Confounded by the bureaucracy

- Boo Chanco - The Philippine Star

I was intrigued by the invitation to attend a meeting with DOTC Secretary Jun Abaya at the Star offices last Monday. He must have been told by P-Noy to meet us. They have pretty much survived the last few years by ignoring us.

Indeed, the first time I had a face-to-face conversation with Sec. Jun was at the restaurant at OB Montessori in Greenhills at my initiative. Yes, I picked up the tab as it was my preference to do so.

Sec. Jun left me a good impression after that meeting. He seemed very personable… a really nice guy. In other words, he is a made-to-order politician.

But I also got the impression that he was not hands-on. I thought it was because he just took up the position, but future experiences with him proved my suspicion right. He brought 20 of his staff last Monday and kept on asking them for details.

I was more interested in observing nuances in the way Sec. Jun responded to questions last Monday, mainly from my colleagues, Jarius Bondoc and Doreen Yu. I didn’t expect him to say anything I didn’t know.

After three hours of grilling over a modest lunch box of Max fried chicken my editor Amy Pamintuan ordered, I came to the conclusion Sec. Jun was simply confounded by the DOTC bureaucracy and the Procurement Law.

They blame the Procurement Law and COA for DOTC’s problems, from the invisible car plates and driver’s licenses to questionable emergency awards of MRT 3 contracts. For an agency with an abundance of lawyers as undersecretaries, it is pathetic they have such serious legal problems that prevent them from delivering on their mission.

Then again, I also think the problem isn’t so much the Procurement Law or COA, but mismanagement on the part of DOTC officials. They have made some pretty bad calls, and these resulted in problems they tried to correct by calling for emergency procurements.

Take that problem with MRT 3 maintenance. They claim Sumitomo’s performance had been declining by the time the Aquino administration took over. And because Sumitomo wants an increase in fees without guarantees, they decided not to renew the extended contract.

That means they knew in advance they would need a new service contractor for MRT 3 maintenance. But they acted only at the last minute, giving prospective contractors less than a week to respond.

Of course, reputable local contractors like Miescor of Meralco declined. So they called for an emergency procurement which resulted in what looks like a sweetheart deal, now being tried in the Sandiganbayan.

 In the PPP projects, there was so much delay apparently because lawyers didn’t know how to write proper Terms of Reference that are technical in nature. If you followed the progress of the bidding on their website, you will note many questions raised were technical.

Sec. Jun may not have realized it, but he confirmed this problem of technical deficit in DOTC. I asked him why the four-kilometer Masinag extension project was not awarded on a design and build basis to hasten completion.

Abaya said that unlike DPWH, they do not have internal technical expertise and so need external consultants to help them in areas like design. No wonder they are spending a fortune on consultants.

Of course. What was I thinking? Lawyers cannot design railways. Perhaps, it would be better to merge DOTC again with DPWH. For one thing, both departments operate under the same Procurement Law, but it is only DOTC that seems hobbled by it.

Then again too, since railway projects deal with right of way issues and the use of road space under DPWH, one department would cut time for project implementation. And as Sec Jun admitted, DPWH has the technical staff they don’t have.

The thing that bothers me most about Sec. Jun is his seeming lack of leadership necessary for a Cabinet Secretary. He doesn’t have the gravitas that goes with the job. He is Mr. Nice Guy, it seems, even to his staff which may have been abused. He doesn’t seem hands-on to me.

The Cabinet member I have worked closely with in the course of my career was the late Energy Secretary Ronnie Velasco. He enters the room and you know who is boss. He gives assignments and expects results, not excuses, when deadline time comes.

The other thing with Ronnie is his memory of facts and figures. He has all the important numbers and we better not give him a wrong one because he will remember that months after. I don’t think Sec Jun has the facts and figures at the back of his hand. He keeps turning to aides for help.

It is too bad Sec. Jun did not stay in the military long enough. Worse, his short military duty was mainly in a glamorous job as junior aide-de-camp to Tita Cory with Honrado, yes that Honrado, as his boss. He has not outgrown that subservient position to Honrado and that explains why he is unable to exercise leadership at NAIA.

I was thinking that if Sec Jun had experienced combat duty, he would have developed a more decisive leadership that would have helped him as Secretary of DOTC. In a combat situation, the commander must simply win the battle and save the lives of his men. No excuses allowed. Results matter.

When I first met Sec. Jun, I was impressed not just by his demeanor, but also by his credentials… Pisay, Annapolis, Cornell, Ateneo Law. How can someone like that fail? Well, apparently one could.

Sayang yung Annapolis niya. He might have looked good in uniform but being the alalay of Tita Cory was the highlight of his military career.

My suggestion to him is to manage by wandering around, asking those who are served by DOTC how their service could be improved. He has to mingle with the people he serves so he can have that sense of urgency to deliver.

I asked him if he would accept a re-appointment in case Mar Roxas wins. He said he would consult with his wife and children and pray to God. I took that to mean a no.

A rather decent man, Sec Jun is so family oriented that he takes his children to school every morning. I am sure his wife and family have suffered enough over the past years and would want a quiet life again.

I think if he had his rathers, Sec Jun will quit politics and take on a private sector job, possibly with Ayala or a similar conglomerate. His government connections will be useful to them and who knows, Sec. Jun can re-discover his leadership qualities in a less stressful position.

One thing is sure. DOTC has to change. Merging it with DPWH, seems the easiest thing to do. Then, decentralize decisions on mass transit systems to local governments or regional development councils.

We need our transport infrastructure and the last thing we need is a continuation of the tragedy that DOTC had been in P-Noy’s watch in the next administration.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco.

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