First 50 Days: Duterte’s implementation gap

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Ricardo Saludo

Ricardo Saludo

Last of Three Parts
Implementation. Implementation. Implementation.

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That’s always been the paramount challenge in any presidential drive to energize the economy and amend the Constitution.

There has been no shortage of brilliant ideas and initiatives to accelerate economic growth and share its gains widely. Nor does the nation lack proposals to amend and improve the fundamental law.

As before, so it is now: President Rodrigo Duterte has a 10-point agenda for development, plus a campaign platform to institute federalism by constitutional revision.

In short, lots of ideas, ideas, ideas.

And business groups and leaders support them, while Congress is keen to act as constituent assembly for charter change. So are things going well with the economy and “cha-cha” in Duterte’s first 50 days?

Yes and no.

For ideas are nothing unless they lead to implementation.

Just ask former President Benigno Aquino 3rd. In his first State of the Nation Address six years ago, he trumpeted the public-private partnership (PPP) as a flagship program to accelerate infrastructure while cutting state costs. Six years later, only a handful of the many ambitious PPP projects are going.

As for charter change, then-Presidents Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada and Gloria Arroyo all failed trying. Aquino opposed amendment moves in Congress, until he thought of running again for President two years before his exit. Too late to cha-cha.

People, people, people
So while Duterte’s plans to revitalize the economy and remake the Constitution look good, what exactly has been done to get them going?

Plenty, to be sure.

The 2017 budget gives infrastructure spending a hefty boost, as promised by Duterte and applauded by business. In his first month in office, the budget deficit rose by more than half to P50.7 billion, reflecting increased spending and lower revenue growth.

With last month’s deficit surge, the January-July shortfall of P171 billion was up almost eight-fold over the same period in 2015. A good start toward more public works under Duterte — and a sharp contrast to the Aquino era, which ended with P1 trillion in unspent budget funds, depriving Filipinos of mammoth facilities and services.

Now, will the Duterte spending push continue or peter out? It depends on another PPP: people, people, people.

First, one person is predictably crucial: President Duterte. As any government insider knows, nothing big moves without presidential drive. Aquino’s PPP stalled because Aquino did not follow it up.

By contrast, his predecessor Arroyo deputized this writer as Cabinet Secretary, assisted by the Presidential Management Staff (PMS), to monitor hundreds of directives to national agencies, checking progress and addressing problems in weekly meetings. Arroyo herself met the Cabinet every week or so, even in provincial sorties.

Is President Duterte prodding his alter egos enough on the economy? Or at least deputized a top aide and the PMS to keep tabs on key projects and thrusts?

From media reports, he seems far more focused on security concerns like drugs, rebels and China, not the economy. Indeed, he has not even named some key officials crucial to the 10-point agenda.

Who’s in charge here?
Which brings us to the second people issue: lack of executive or expert people in priority thrusts.

One priority announced early on is the clean-up and streamlining of the Land Registration Authority, a bureau under the Department of Justice. With land titling problems often holding up investments, LRA reform is deemed crucial to growth.

Well, two months into the new administration and weeks after receiving Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre’s shortlist for the post, the LRA administrator is still to be appointed. Imagine if the Philippine National Police Chief were still unnamed till now.

Duterte also wants red tape slashed, with procedures cut down to hours instead of days or weeks. Arroyo ordered something similar in her first SONA — cut the number of signatures for frontline services by half — and put that directive under PMS monitoring.

So who’s in charge of Duterte’s even more daunting SONA directive on red tape?

Hopefully, the body streamlining business procedures since its creation in 2007: the National Competitiveness Council, jointly headed by the Trade and Industry secretary and a private sector co-chairman, a post in which former Makati Business Club and Namfrel executive Bill Luz performed excellently, raising the Philippines’ world competitiveness rankings year after year.

Bottom line: For his priorities to move, President Duterte must appoint, empower and support capable executives to take charge of them, with ample agency support. Are all the 10-point agenda covered?

Warm bodies, please
Third people factor: not enough expert officials and technical staff.

Consider this: The national budget has quintupled since 2001 to P3.5 trillion next year, with infrastructure spending doubling to P1 trillion from this year. Yet civil servants and the military have actually declined slightly over one and a half decades to 1.4 trillion.

That’s like a giant conglomerate aiming to generate five times more sales without adding staff. Can’t be done, especially if expert executives and technicians don’t increase, saddling present employees with more and more things to take charge of.

So in the Duterte government’s plan to treble infrastructure spending to the ideal 5 percent or more of gross domestic product, pay attention to the warm bodies in implementing agencies, especially engineers in public works and transport departments.

And with crackdowns on corruption and incompetence, officials need to give more time and care in their tasks, making it even more imperative to expand expert ranks. Otherwise, implementation will continue to fall short.

To achieve his law and order goal, Duterte is planning to hire more police and soldiers. In the same way, for his infrastructure and services expansion to happen, he needs more expert personnel on the ground.

And cha-cha? House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez said yesterday he just gave President Duterte the draft order creating the Constitutional Commission expected to start drafting charter revisions next month.

Get those Con-Com warm bodies constituted, appointed and working, too, Mr. President, along with officials and entities tasked with your other priority agenda. Then your next 2,140 days would deliver on the hopes that your first 50 kindled.

(The first part on the anti-drugs campaign was published August 25; the second about forging peace and harmony with China and rebel groups ran August 30.)

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