Protecting the civil service from politics

Last Jan. 19, Ateneo de Manila’s chief librarian, Dr. Vernon Totanes, asked the Office of the Ombudsman to investigate the appointment of the new director of the National Library of the Philippines. Totanes claims that the appointment of Cesar Gilbert Q. Adriano, who assumed his office on April 6, 2017, violates the law that specifies that only qualified and licensed librarians may be appointed to head government libraries. NLP Director Adriano, he says, is not a licensed librarian. The Professional Regulation Commission confirms this assertion.

Totanes rightly takes the issue beyond the National Library. He has also asked the Civil Service Commission to “carefully scrutinize all appointees of President Duterte vis-à-vis the relevant/related qualifications required by law, and to publish these appointments.” In the same letter, copies of which he sent to the Inquirer and concerned government offices, he likewise requests the Ombudsman to direct the Office of the President to “divulge and publish its rules, processes, procedures in nominating, selecting, and appointing public officials and employees.”

Brave soul! I hope his letter is not dismissed as sour grapes offered by an envious peer or the partisan rant of a “yellow” cadre. Totanes’ is a rare voice in a country that, judging from recent surveys, appears to have given its President blanket trust and power to do anything he wishes, and to hire or fire anyone in government as he finds necessary. I don’t think this is the first appointment of its kind, and, surely, it won’t be the last.

I personally know neither Dr. Totanes nor Director Adriano, but the issue that concerns them is one that, I think, should bother all of us. At its core is the proper relationship between politics, on one hand, and the civil service or government bureaucracy, on the other. Those elected to public office, like the president, do enjoy the power to craft public policy in accordance with their vision for the country, and to appoint individuals who can help carry this out. But, this power is not absolute; it is subject to the Constitution and the country’s statutes. Our laws rightly protect the autonomy of the bureaucracy, in whose steady hands are entrusted some of the vital functions of the state.

Until we get this relationship right, no amount of tinkering with the Constitution can bring us any closer to good and effective governance. People who are used to having their way within their limited private or public spheres, and suddenly come to power at the national level, tend to feel shackled by regulations that limit their exercise of the enormous powers of the state. Think of President Duterte and America’s Donald Trump.

While they seem alike in their imperious approach to power, what sets them apart is the institutional factor that prevents the US president from actualizing everything he says or posts in his Twitter account. Within the executive branch itself, there are offices that are run by professionals who seriously take the mandates of their offices.

A good example is the Office of Special Counsel of the United States. Created in 1979 in the wake of the Watergate scandal that brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon, it was this office that nearly caused the downfall of the immensely popular Bill Clinton. Today, the Special Counsel is the thorn on Donald Trump’s side, actively pursuing every lead that has any bearing on allegations of collusion between Russian interests and the Trump campaign in the last presidential election.

Incumbent Special Counsel Robert Mueller has asked to interview Trump about what he knows of those alleged meetings between Russian individuals and key people in his campaign prior to the election. While Trump has agreed in principle to grant the interview, he is also reported to be smarting over the whole idea of submitting to a government functionary he himself appointed. News reports say that only the threat to resign of presidential legal counsel Don McGahn has stopped Trump from going ahead with his wish to fire Mueller. Doing so, Trump was told, would only add fuel to the charge of obstruction of justice.

As we may glean from this episode in American politics, it is the courage and integrity of individual officials that make institutions strong. A nation can have the most advanced institutions in the world, but without citizens and public officials who understand their function and are prepared to defend them, they are nothing but playthings in the hands of the powerful. We can’t just copy these institutions; they must be the evolutionary achievement of our people.

Indeed, the Office of Special Counsel of the United States began as the investigative and prosecutorial arm of the Merit Systems Protection Board. Its modest aim then was to investigate complaints from employees regarding “prohibited personnel practices.” Subsequent legislation like the Whistleblower Protection Act added to this initial function and made the Office of Special Counsel perhaps the most feared independent investigative body in the US federal government today.

Much of the impetus that drove its evolution to what it is today came from the brazen way in which the Nixon administration maneuvered, in the words of Tom Devine of the Government Accountability Project, “to replace the nonpartisan civil service system with a politically loyal workforce dedicated to partisan election goals.”  Under this practice, “political hiring czars” operated in the shadow of government personnel offices, replacing professional civil servants with political lackeys. That’s where we are today.