IN the light of recent events in the country that have merited glaring headlines, this column, A View from the Center, will attempt at elucidation using as a backdrop the author’s paper on political management while working on a postgraduate course at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in the 1980s (access www.cdpi.asia)
This will draw heavily too from personal experience as both an observer and a participant in political dynamics in the two decades serving under four administrations in various capacities from Presidents Cory, to FVR to Erap and with GMA. I was not in any way involved with PNoy’s regime. I too am not currently involved with the Dee-gong administration in any capacity. My observations on his presidency however will form a substantial part of this three-part article.
I don’t claim any intimacy with these past Presidents as most people privileged to work along the periphery of the high and mighty are wont to insinuate. I will not fall into the temptation of bloating my minor role, but will present my views as a student and practitioner of “political technocracy”.
The past few weeks’ headlines screamed for the heads of Trade Secretary Art Tugade and Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre. Both Cabinet members are victims of expectations—very high expectations—mainly the public’s. We are not privy to the presidential expectations but can only assume that their appointments were for the most part the result of PRRD’s assessment of their capabilities, experiences and competencies; and as classmates or alumni from the President’s university–-a not-so-light qualification given the Filipino culture of patronage.
The latter is critical as they have been designated as the President’s alter egos, and as such have the complete trust of the President and are expected to speak for and in his behalf in their areas of expertise. Such responsibility is a privileged one and both must understand the nature of the relationship.
For one, this bond is no longer a personal one, as in classmates, schoolmates or “tsokaran”. It has transcended the familiar and morphed into one containing the majesty of the office of the presidency. By this precept, both are custodians of presidential prerogatives, prestige and power; and adding their own to it to enable the President and them to do their task well. The sum of all these is the vaunted fragile political capital of the President with a sustainability dependent largely on a fickle citizenry.
All Cabinet members are by inference the President’s alter egos and must understand their roles perfectly well.
Cabinet members are heat shields and political lightning rods of the presidency. As such, part of their job is to deflect serious criticism from their respective publics and clientele of the presidency as a result of their official functions. As an efficient conductor of political heat, these honorable secretaries must prevent damage or serious erosion to the political capital of the presidency.
The high expectations of the riding public to solve the oppressive traffic situation in Metro Manila, which includes the unsafe and unreliable train system, has eaten into the perception of incompetence of the department head, hence the call for his dismissal.
Paradoxically by the above measures, the good Secretary Tugade has done well deflecting the harm to his principal, considering the enormity of the problems inherited from the immediate past regime and having occupied his office for only half a year.
The same is true with the Justice Secretary who acted to deflect from the presidency the failings of the justice system (the drug proliferation in the prisons); and more particularly the perceived anomalies perpetrated by the two alumni of their law school who very early in this administration had begun to put their dirty little fingers in the Office of Immigration.
Both Cabinet members did their job as political heat shield, but still have to prove their mettle by serving the public by doing the job they were meant to do; but the long-suffering public has understandably short patience.
The third case is the curious actuations of the head of the Philippine National Police (PNP) on the alleged murder of a Korean national within the confines of his office. He claimed that a massive manhunt had been ordered personally by him to apprehend the perpetrators, only to find out from the media that the main suspect has been assigned all along at an office a stone’s throw from his. His claim once that a police rub-out suspect was freed upon the instructions of someone “higher in authority” was so inane and tragically comical as, in his job description, there is no person higher in authority than the President himself.
This series of incidents reflect his mis-appreciation of a job that catapulted him from a local provincial sinecure to the head of a critical agency in the national government. The general was utterly clueless reinforcing an elementary rule in political management that is the first duty of a presidential appointee: discovering what one’s job is. Job description at most higher levels, and in this case the top police general, is neither defined for you exactly nor “announced in the newspapers”. It is more or less the ability to “grab” authority and responsibility and incorporating the same into your own little rectangle (in the organization chart).
Calls for the resignation of these three presidential subalterns could be premature considering the short time spent at their jobs; they simply need to be on top of the learning curve. But along with the perks accorded top presidential appointees should be their readiness to prevent damage to the presidency and the country even at the risk of their own.
Such is the essence of their function as presidential alter ego; a duty to give all in the service of the President and the Filipino—and to discern well the sequence of that duty.
The phrase that they hold office upon the “pleasure of the President” is an absurd one reflecting indecisiveness. This puts the onus on the President and a wasteful withdrawal from his political capital.
(Part 2 next Thursday)
The author served under four Philippine Presidents in various capacities as a member of the Cabinet and several commissions. A Harvard-educated political technocrat, he was one of the prime movers of the Citizens Movement for Federal Philippines(CMFP); one of the founders of the Centrist Democratic Party of the Philippines (CDP); Ang Partido ng Tunay na Demokrasya; and the Centrist Democracy Political Institute (CDPI).