A different kind of leader

Joy Aceron - The Philippine Star

I noticed how amazed majority of Filipinos are with the simplicity of the lifestyle of the Robredos. Recently, social media posts about Leni Robredo taking economy flight to New York have become viral. On election day, it was Leni lining up like any common voter that became the highlight of the election coverage by mainstream and social media.

The Nagaueños are not surprised by the Robredos’ simple living. What the country sees as exceptional about the Robredos is already common to them. This is not only because Nagaueños are already used to it through their experience with Jesse Robredo, who was Naga’s mayor for 18 years (two 3-year terms from 1988 to 2010 with one term interval from 1998-2001). It is also because of the kind of relationship that exists between the people and the government in Naga.

There is hardly any divide between the people and their government in Naga. It’s the first thing that I noticed when I first came to Naga in 2005 to conduct a research for the leadership profile of Jesse Robredo and the succeeding years for over a decade now in my engagement with Naga local governance. The people and government of Naga interact like there is no hierarchy or relationship of authority, only relationship of service and care.

Those in the Naga city government are truly public servants entrusted with responsibilities to govern – to help the people of Naga address collective problems. That doesn’t come with any special treatment or privileges. It is all responsibility, with perhaps just the privilege to serve.

The socio-economic class of the government officials of Naga is representative of the people of Naga. There are those who used to struggle too, just like former vice mayor (now congressman) Gabby Bordado, who we quoted in a book chapter published in 2007 saying: “While in other places, politicians have unexplained wealth, I have unexplained poverty.”

The Naga City People’s Council (NCPC) is one of the most unique and special civil society organizations in the country not only because it is organic, created alongside the development of Naga local governance. NCPC is unique and special because it connects the Naga local government to the people and communities while maintaining its independence and autonomy to check and balance the Naga local government in a constructive way.

The NCPC engagement in Naga local governance is a good demonstration of “constructive accountability,” where the accountability relationship between the government and civil society are anchored not primarily on how the engagement is done, but what the goals and intent of that engagement are. NCPC bridges state and society in Naga, facilitating their interface and synergy most evident in times of need like responding to disasters, resolving controversial issues and addressing persisting issues like housing.

There is a term in social science: state-society synergy. The powers of the state and civil society to serve the common good has fused almost seamlessly that there is no divide, no difference between the people and their government. It is not a relationship of authority and power that governs the relationship. It is a relationship of mutual trust and understanding, a relationship of shared interest and care (malasakit) for their locality, community and country.

Simple living

I suppose people all over the country are surprised with the Robredos because political leaders and elites in the Philippines always by default expect special treatment. Positions of power signal privileges and exemptions to the rules. Simple living among politicians is not common. Politicians are served by the people; they do not serve the people.

This reality about Philippine politics is in contrast to what is prescribed in Philippine laws.

Republic Act No. 6713 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees prescribes simple living as norms of conduct of public officials and employees:

“Public officials and employees and their families shall lead modest lives appropriate to their positions and income. They shall not indulge in extravagant or ostentatious display of wealth in any form” (Section 4.h).

Yet, by default, people think there is nothing wrong when politicians who have only served in public office all their lives have luxuries beyond what their lifetime of salary in government could pay for. In fact, people gravitate towards them.

One of the biggest significance of the candidacy of Leni Robredo is that the country (and the world) saw a different kind of Filipina leader, a real public servant. What the country and the world needs to know now is this: that type of leaders, the Robredos, is a product of a different kind of governance and state-society context.

The country had a glimpse and benefitted immensely from that brand of Naga leadership with Leni Robredo serving as Vice President of the country (and before, Jesse Robredo as secretary of Department of the Interior and Local Government). The country has yet to experience that same Naga governance and state-society synergy, which we hoped and failed to start building from this election.

But if we are to build on what Leni Robredo has shown the country and the world, we need to start learning how and why there are such leaders like Jesse and Leni Robredo.

It is not just the persons, the leaders. It is also the context, the system and the culture. Part of that context are the people.

We should think and act like it is not special if politicians live a simple life. Nothing surprising and amazing about it. It is to be expected.

It is those politicians who don’t live a simple life who should be shamed and be singled out. Obviously, there are many of them because it is the norm, so let’s single out, call out, feature and shame the norm.

Let us train ourselves to be like Nagaueños, as we aim to bring the Philippines close to what Naga governance and politics have achieved. We have another six years. – philstarlife

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Joy Aceron is convenor-director of Government Watch (G-Watch) and reseacher-adviser at Accountability Research Center (ARC).

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