By JEJOMAR C. BINAY
Former Vice President
Reading the newspapers last week prompted me to ask two questions that I believe were on a lot of people’s minds: What’s happening to our governance and who’s in charge?
To be fair, these questions are not endemic to the current administration. These are questions frequently asked of every administration during episodes where government inefficiency was on full display. What is perplexing is that most of the problems besetting our administrators have been there for decades but have been left to fester.
The most prominent event was, of course, the pandemonium at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) caused by a wayward passenger airplane of Xiamen Air.
The delay in getting the stranded airplane out of the mud was not the only problem. No one seemed to be in charge. Everyone assumed it was the Manila International Airport Authority. But when several airlines mounted what they called “recovery flights” without informing the MIAA, thus aggravating the airport chaos, it became unclear whether a crisis command structure was in place and if protocols were activated, or if there were protocols at all.
When asked to rate government’s response to the crisis, transport officials were reported as saying their agencies did their “very best.” If this was their very best, I could not imagine how their worst would look like.
The incident also reminded the public that almost three years into this administration, the long-festering problem of congestion at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) has yet to be addressed concretely. The previous administration had six years to address the airport problem, and a host of other transport related issues, but it was a period where a sense of urgency took a backseat to the culture of indecision and the public is now made to suffer.
The shortage of affordable rice in the market has been a running story for some time now. What confounded the situation last week, and angered the public, was the report that 330,000 bags of rice imported by the National Food Authority (NFA) — paid for with a whopping P6 billion in taxpayers money — was left uncollected for months in several seaports, and have been infested with weevils or “bukbok.”
The agency sought to downplay the infestation by describing it as a “normal occurrence” but skirted the issue of delays in unloading. Yet, this is not a new problem. Past administrations have grappled with the issue of rice importation and rice shortages, but the solution seems to have eluded them despite sensible proposals being put forward by many sectors.
Lastly, a news item on the latest audit report from the Commission on Audit (COA) showing that the Mines and Geosciences Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) failed to collect P2.67 billion in royalty fees from five mine firms from 2012 to 2016. What is so difficult about collecting royalties due government?
The public deserves better governance. As taxpayers, they require better service from public servants. They should not be at the mercy of the lazy, the clueless, and the inefficient.
I recall quoting in a previous column former US Vice President Al Gore who advocated the adoption of private sector management practices in government, so it could operate “efficiently, effectively, with a minimum of waste.” I agree with this view. When I was mayor of Makati, we adopted private sector practices in the city government.
But that goal would remain elusive at the national level if we continue the practice of changing the management of government with every change in administration, replacing political appointees of the previous regime with political appointees of the new one.
Most of these appointees are, to be frank, clueless to the intricacies of government, particularly the mandate and the operations of the department or agency they have been tasked to head. Many of them do not even possess managerial experience. They learn as they govern.
It is also the norm that these appointees — allies and partymates, provincemates, classmates of the appointing power — populate their office with their own set of cronies, who are as clueless and inexperienced as they are.
It is about time we look for managers and administrators to run government offices. If we must make a concession to politics, then consider de-politicizing the ranks of undersecretaries and assistant secretaries. We can change the department secretary, but leave the positions of undersecretaries and assistant secretaries to career officers who can provide their new head with the long view, the guiding hand, and the institutional memory to ensure stability and continuity.
Unless we make these changes in governance, we will always be asking what’s happening and who’s in charge.