One issue that refuses to die is the cap on foreign trips that President Rodirgo Duterte had imposed on government officials and employees. After several agency heads were sacked in the last few months, another official is now under fire for having traveled overseas more times than those dismissed officials ever did.
It is probably time for the government to establish detailed guidelines on who are entitled to go on overseas trips.
This is to ensure that their going on these trips will benefit the country at least cost to taxpayers.
Governments do not work in a vacuum. Intergovernmental relations go beyond diplomatic dealings, as the impact of human activities and natural occurences are no longer limited by geographical enclaves, nor are personal contacts and dealings within small circles of relatives and acquaintances. Opportunities for intergovernmental and personal interactions have expanded through advances in transportation and communication infrastructure.
My dream to see the world was what made me take up a bachelor’s degree in foreign service at the state university. But instead of seeking a job at the Department of Foreign Affairs, I joined the Development Academy of the Philippines, and later the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina). Though I never got to be a diplomat, my maritime credentials brought me to different places. No, it was not government work that gave me a passport to the world, but my employment after leaving government. Just the same, the few trips I took while in government helped me draw some interesting and useful insights.
I would like to share some tips on how to determine the necessity of government officials and employees going on overseas trips:
1. At the beginning of the year, make a list of international/regional meetings that the agency must participate in and prioritize, based on the agency or country’s programs. This is needed, as the government works on a budget and allocation for travel may be limited.
These questions can help: Is it part of the country’s international/regional commitment? Will non-participation compromise the country’s standing in the area or subject of the meeting (e.g. trade, seafaring, tourism, climate change)? Is the head of the agency required to participate, or can a director or technical staff member represent the country in these meetings?
2. The criteria in selecting those who should attend international meetings/trainings/seminars must include relevance to the position or office and the capacity to ably represent the country in these events. In cases where participation requires the government’s commitment, high-ranking officials should be sent. Technical meetings should be left to technical staff.
Government delegates should ably articulate the interest of the country and must, therefore, be eligible to speak on its behalf. Entitlement to foreign travel should not be used to reward employees, nor should excess or savings in agency funds be used on overseas trips.
Asean meetings. The Philippines participates in various working groups under the auspices of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). One of these is the maritime transport working group (MTWG). It has been Asean’s practice that the head of the maritime administration (or sometimes, someone higher-ranked) of the host country acts as the meeting’s chairman. It is rare, though, to find heads of maritime administrations attend MTWG meetings.
Philippine delegations to these meetings are usually led by a Marina director, as discussions would mostly deal with technical concerns that would eventually be referred to the Senior Transport Officials and Asean Transport Ministers meetings for further discussion.
IMO meetings. Certain meetings at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) require representation by high-ranking Philippine officials. They may be the Transportation undersecretary for maritime affairs, or the Marina administrator or his/her deputy.
One such meeting is that of the IMO Council, of which the Philippines is a member. The same level of representation is also targeted during IMO Assembly meetings, a biennial event where council members are elected and during which the country wages a campaign for a seat in the said body.
The IMO also holds technical committee meetings, such as those held by the maritime safety, maritime environment protection, legal, and technical cooperation panels, and several sub-committee meetings. For these theme-focused meetings, technical experts (directors and technical officers) from the capital should be sent, as they are presumed to be in the best position to understand the issues to be discussed and to relate these to their country’s circumstances.
Technical training/seminars/meetings. As in any other endeavor, there are specialized short-term maritime trainings/seminars/meetings available, usually offered by bilateral partners and international and maritime organizations.
Participation in these events are required by the sponsors, generally providing the minimum qualification for those to be nominated by the beneficiary country.
In most cases, the criteria fit officers and staff with technical knowledge and skills to understand the subject matter and who are, therefore, able to articulate issues that need expert guidance from the lecturers or trainers. That no government funds would be used should not be an excuse to send less-qualified representatives.
3. Keep the number of Philippine delegates to a minimum and include only those whose participation are deemed essential for the purpose for which the delegation is being dispatched.
The substantive work and contribution of the delegates should be clearly stipulated in the Authority to Travel; clerical and secretariat support staff shall not form part of the delegation, as these are provided by the host country.
Technical and management staff whose tasks are not directly related to the foreign training/seminar/meeting should not be included.
4. Strictly implement the reportorial requirement for those going on foreign trips and to conduct echo seminars if applicable. For this purpose, the agency should establish a compliance and monitoring mechanism.
Those sent to these trainings/seminars/meetings shall be responsible in translating the knowledge gained into implementation activities, and at the same time possess the ability to pass on what has been learned to the rest of the staff concerned.
The President, upon returning from official overseas trips, would report on them to the nation; the same is expected of other officials.
5. Adherence to the official itinerary should always be observed. This means that government employees on official travel should seek specific approval as part of the Authority to Travel if they intend to extend their itinerary beyond the meeting/training/seminar. The decision to extend must not come as an afterthought, more so with family in tow.
6. Oblige officials returning from overseas trip to promptly liquidate expenses and make non-compliance a reason to prevent them from going on future trips until all disbursed funds are properly accounted for.
There have been employees who were either suspended or dismissed from service for failing to liquidate their travel expenses, ranging from a few hundred to millions of pesos. These could be avoided if government accounting/auditing rules are implemented.
One who travels on an official mission need not be reminded that citizens of this country expect him or her to be always prudent in using government funds and resources. This is what every government employee, regardless of position, is obliged to do once sworn into office.
So the next time you transact business with a government agency and you receive that matter-of-fact look as he or she informs you that the responsible official is overseas, see if these tips were used.