President, to the Senate President, the Speaker of the House, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. SG 31 is assigned to senators, congressmen, associate justices of the Supreme Court, Chairmen of Constitutional Commissions,

Cabinet members, and the President of the University of the Philippines.  It is worth noting that none of these salary grades today pays more than eighty thousand pesos per month in basic compensation.  This makes the position of President of the Philippines roughly the equivalent of a junior executive position in a top multinational company.

The president, the senators, and the congressmen – with the generous perks and pork barrel at their disposal – may have no need for adjustment in their basic pay. But if their compensation is not adjusted, compensation at the lower levels of the bureaucracy remains frozen.  Professors in state universities and surgeons in public hospitals receive fixed salaries equal to the pay of new graduates working at call centers.  Until a few months ago, the basic pay of the civilian faculty at the Philippine Military Academy was lower than the salary of the cadets.

The situation was so absurd even then that when the salary standardization law was passed, Congress was swamped with bills seeking exemption from its coverage.  The first to be exempted were precisely the GOCCs and GFIs that claimed to have enough incomes that permitted them to pay private sector rates.  The result of this is that the despair of all the other government agencies grew in proportion to the benefits enjoyed by those who were exempted.

No matter how good a nation’s laws are, if its officials are ruled by cynicism and opportunism, it will have no future. The first rule of public life is basic decency.


Comments to <>