Déjà vu: Recalling past Office of the President ‘streamlining’ initiatives


Sonny Coloma

Last week, I experienced a déjà vu and did a quick walk down memory lane upon reading President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr.’s Executive Order Nos. 1 and 2 reorganizing the Office of the President.

In December 1990, I found myself working in the Office of the President when Oscar Orbos became President Corazon Aquino’s Executive Secretary. I was serving as his undersecretary at the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) when he asked me to serve with him in the Office of the President. The scuttlebutt was that working in Malacañang Palace was like being in a “snakepit.” I told naysayers I didn’t mind that because I, too, am a “snake,” according to my birth year.

President Corazon Aquino issued Executive Order No. 446, “Reorganizing the Office of the President Including its Immediate Offices, the Presidential Assistants/Advisers System, and The Common Staff Support System.”

The rationale given was… “in these difficult times, the Filipino people expect bold, decisive reforms designed to trim the bureaucracy and streamline government operations.” Hence, “the Government should initially and decisively demonstrate its political will to reduce the size of the bureaucracy and streamline systems and procedures by re-organizing the Office of the President, including the immediate Offices, the Presidential Assistants/Advisers System, and the Common Staff Support System.”

EO 446 abolished the Presidential Coordinating Assistance System and the Cabinet Assistance System that were previously under the Cabinet Secretary. In its place was created “a policy and public affairs group headed by a Deputy Executive Secretary, under the Office of the Executive Secretary.” This group was composed of the Presidential Management Staff, which absorbed the Cabinet Secretariat; the Presidential Complaints and Action Office, and the Sectoral Liaison Offices. It was made responsible for providing common staff support to the President, the Executive Secretary and the Presidential Assistants/Advisers System in such areas as management of the development process, administrative reforms sectoral liaison, public assistance, strategic research and public formulation.

As Deputy Executive Secretary, I headed this group, concurrent with serving as head of the Presidential Management Staff (PMS) that also absorbed the Cabinet Secretariat. At that time, Cabinet meetings were held weekly. The fourth or fifth weekly meeting was a meeting of the NEDA Board which was also composed of Cabinet members.

My takeaway from this experience was that there was a high level of competence and dedication among people working in the Office of the President. Many new staff officers were recruited and hired by the new government in the aftermath of EDSA People Power and the ratification of the 1987 Constitution. When I served anew in the Office of the President in 2010, many of them had either retired as career civil servants or transferred to senior positions in other departments in the executive branch or in government financial institutions (GFIs) and government owned and controlled corporations (GOCCs).

I could not forget a gift from my PMS co-workers when I left in 1991: a t-shirt with a picture of Jesus Christ washing the feet of his apostles, with the caption, “the spirit of government service.” Indeed, government service enables one to learn how to be humble and regard one’s work not in terms of the title or its privileges, but as an opportunity to serve the people.

When I returned to work anew in Malacañang Palace in 2010, President Benigno S. Aquino III issued Executive Order No. 4, “Reorganizing and Renaming the Office of the Press Secretary as the Presidential Communications Operations Office; Creating the Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office; and for other purposes.

For the entirety of his term from 2020 to 2016, I served as PCOO Secretary. In the second half, from October 2013 to June 2016, I shared the responsibility of conducting daily media briefings on live television with the Presidential Spokesperson. The PCOO Secretary performed the Press Secretary’s role, as the entire media infrastructure and bureaucracy was placed under his office.

In my view, the fusion of the Presidential Spokesperson’s role with that of the Press Secretary enables the latter to perform the tasks of the office optimally. Moreover, it would have been more ideal if the Philippine Information Agency (PIA), which has field offices in all the regions and in most provinces, was also placed under the Press Secretary. In the new set-up, it was placed in the Office of the President, presumably under the Executive Secretary. This is still a good set-up. After all, the Executive Secretary is the acknowledged leader of the Office of the President who serves as the President’s Chief of Staff and topmost confidant.