More than a moral crusade

The advantage to society of having a president like P-Noy who, unlike most of his predecessors, has kept his popularity and credibility intact halfway through his term, is that people are able once more to look at their government with hope and less cynicism. The disadvantage, however, is that people also begin to think that he alone holds the key to reforming society, and therefore a lot depends on his political will. This, I think, is unfortunate. It places too much stress on being able to get honest people for government service, and too little on rationalizing public institutions themselves.

It also ascribes to the presidency the power of central control it does not have in a complex society, and cannot have, unless it turns dictatorial. It burdens the office with too many details, leaving little room for the more important task of defining the basic priorities of government, and securing the necessary mandate and financing for these. It predisposes the heads of agencies to wait for cues from above instead of embarking on their own to rationalize the operations of their respective departments. It is no surprise then that people tend to equate the priorities of the nation with what or who the President explicitly mentions in his State of the Nation Address (Sona).

Yet, no chief executive can possibly oversee, or much less steer, everything.

The President has to rely on the executives he designates, who, in turn, have to work with the bureaucracy they inherit. He must contend with legal challenges to his initiatives, whether these pertain to firing personnel or revamping procedures or awarding contracts. In many instances, he will need appropriate legislation to make his initiatives collectively binding. Securing legislative backup for one’s long-term vision is, for a president, precisely the art of politics.

Without underestimating the inspirational dividends a society earns from having a trustworthy political leader, we must pay due attention to the need to professionalize the institutions of government. This means, among other things, giving the people in charge of them a strong enough push and encouragement to restructure their systems so as to enable them to perform their functions more efficiently, while extending to them adequate protection from pressure by other politicians.

Good governance is certainly made enormously easy when you have honest and competent civil servants. But a good executive cannot demand this as a precondition. In a transitional society like ours, reform-oriented political leaders like P-Noy typically find themselves having to work with a bureaucracy that has become too corrupt, too complacent, and too timid to initiate any change in the status quo. It is almost futile to shame the bureaucracy into shaping up. One needs to focus instead on what needs to be done as well as on the structural obstacles to reform.

Perhaps, nowhere is this need more glaring than in the Bureau of Customs, which President Aquino singled out in his recent Sona as one of the most persistently problematic agencies of government. Clearly exasperated over the agency’s failure to curb smuggling, he had harsh words for its staff. “And here we have the Bureau of Customs, whose personnel are trying to outdo each other’s incompetence. Instead of collecting the proper taxes and preventing contraband from entering the country, they are heedlessly permitting the smuggling of goods, and even drugs, arms, and other items of a similar nature into our territory….  Where do these people get the gall?”

One is tempted to answer: They get their “gall” from the ineffectiveness of the agency’s control systems. We cannot always presume that the people who join government are virtuous. Indeed, many who start out honest end up being corrupted by the opportunities to make easy money from the exercise of discretionary powers. But, if we cannot name these individuals, and charge them, it seems unfair to hurl a blanket accusation against an entire agency. It would be better to plug the loopholes, keep the system transparent, and uniformly enforce the law. The point is, corruption and incompetence cannot be meaningfully addressed by moral appeals to conscience or sense of shame. These are structural problems that must be solved structurally.

If we take this perspective, we may realize that most of our governance problems are systemic in nature. They spring from the very soil of our personality-oriented and patronage-driven political system. The government bureaucracy mirrors this reality in no uncertain terms. It is full of individuals who landed in government service courtesy of their patrons.  They are not necessarily evil, but they have no real qualifications for the positions they permanently occupy. With every change in administration, everyone simply waits to see what the new leaders have in mind—whether they intend to use the agency for their own limited purpose, or to reform and place it on more stable institutional ground.

The first indication of a new government’s seriousness with reform is the quality of the individuals it appoints to head the various departments of government. Insiders can guess at once whether these appointments are meant as payback or for fund-raising, or are part of a serious reform agenda. They will search for the weaknesses of the new chief, baiting him with innocent-looking gifts. If he doesn’t bite, they will conspire to undermine him. A person in this position would need not only the trust of the President but also the experience, fortitude, and intellectual capacity to map out a strategy that will put him several steps ahead of the enemy.