29 March 2007

State of the civil service

My column for this week's issue of Vox Bikol.

YESTERDAY, I had the opportunity to catch Civil Service Commission chair Karina Constantino-David’s address on the topic “Bureaucracy, Governance and Human Development in the Philippines.” Occasion was the 2007 general assembly of the Human Development Network (HDN), the foremost advocacy group for the propagation and mainstreaming of sustainable human development in the country.

The state of Philippine public service, as she described, is a mix of good and bad news. Let me start with the good news.

The hope of our country is in the local governments, and outside Manila. I have heard different people, highly respected in their own fields, talk about the same theme: that Philippine LGUs -- their own troubles notwithstanding -- are our last best hope. But it is the first time I heard an affirmation from no less than the chief of our most respected constitutional body today.

Of the twelve government agencies rated outstanding by its in-house evaluators -- who posed as clients in assessing service quality recently -- only two are national government agencies, David said; the rest are LGUs. And of these 12, only one was rated excellent: the city government of Marikina.

She offered two reasons why:

One, local chief executives are closer to constituents than their counterparts in the national government. The line of accountability is therefore shorter, always keeping frontline service providers -- by way of their elected bosses who interface directly with their constituents -- on their toes.

And two, the quality of staff in the provinces are way much better than their Manila-based counterparts. This stems from the fact that while Manila-based state agencies are left scraping the barrel in terms of personnel quality (with the private sector getting the crème de la crème), their provincial counterparts get the best ones of those who refuse to join the rat race in the national capital and choose to stay put.

Unfortunately, the bad news is equally formidable: at no time in the history of Philippine civil service that it is being buffeted by rank politicization as being practised by the Arroyo administration.

Someone asked why India, a far bigger democracy with a far more vast bureaucracy than ours, has a more independent civil service. The answer lies, according to David, in the strong influence of the British civil service, where a line is drawn between politicians and the professional bureaucrats.

In the Philippines, not only is the line muddled; it is also expanding rapidly to accommodate the whims and caprices of our political class, which has grown more crass -- garapal was the word David used -- over time. Where before, old-school politicians would only go so far as nudge the Commission towards a direction in their favor, today’s mayors, governors and congressmen -- from the administration and opposition alike -- shown no compunction in demanding that protégés be given or promoted to the desired position, and their political enemies removed from their present post.

Exploiting the so-called residual powers of the presidency to the hilt, the Arroyo administration has pushed the envelope in politicizing the bureaucracy much further than ever before. Today, the controversial “presidential desire letter,” which installed the least qualified but Malacañang-backed applicant, at the helm of the Development Academy of the Philippines last year, is now being issued by underlings in the President’s name. And appointments are being handed out mostly in acting capacity, to ensure that the beneficiary will always toe the Palace’s line during crunch time.

Faced with this harsh reality -- which HDN founding president Solita Monsod decried as the creeping “banality (or ordinariness) of evil,” quoting from the 2007 opus of Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo entitled “The Lucifer Effect” -- it is of little wonder then that the otherwise normally moral Filipino civil servant meekly tolerates, and even capitulates, to graft and corruption. The recent PERC survey shows just how far evil has triumphed in our benighted land.

For those interested, “The Lucifer Effect” can be downloaded through the internet as an e-Book at around US$18.