DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - February 11, 2019 - 12:00am

President Duterte told a group of newly appointed government officials last week that he walked out of a Cabinet meeting out of frustration over red tape and corruption. Ano ito? Drama instead of action?

The President said he was some shocked to learn that there are some project applications that have been pending for 25 years at NEDA. He was also dismayed with the slow action of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) on land use conversion applications.

“So ‘yon namang sa conversion, it took them about two years? And two years that includes corruption. Pabalik-balik ‘yung tao, pabalik-balik. And there’s no end to it, the bleeding of the pocket of the guy and the… Not only the reputation, but government suffers for it also,” the President said.

This is not the first time Mr. Duterte has expressed anger over red tape. The former Davao mayor, while campaigning for the presidency, talked about having required Davao City Hall officials to act quickly on permits or the applications are deemed approved.

Expectations are high that the President will be able to make a difference in cutting red tape that plagues national government offices. Red tape and corruption go hand-in-hand, and the President promised reforms to address both.

 But over the past two and a half years, we have seen a president who is largely detached from the nitty gritty of government operations. A chief executive isn’t expected to micro manage, but he is still expected to deliver results through his Cabinet members.

In the President’s mind, he is fighting red tape and corruption by talking tough. In this speech last week, he did that again, perhaps hoping that the new bureaucrats will get the message.

“Well anyway, kung ganyan ang red tape or black tape, noong they started to — pinutol ko sila sabi kong ganun. This I would not like to be a part of this briefing because you put… This will not happen during my time. So why would I waste my time listening to this when it would take about two presidents to finish?”

So he said, he walked out of the Cabinet meeting.

“Kaya lumabas ako sabi ko I asked Executive Secretary Medialdea: Kindly take over. I’ll just… Nakipagtsismisan na lang ako doon sa magagandang babae doon sa labas. Sabi ko I… This is not really something to dwell on lengthily pero the system itself is designed to experience a failed government.” 

I am not sure walking out to express his dismay was the right reaction. All those Cabinet members report to him and are there at his pleasure. He should have given orders right away to cut red tape and maybe appoint a “bastonero” who will make sure that happens.

But he absolved them by saying “through no fault of anybody.”  He could have  said that their jobs are on the line. It is not enough for the President to say he does not want to be part of the process that breeds red tape and corruption. He must say what he will do about it.

Duterte’s instincts about public service may be correct and his heart may be in the right place. But unless we actually see him making sure his frustration produces good results, it is all hot air. Tough talk simply isn’t enough.

For example, bureaucrats say PPP proposals take too much time to realize when the logjam in the approval process are happening within their offices. The red tape that is keeping us from having a decent international airport to serve NCR is a good example of something the President could fix right away. After all, he has already approved the Bulacan airport project.

On the NAIA modernization, it is easy to suspect that some bureaucrats are dribbling the ball because they do not want to lose the many sources of extra revenue that continued government control makes possible. The airport should not be a cash cow for government or its officials, but should deliver proper service.

On corruption, the administration propaganda machine is making much about the country jumping 12 notches from 111th in 2017 to 99th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.

But as Alejandro Salas, regional director at Transparency International pointed out to Rappler, the Philippines’ score is “still far from the Asia Pacific regional average of 44” and was the same score the country got in 2013 under the previous administration.

“Unfortunately, the message is clear, little has changed even as political speeches and some strong hand measures make a lot of noise, the reality still seems to be that day-to-day life for the people in the country does not see much change, and corruption remains a big challenge,” Salas said.

 Salas explained that the trait top-ranking countries in the CPI mostly share “is the strength of their institutions that can perform their jobs. It is not about being rich or poor, being in the north or the south, it is about institutions performing their jobs freely and effectively.”

I guess he is saying we need a judicial system that punishes corrupt officials. Too many political big shots have been allowed by our court system to get away with stealing from the country’s treasury. And voters shouldn’t vote for anyone with, using Duterte’s words, a whiff of corruption.

Perhaps Mr. Duterte can show us he means business by going after those close to him involved in questionable projects first with his tourism secretary. Then he and his daughter can recall their endorsement of senatorial candidates with more than a wiff of corruption.

As for battling red tape, the President is the chief executive. The system may be well entrenched, but it is within the powers of his office to change things.

Walking out instead of doing something to end red tape is an act of surrender on the part of a president who claims to have political will. His tough talk aside, Duterte is showing helplessness instead.

 Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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