Career officials

- Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - April 5, 2017 - 12:00am

Dedication or intelligence is not exactly top of mind when we talk about government officials. Unfortunately, the image of the foul mouthed and pretty ignorant congressman or bribe seeking local official is just too overpowering to shake off.

I had been assigned to cover the Department of Foreign Affairs during my first few months as a reporter. It was a challenging assignment. The career foreign service officers are among the best professionals in the government service. Reporters on the beat had to do their homework or lose face during interviews.

In those days, to be a foreign service officer meant you had to pass a wringer of a recruitment process. No more than a dozen candidates (out of a thousand or so) usually made it through the written examination. The oral part of the tests brings that down to just a handful qualified to be named to the country’s diplomatic service.

Yet, politicians do not always give our career diplomats the respect they deserve. They are expected to carry their bags when VIP politicians visit their foreign posts. Worse, when choosing people to head our foreign missions, the career diplomats are often glossed over in favor of those who are less qualified but with political clout.

It is also a rare occurrence for a career diplomat to actually head the Department of Foreign Affairs. This is why today, we are lucky to have such a career diplomat as acting foreign secretary. Hopefully, President Duterte gives him a permanent appointment. He deserves it and it will be such a boost to the morale of our career diplomats.

Indeed, it will be difficult to find someone who grew up with diplomacy ingrained into his being. The parents of Enrique Manalo are both very distinguished diplomats, Ambassadors Armando and Rosario Manalo. I had the honor of covering the older Manalos during my stint as a reporter covering the DFA.

The other government agency where you can find some of the best minds in the country with the dedication to public service is the Bangko Sentral. Many of BSP’s top officials could be earning triple to quadruple or more of their salaries with less headaches in the private sector, but they choose to remain in government service.

There is no tradition to appoint career BSP officials to head the central bank. So far, only two names come to mind, Gabby Singson and of course, Say Tetangco. Somehow, there is a preference for former bankers to head the BSP, as if it is the best qualification for the job.

Of course there is a big difference between commercial banking and central banking. The commercial banking side is only one part of the responsibility of the BSP governor.

The weightier part of the assignment actually has to do with managing the nuts and bolts of the economy to make sure it functions well. That requires a deep knowledge of economics, which explains why the chairman of the Federal Reserve, the central bank of the US, is usually a seasoned economist.

As I have written in this column months ago, the most important appointment President Duterte will make during his term is the successor of BSP Gov Say Tetangco. So many names have been mentioned and even the ruling political party has nominated one of its own.

But the position is too important to give to anyone just because of political connections. Indeed, it would be bad for our economy if the position of BSP governor is politicized. For this reason, I agree with Gov. Tetangco that the best candidate for the job could be one of the current two deputy governors.

The more visible of the deputy governors is Diwa Guinigundo. He is often called upon to explain policy issues and decisions taken by the Monetary Board. He certainly knows the ins and outs of central bank policy making. He is a professional the country can depend on.

The other deputy governor, Nestor Espenilla, is less publicized out of choice due to the nature of his assignment. Aside from having an intimate knowledge of how our banking system works, he is also an economist, a magna cum laude graduate of the UP School of Economics with an MBA from UP and another masters from a Japanese educational institution.

His main responsibility for the BSP is managing the commercial banking system. It is the toughest assignment with the most headaches and gets the most retaliatory suits from rogue bankers he has sanctioned.

Because of his assignment, he most likely knows more about the local commercial banking scene than most commercial bankers. He has the benefit of learning from the mistakes and the violations of the entire banking community from the unibanks up to the rural banks and the pawn shops.

Deputy Governor Nestor Espenilla is also responsible for making our banking system up to date with technology. His initiatives in this area keep our banking system modern and as safe as it could be made from the threats in this digital age.

The only point I want to make today is that President Duterte should not hesitate to appoint career officials in both the DFA and the BSP. They may not have political clout but these officials are among the best and the brightest our country can offer.

 On the BSP, the only other candidate with some experience there is Peter Favila. He served as a member of the Monetary Board. He was also a former banker. And maybe because of his exposure to the BSP, he may know how to tap BSP’s rich human resources better than a complete outsider.

 In the end, it is only the opinion of two men that will make a BSP Governor. The final decision maker is, of course, President Duterte who said he would seek the advice of Finance Secretary Sonny Dominguez.

 Actually, I mentioned only half jokingly to Sec Sonny that if push comes to shove, he should get the appointment himself. This was when less desirable names were being mentioned, including one with a pending criminal case filed by the BSP itself.

I told Sec Sonny he should offer himself if only because we need someone there who is trusted by the business and investment community. That’s how important the position is.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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