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Opinion

Plus ça change  

SEARCH FOR TRUTH - Ernesto P. Maceda Jr. - The Philippine Star

The rightsizing plan is classic playbook. Every administration wants to start with a clean slate, tailoring their bureaucratic “arsenal” to meet priority targets. But always, it begins with judiciousness in the use of scarce resources.

Rightsizing, understood as having sufficient staff at the least cost, is just one of the variants of public sector reform. The common innovations to introduce change in administration have been denominated as reorganizing (Marcos I and Aquino I), streamlining (Ramos), reengineering (Estrada and Duterte – also rightsizing), rationalizing (Arroyo and Aquino II). There is also reinventing, restructuring, repurposing, etc.

As far back as 1934, the Committee on Civil Service of the Constitutional Convention acknowledged that “inefficiency in government service is the source of mass discontent. The stability of the state depends on the efficiency of its civil service.” At the time, the bureaucracy was composed of only nine departments.

Efficiency, also economy and effectivity. These are the so called 3Es of public administration. They are not ends in themselves as administrations have differing variables to which they are linked. For Manuel L. Quezon, his cassus belli was Filipinization and adopting the best practices of the private sector; Carlos P. Garcia spoke of morality; Corazon C. Aquino wanted to “demarcosify” the bureaucracy.

Personal stamp. My own interest in the topic originated in the desire to understand my father’s public service journey. Ernesto M. Maceda handled several positions in his career, with his senatorial and Cabinet posts as highlights. Often overlooked was his chairmanship of the Commission on Government Reorganization, a joint executive-legislative body of Cabinet rank created by law in 1968.

As executive secretary, my father chaired the Commission and served until the December 1970 functus officio deadline. The Commission report was finalized by his successor as chair, Dr. Armand Fabella, and submitted to Congress for review in 1971. By that time, Manong Ernie had already been elected to the Senate. Martial law was declared the following year and the report ultimately became the basis of the first Marcos presidential decree, the Integrated Reorganization Plan.

The outputs of such efforts may be prolific. For example, under this Commission, new departments were created; development planning and program implementation were centralized under a National Economic and Development Authority which replaced the National Economic Council; the Career Executive Service was established.

In his heyday, bureaucrats marveled at how Sen. Maceda was eerily familiar with the operations of every department and agency at budget authorization hearings. He knew which questions to ask, which buttons to push. Part of it was from the knowledge and experience acquired in his stewardship of the executive departments as executive secretary to President Marcos I. But it was mostly the wisdom gained from his immersion in the preparation, consolidation and drafting of the Commission’s output.

To tame a colossus. Today, we have 22 executive departments; a total of 187 agencies and almost 2 million regular positions. According to Budget Sec. Amenah Pangandaman, all will undergo review for possible merging, restructuring, abolition. Vice President Sara Duterte has acknowledged the difficulty of this undertaking if done government-wide, even if this should prove more systematic than if carried out incrementally.

Government workers have already denounced this neo-liberal policy that “prioritizes interests of the elite.” Reorganization legislation have elaborate provisions to deal with collateral effects that could be gruesome. From previous statutes, we’ve seen allowances for: preferences in retention, losing eligibilities, ratings, gratuities, pensions, reinstatements, re-employment, retooling, retraining, safety nets, relocation, among others. Labor Secretary Bienvenido Laguesma assures that government will cushion the impact of any dislocations.

Commissioner Aileen Lizada reveals the mindset of the independent Civil Service Commission. She “suggests” that Government look first at the numerous unfilled positions remaining before attempting a rightsize.

Legal basis. The power to abolish is lodged with the legislature, the body empowered to create offices excluding those created by the Constitution itself. The exception here is that the President, from his constitutional power of control, possesses the power to reorganize the offices and agencies of the executive department.

Existing laws, such as the Administrative Code of 1987, also delegate to him the legislative power to reorganize. General appropriations acts have allowed the President to authorize organizational changes in any department or agency; also, to scale down, phase-out and abolish activities no longer essential in the delivery of public services.

Lessons learned. Through the years, worldwide trends in governance/administration/management have nudged countries along the path of lesser government. With the 3Es as impetus, we’ve seen movements toward decentralization, deregulation, privatization and load shedding (the push for more PPP is indicative), marketization and digitalization.

But there are activities still best left to government. Ideal delivery of services may not always jibe with ideal governance. The pandemic, for one, has forced a reappraisal of the role of government and its synergies with the private sector. In the past two years, we have seen the enhanced participation of the State in the production of goods and services, rather than in their previous arm’s length regulation. Business has been rudely awakened to new models of profit where social responsibility plays a larger role. “Whole of society” was our mantra.

Sec. Pangandaman, as if to acknowledge this, has conceded that rightsizing, in the case of priority sectors such as health and public education, could as well result in upsizing.

So redundant, again. Reform of government has been the clarion call of every administration. Is it because none ever succeed? The result of the periodic efforts, according to scholars, is the consistent expansion of the bureaucracy and the failure to pare down the expenses of the system.

Bureaucrats’ natural reaction would be to defend their turf. Sec. Pangandaman also acknowledges that PRRD’s rightsizing the National Government Bill of 2017 was “unpopular” with Congress. Sen. Francis Escudero concedes that this process will be long and difficult and is liable to encounter resistance.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Let’s hope that this time, it proves to be a different story.

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