Cabinet secretaries and policymaking


WHO makes public policy? To be precise, who makes it in our system of government?

It’s time to ask the question, because the horde of men and women who took office last Friday, as the heads of government departments and various agencies, need to be clarified about their role in the policymaking process and the limits of their authority. They were not appointed to serve as czars or czarinas in their respective turf.

The issue needs to be raised because some appointees have hastily announced major policy changes on their turf that have alarmed certain sectors and groups that will be adversely affected by the policies.

One such appointee is Ms. Gina Lopez, who was named as head of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). Even before she was sworn in, she already ignited a storm with careless talk of a sweeping audit of mining companies and the revision of public policy in the mining industry

Drawing similar alarm and scrutiny were certain appointees coming from the Left and recommended by top leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the National Democratric Front (NDF). Conservatives and members of the military establishment are anxious to know about how their ideological background will impact policymaking on their turf.

We think it is worrisome that some nominees have not gone through sufficient vetting, of their professional backgrounds and their fitness for the offices to which they have been assigned. The Duterte administration should not replicate the colossal blunders of the Aquino regime.

So that Cabinet appointees and their critics do not engage too early in argument and recrimination, we urge that everyone step back and examine the fundamentals of policymaking and the authority of the Cabinet in our system of government. This way, we can determine whether the Cabinet secretaries are overstepping the bounds of their authority.

Everyone should also remember that appointees will be subject to confirmation by the Commission on Appointments (CA).

Article VII, Section 16, of the Constitution defines the nominating power of the President and the consenting power of Congress regarding appointments to the government bureaucracy.

The Constitution requires transparency. When people are nominated by the President to become Cabinet members, the Constitution requires that they be confirmed by the CA before they can take office, so that facts about them can become known before they are given the powers of public office.

The confirmation process is the venue where the public and interested groups can raise specific objections to the appointments.

Concerning the role of Cabinet secretaries in policymaking, it is well to remember that their role is mainly recommendatory.

Several actors have a hand to play in the policymaking process. The key actors are:

1. Congress – Policies are usually created by the legislative branch, which creates and legitimates policy in the form of new laws.

2. The President – The President may also create public policy by putting the issue on his legislative agenda, by including it in his budget proposal, by vetoing a law made by Congress, or by issuing an executive order that establishes a new policy or augments an existing one. Cabinet secretaries normally advise the President in this policymaking role.

3. Government bureaucracy – at national and local level the bureaucracy may create and enhance policy through its power to regulate.

4. The Judiciary – When the Supreme Court rules on what the government can or cannot do, it performs a policymaking role.

There was a major dustup between Ms. Lopez and mining-industry players because she short-circuited the policymaking process with her hasty policy pronouncements. She seems unaware that Cabinet secretaries do not make policy; their work is in policy implementation and regulation.


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  1. Auditing the mining industry does not equate to a change in policy. Absolutely no change in policy has been pronounced yet.