The manner of Energy Secretary Carlos Jericho Petilla’s resignation from his post was so funny, it almost made the guy likeable. Almost.
On Wednesday at what turned out to be his last press briefing as the head of the DOE, Petilla announced that he was quitting for “personal and family reasons.” That’s an acceptably vague explanation, especially since the end-of-term exodus of officials from the government has clearly already begun. But Petilla had to leave us one last reminder that he is quite incapable of doing anything in a normal way by stressing that his resignation was “for real this time, and not just a drama,” and that he had actually submitted it to the President over a month ago, on March 26.
The “unreal” incident Petilla was alluding to was his aborted vow to quit if power was not restored in areas affected by Typhoon Yolanda in November 2013 by Christmas of that year. When Christmas came and went with electricity not yet available to most areas, Petilla realized keeping his promise would result in actual unemployment, but President B.S. Aquino 3rd, as he is wont to do with his closest associates, bailed him out by “refusing to accept” Petilla’s resignation.
Even now, despite the assurance that there’s no “drama” involved, Petilla can’t quite let it go, telling reporters on Wednesday that he was unsure whether or not President Aquino had actually accepted his resignation, and expressing a willingness to “come back if they ask me.”
And why would anyone do that?
Petilla at best was a caretaker at the Department of Energy, someone to make sure the door was unlocked in the morning to let the rest of the staff in and reorder toner cartridges when somebody used the last one. With no discernible energy policy apart from “issue a permit to build a coal-fired generator to anyone who asks for one,” Petilla’s tenure at the DOE was certainly not marked by anything innovative, and was—just as in many other departments during the Aquino v2.0 era—noted more for its embarrassing failures than its achievements.
Petilla will probably be best remembered for carrying on a hysterical, months-long lobbying campaign for “emergency powers” (and a loosely-controlled supplemental budget of P4 billion or more) to deal with a near-catastrophic shortage of electricity for the Luzon grid during April and May. After technical experts from his own department—one would assume, are consulted by the Secretary on a regular basis—publicly contradicted Petilla’s claims of a several hundred-megawatt supply shortage, a skeptical legislature declined to grant the extra authority to the President.
That turned out to be the right call. Petilla’s shrill warnings of dire consequences if the emergency powers were not approved, if they were not actually part of a stupidly conceived and executed ploy to capture 2016 campaign funds for Aquino’s shrinking faction, were at the very least completely detached from reality. At least until now, Luzon’s electric supply has hardly been strained; halfway through the critical period and having already accommodated the annual (and traditionally inconveniently-scheduled) major maintenance shutdowns of the Malampaya gas platform and a couple of Luzon’s larger generating plants, it seems that any problems that might yet arise will be relatively short-lived.
In a final sign of how Petilla brought an office manager’s mentality to the role of a Cabinet-level executive, in his explanation of the timing of his departure (if he noticed that the question itself was a suggestion that he should have left much, much earlier, he didn’t say) Petilla said that he did not want to leave the department with lingering problems—such as the looming energy crisis that he, and he alone, still believes will strike any day now. Never mind the energy sector, the energy-consuming market, or any sort of policy direction—as long as someone’s collecting the time cards and remembering to update the office Facebook page, everything’s under control.
Ex-Secretary Petilla is an example of every flaw in the organizational construction of government agencies, particularly in democracies, and particular in this one. A secretary of a major department need not be the smartest person in the room, but he needs sufficient experience—which in the case of a highly-technical field like energy policy, is quite a lot—in his area of responsibility to be able to select appropriate experts and comprehend their advice.
It is not a new idea, but it is one worth repeating: There should be minimum practical requirements that must be met by appointees to administrative positions in the government. The Secretary of Energy, for example, should have some idea of what “energy” actually is. We regularly bemoan the existence and unsatisfactory performance of “political appointees,” but the real problem is lack of qualifications and quality; a “political” appointee is as good as any other, provided there is some objective basis for giving him the job and he is able to perform competently. Since it seems presidents in this country find making that judgment difficult, perhaps Congress should consider giving them some guidelines.