FROM THE MARGINS
Today, three weeks after he assumed office, President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. delivers his first State of the Nation Address (SONA) for the opening session of the 19th Congress. Like many of our kababayans, I wait with bated breath as he outlines the key policies and priorities of his administration. I am sure that his newly-appointed officials are all geared up and ready to go, ushering in changes to implement programs that respond to the needs of the ordinary Filipino.
Career civil servants have inured themselves to the tsunami of change that transpires when administrations change. For many agencies, the transition process started as early as June, with government workers hoping that the new leadership will support the bureaucracy and not discontinue its predecessor’s programs. While the next few months will be tumultuous, one thing remains: that public office is a public trust. And the bureaucracy – the lifeblood of the government –is expected to continue serving the best interest of the public. Politics notwithstanding.
Having served with several government agencies under different administrations, I have experienced going through periods of bureaucratic transition. How did I cope with the challenges of change?
I am a “probinsiyano” at heart, so in tumultuous times, I look back on my humble roots. When I was still a civil servant, every time a new regime or program is being introduced, I coped by manifesting one thing: the bamboo tree.
Bamboo is abundant in Laguna, where I grew up. As a child, I saw bamboo thickets growing near irrigation and river banks. I loved to watch bamboo trees swaying with the wind, the creak of the spindly trunks accompanying the whispered lawiswis of bamboo leaves. I was taught that the bamboo is a symbol of longevity because of its strength, flexibility and resilience. After all, the bamboo survives in the harshest conditions, standing tall and staying green year-round.
I wish the best for our people as the country transitions under the Marcos administration. I also want to express my fervent support for our humble civil servants – they who quietly toil in government offices to serve the public, paltry benefits and criticisms notwithstanding. To those who faithfully serve as cogs of the government bureaucracy, let me share these valuable lessons from the bamboo tree:
1. Be flexible, yet firmly rooted.
There is a story about a mango tree and a bamboo tree, which called upon the wind to determine which of them was stronger. The mango tree stood unyielding as the wind blew. It knew that it was strong, thus, it refused to sway with the wind. Its pride eventually caused it to be uprooted by the strong wind. The bamboo tree was humble and wiser. Every time the wind blew, it made loud protestations, but bent gracefully and let the wind have its way. Eventually, when the wind lost its steam, the bamboo tree remained standing in all its beauty and grace.
Civil servants can learn from this. No matter the challenges, the ethical standards are clear, rooted in Republic Act No. 6713, which demands these norms of conduct from government employees – commitment to public interest, professionalism, justness and sincerity, political neutrality, responsiveness to the public, nationalism and patriotism, commitment to democracy, and simple living. In a highly-evolving work environment, my advice is for civil servants to be flexible, ready to adopt new policies and systems while remaining true to these standards. You can bend, but do not break. There is, after all, only one foundation, and that is public interest.
2. Be always ready, mindful of your strength.
A bamboo tree is not fragile despite its spindly appearance. Unlike hardwood trees, bamboo thickets are resilient and can withstand floods. The same is true of public servants. You are the power through which government runs. Anchored by administrative rules that define what civil service is, together, you are as strong as you need to be. You are the strong bamboo thickets that serve as barriers to any attempted change that could undermine the bureaucracy to the detriment of the public. You have the legal and policy framework to anchor you in times of uncertainty.
3. Find wisdom in emptiness.
The bamboo is hollow inside, which symbolizes humility and openness. So, be like the bamboo, with an open heart free of arrogance, prejudice and fear. One cannot fill a cup which is already full. So, welcome all changes with the best the bureaucracy has to offer: your competence and professionalism.
And so, my dear friends in the civil service, be like the resilient bamboo. You can unleash your power to spring back. We are depending on you.
(Dr. Jaime Aristotle B. Alip is a poverty eradication advocate, with more than 35 years of experience in microfinance and social development. He is the founder of the Center for Agriculture and Rural Development Mutually-Reinforcing Institutions (CARD MRI), a group of 23 organizations that provide social development services to eight million economically-disadvantaged Filipinos and insure more than 27 million nationwide. CARD’s innovative financial and enterprise development services targeting the poor has won many accolades, including the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service in 2008. Dr. Alip is an alumnus of the Harvard Business School, the Southeast Asia Interdisciplinary Development Institute and the University of the Philippines.)