No place for buddies

Outside of the small group of gun lovers who had trained with him at the firing range, only a few people knew anything about interior undersecretary Rico E. Puno before he was appointed presidential liaison for the Philippine National Police.  Despite his position as the president’s alter ego on police matters, he kept a very low profile.  His name surfaced only in the course of the investigation of the August 23 hostage-taking incident, when it became known that he, rather than the head of the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), Secretary Jesse Robredo, was in charge of the police.

Today, we know Usec. Puno a little better thanks to a free-wheeling exchange he had with Inquirer editors and reporters over dinner last October 7. What he shared with his hosts in that dinner conversation was astounding in its candidness. “In fact, Puno said he was among the few people who could ‘tame’ Mr. Aquino whenever he becomes overly engaged as Chief Executive.”  I don’t know if this line is just an awkward translation from Tagalog, but anyone who claims to “tame” the president when he becomes overly concerned with his duties is doing him a great disservice.

I’m quoting from a front-page Inquirer report of that encounter (PDI, 10/11/ 10).  I found it disturbing.  I think it says a lot not just about the organization of President Noynoy Aquino’s government but also about the stage in which the Philippine political system finds itself.  It shows the extent to which the president seems to rely on long-time buddies he implicitly trusts to help him run the most sensitive parts of government.  At the same time, it also reveals how, as usual, the personal tends to be dysfunctionally woven into the institutional, resulting in many of the recurrent governance problems we face today.

No one can fault the president for keeping a close circle of friends to whom he may turn for advice from time to time.  If they are qualified, he may be inclined to give them first priority in choice government posts.  This is particularly to be expected in political systems that are anchored on kinship and friendship networks rather than on program-based political parties.  But it is well to bear in mind that no democratic government in this day and age can be run mainly on the basis of such personal networks.  The complexity of today’s societies compels the formation of modern institutions that operate according to autonomous codes and programs.  Their smooth performance rests heavily on the work of highly qualified individuals who are recruited primarily on the basis of what they can do rather than who they know.

From the way he talks of his relationship with the president, Mr. Puno seems to be more than a brother to him.  Their ties are deep and their loyalty to one another seems diffused and almost unconditional.  “I’ll take a bullet for him,” he was once quoted as saying.  That makes him an excellent buddy for life, but, maybe, for President Aquino, the worst person to recruit for public office. I do not doubt Mr. Puno’s loyalty to the president, but if he wishes to see him succeed, perhaps the first thing he might consider doing is to stop talking publicly about their friendship.  I would go further and say that perhaps the best thing he could do for his buddy is to spare him the anguish of having to admonish him each time he makes a mistake by quitting altogether from government.

Government service is a demanding vocation. When one becomes a public servant, his first loyalty has to be to the nation, not to the person who appointed him.  This is such a simple lesson one wonders how people in government can so easily forget it when they talk of their obligations to their friends and families.  We can be good public servants and faithful friends at the same time – but to do this we have to keep these two roles as far away from one another as possible.

In a personalistic culture like ours, I am aware that it may be difficult to ignore friendships, especially those that proved abiding in the course of an often lonely political campaign.  If friendship must be accommodated at all, then political prudence dictates that this be done in consonance with, rather than against, the norms of a meritocracy.  In short, the bottom line is that friends have to be qualified for the jobs to which they are appointed, especially if these are very important positions.

The Inquirer reports that Mr. Puno earned his credentials on police matters by training policemen and soldiers in marksmanship, and later by selling guns and ammunitions to them.  The connections he established in the course of his work are no doubt important.  But I would argue that one needs a different set of qualifications to be able to exercise effective supervision over the police as an institution.

President Noynoy’s biggest vulnerability has been the quality of some of his major appointments.  In defending the appointment of his closest friends to key positions that seem too big for them, he has risked precious political capital.  Contrast this to the enormous goodwill and approval he earned when he plucked the irrepressible Leila de Lima from the Commission on Human Rights and made her secretary of the Department of Justice.  Ms de Lima is a professional, not a member of the president’s personal and political circle, and not Mr. Aquino’s first choice for the job.  But, right now, she is probably the administration’s most valuable asset. The public knows and cheers an excellent appointment when it sees one.  It would be a pity if she quits because she can’t work with the president’s buddies.