We need more managers in government

Published May 29, 2018, 10:00 PM

by Mario Casayuran and Vanne Elaine Terrazola

Jejomar C. Binay Former Vice President
Jejomar C. Binay
Former Vice President

By Jejomar C. Binay

Former Vice President


In the 1990s, then US Vice President Al Gore was “asked to lead a government initiative to “reinvent” the federal bureaucracy.

Discussing the objectives of the initiative in his book, “Common Sense Government,” Gore talked of growing frustration with government, which he described as slow, ineffective, and wasteful.

“We understand that government isn’t a business, that it has to do a lot of things that business don’t have to do. But that doesn’t mean it can’t operate in a businesslike manner – efficiently, effectively, with a minimum of waste,” Gore said.

This US effort encouraged similar undertakings in governments worldwide, including the Philippines. Reinventing government became a buzzword among government executives at the national and local levels. When I was mayor of Makati, the book “Reinventing Government” by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler became some sort of a bible for change advocates in government.

That was in the 1990s. And since hindsight is always 20-20, it would be safe to say that the call to reinvent Philippine government failed to catch on. There are a few islands of change, notably local governments like Makati. But as a whole, government remains stuck in layers of inefficiency.

There are several factors that hinder meaningful reinvention in government. For this column, however, I would like to focus on one aspect: leadership.

Every change in administration is always accompanied by a change in the management of line departments and agencies, from the head of office down to the director level. This also includes government corporations, including the board of directors, and even the ranks of casual and contractual employees.

With very few exceptions, these appointees, especially Cabinet Secretaries and heads of agencies, are political allies of the elected president. To speak plainly, the appointments are payback for political or financial support during the election.

And to expect them to initiate or lead change movements in their respective agencies would be to wish for the moon.

Political appointees have one goal and that is to promote the agenda of the new administration often at the expense of effective programs and policies of the previous administration.

Generally, new appointees are inexperienced in executive work. They come in cold. They are clueless about the mandate of their organization and the workings of government bureaucracy. They have little incentive to think long-term and invest in organizational reforms. After all, they will only be there at most for only six years. Shorter, if the appointing authority decides to fire them because of some infraction, real or imagined.

Political appointees bring with them their associates, friends, and cronies. For former politicians, especially those with political ambitions, political operators are taken in as assistant secretaries. The office becomes politicized.

In other cases, vacancies are either filled up or created to accommodate appointees who may not fit in with the organization. It is not uncommon for these mid-level appointees to lay claim to turf, invoke higher connections, and work solo, causing unnecessary disruption in an already disrupted organizational set-up. The recent firing of an uncooperative assistant secretary at the transportation department is a case in point.

Regardless, these underlings are as clueless as their principal in the workings and dynamics of their agency, especially sensitive departments like the Department of Foreign Affairs. The Kuwait fiasco comes to mind.

On the other hand, there are appointees who come from the ranks of professionals: an educator for the education portfolio, an engineer for public works, and a doctor or medical practitioner for the health department. They usually possess sterling professional or academic credentials.

This is not to diminish in any way the capabilities of politicians or professionals who join government, some of whom I hold with the deepest respect. But I have always believed that government agencies – and the public – would be better served by professional managers or administrators.

Case in point is Jose “Ping” de Jesus. Prior to his appointment at the DOTC and DPWH, Ping was a well-respected business executive. He was not an engineer. He brought to these agencies his experience as a manager, and got things done without the fanfare or controversy.

Managers and administrators tend to focus more on the execution of programs, not the politics. They are able to energize and encourage team work, and lead the organization in setting and meeting goals. A background in customer service would make them more citizen-oriented, which is indispensable for agencies who deal directly with the public.

Even the management of private hospitals is now being yielded to professional hospital administrators, not necessarily medical practitioners. Why not key positions in government?

This is one sure way to address nagging issues of efficiency and wastefulness in government, and avoid embarrassing episodes like the renegade press conference of a recalcitrant assistant secretary or the fiasco in Kuwait.


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