We need managers, not saviors

Last November, I was honored to speak at an integrity forum organized by Xavier University, the Brotherhood of Christian Businessmen and Professionals and the AIM alumni of Cagayan de Oro City, commemorating the life of Vice President Emmanuel Pelaez.

For those too young to remember him, “Maning” Pelaez was an Atenean and a bar topnotcher hailing from Mindanao (Misamis Oriental). He started as a clerk in the Senate and worked his way up the ranks to eventually become a professor of law in University of Manila, and later an aide to President Ramon Magsaysay, Sr.

Once his skill and integrity was noticed by Magsaysay, his ascent in politics was nothing short of astronomical – first serving as congressman of Misamis Oriental, then senator on Magsaysay’s 1953 ticket, then as vice president on Diosdado Macapagal’s 1961 ticket.

From there, he opposed Marcos as the presidential nominee of the Nacionalista Party. On the night of July 21, 1982, he was ambushed and narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. He believed it was Marcos and his cronies who plotted this, and he decried Macros’ effort to cover up the crime by blaming it on Muslim separatists.

On the night he was ambushed, Pelaez famously asked General Karingal: “What’s happening to our country?” – referring to the deterioration of the rule of law, the unfairness and cronyism in the economy, and the growing poverty and inequality. Now many years later, and despite marked progress in growing the Philippine economy, it seems that the country has nevertheless stagnated on a number of fronts having to do with the quality of its leadership and public sector managers.

There are 3 governance patterns that bring us farther away from the ideals of professional leadership and management that Maning Pelaez stood for. And while the focus of this article is on the Philippines, it would be relatively easy to see that the question posed – Where are our leaders and managers? – applies more broadly and is quite relevant in many countries today.

Politicians instead of technocrats?

In most modern democracies, key government functions are led and managed by area experts – technocrats – who know how to run and regulate an increasingly sophisticated bureaucracy. Politicians like Pelaez appear to be an exception, since he started out as a technocrat and later ventured successfully into politics.

Pure politicians, on the other hand, may not necessarily bring the requisite expertise to certain positions in the government bureaucracy—and this could be detrimental to public services.

Politicians may also shy from tackling the more difficult but often necessary reforms that could eventually make them unpopular in the polls. Witness, for example, the many violations of local government regulations that remain unchecked, largely because politicians don’t want to anger potential voters.

This is no different from politicians in other countries avoiding especially difficult reforms – like debt reduction, climate change and healthcare and pensions reforms – because they know the difficult solutions to these issues will likely reduce their political support, even as decisive action may benefit future generations who have no vote yet.

In recent years, the balance between technocrats and politicians in top government office seems to have tilted in favor of the latter.

For comparison, the Ramos and Aquino cabinets provide much food for thought. One can see an increase in the percentage of officials who at some point in their career were elected into public office. A mere 5% of top officials under the 1998 Ramos administration possessed a political background.

Compare this with over 40% of top officials in the 2015 Aquino administration who occupied elected office in the past.

To be sure, politicians might possess special leadership skills that could – when applied properly – forge consensus and get countries to move forward.

In the case of the Philippines, one wonders whether the disadvantages (i.e. avoidance of any deep reforms for fear of political backlash) outweigh the advantages (i.e. ability to build political consensus).

Perhaps highlighting this point, in a recent article about the traffic management problem in the metropolis written by former NEDA Secretary General Cielito Habito, he reiterated the conclusion of a colleague: “The problem with MMDA is it’s run by politicians… I’m hoping (they’d) appoint a technical person who understands the dynamics of traffic planning and management so that issues and concerns like yours will be solved.”

Nepotism instead of meritocracy?

Professor Julienne Labonne of National University of Singapore and Professor Marcel Fafchamps of Stanford University recently conducted a study on appointment and employment patterns at the local government level in the Philippines.

In an examination of the occupations of individuals related to losing and winning candidates for mayor, vice-mayor, and councilor in 709 municipalities during the 2007 and 2010 elections, the two professors found that relatives of winning candidates are able to secure better paying jobs after elections. Furthermore, the return to political connections was higher for relatives of the mayor vis-à-vis the relatives of the vice-mayor or councilor.

Conversely, the family members of losing politicians were negatively affected by the defeat of their relative; their probability of getting a high-paying occupation after the elections was lower.

This pointed to a perverse incentive for incumbents who demonstrated nepotistic behavior to prolong their stay in power and secure the influence of their family. Meritocracy is indeed at risk when, as the famous saying goes, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.”

Dynasties instead of competitive elections?

Finally, it is by now well known that political dynasties dominate our government landscape. Perhaps only a few will care to defend the concentration of political power represented by political dynasties.

This pattern – even when comprised of decent individuals (which is less of the case, given decent leaders like VP Pelaez actually discouraged family members from running out of delicadeza) – represents anti-competitive and personality-based politics while also weakening the checks and balances in our political system (notably at the local government).

Constitutionalists like lawyer Christian Monsod and former Ambassador Wilfrido Villacorta; top policymakers like former and current NEDA secretaries-general Cielito Habito, Winnie Monsod, and Arsenio Balisacan; and various civil society groups and academics have reiterated how dynastic politics is anathema to our democracy.

Even young leaders from well-known political clans – including Joy Belmonte of Quezon City, JV Ejercito of San Juan City, and Mel Sarmiento of Eastern Samar – are on record acknowledging the necessity for reforms because the political playing field is not level, and our present political system perpetuates policy variability, turncoatism, and patronage.

Yet today, about 85% of our governors, 75% of our congressmen and almost 70% of our mayors all hail from political clans (Figure 1). In areas with particularly “fat” dynasties (i.e. sabay-sabay nanunungkulan or in office at the same time), many are running unopposed in 2016, mirroring their dominance already demonstrated in 2013. So when a famous dynastic politician recently quipped – “Why not let the people decide?” – the question in my mind is “Do the people really still have a choice?”

 

Is there hope in 2016?

If the past years convey any lessons, the challenge of our time is not so much bad policy; it's bad execution. We are paying the price for over-personalizing what should have been systems building, professional management, and meritocratic hiring and promotion.

Even our solutions reflect the same flaw – when we face governance challenges, people demand that heads roll, while failing to change the same chaotic system that remains largely in place.

We call for a new President to magically fix everything while replacing very few other government officials, some of whom have been in power over generations despite their failure and impunity. We in turn fail to see what each President has contributed (some more than others) to building a stronger nation.

Impatient, we opine for a return to a strongman who will take short cuts. We Filipinos run other countries' systems well, but we can't seem to build a fair one of our own. Ultimately, we need capable managers and effective and fair systems, not saviors. Rappler.com


The author is Associate Professor of Economics and Executive Director of the AIM Rizalino Navarro Center for Economic Competitiveness (formerly AIM Policy Center). The author is grateful to Fred Cruz and Cara Latizano for their help in producing this article. Much of the data and evidence mentioned in this article is part of a recently published volume, Building Inclusive Democracies in ASEAN (http://buildinganinclusivedemocracy.org)