Do presidential words have the weight of policy?



First word
I APPLAUD her gumption in the drug policy debate, but Sen. Risa Hontiveros may be out of her depth when she contends 1) that President Rodrigo Duterte’s words “have the weight of policy” and 2) that she can conclude by inference that there is a state policy to kill drug suspects from the killing by the police of teenagers Kian delos Santos and Carl Angelo Arnaiz.

This freestyle approach to public policy is muddled and confusing.

To relieve the confusion, I suggest that we turn first to a fundamental understanding of what public policy is, who makes it, and how it is made.

I know a little about public policy because I spent a fair number of years in directing work on policy research and development; and I have returned to the field of policy studies from time to time to do research and writing.

What is public policy?
A few basic definitions are useful for understanding the subject.

Public policy is a government plan of action to solve a problem that people share collectively or that they cannot solve on their own. Sometimes, government’s plan of action is to do nothing, i.e. a plan of inaction, with the expectation or hope that the problem will go away on its own, or in the belief that it is not or should not be government’s business to solve it.

Public policies differ from, say, a restaurant’s “no shirt, no shoes, no service policy” because public policies are designed to solve common problems, not address the concerns of a single business or institution. We think of problems as public when they cannot be handled by individuals, groups, businesses, or other actors privately.

Who makes policy?
Government actors in our system of government—members of Congress, the President, the courts, and the bureaucracy—are involved in the making of public policy.

Policies are usually created by the members of Congress in the form of laws.

The President may also create policies, first by putting an issue on the public agenda, by including it in his budget proposal, or by issuing an executive order that establishes a new policy or augments an existing one. An executive order sometimes can make profound changes in policy. One famous executive order created affirmative action in the US.

The big hole in Risa’s contention that the killing of drug suspects is a state policy is that there is no law or executive order anywhere that has made such killing a policy of the administrative. There is an enabling act, the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 202, or RA 9165, which may have been the statutory basis for the war on drugs. The law mandates government to pursue an intensive and unrelenting campaign against the trafficking of dangerous drugs and other similar substances.” The word “kill” is not used even once in the entire act.

No new order has been fashioned by the Duterte government for the drug war. This, I think, is the reason why Hontiveros elevated presidential speechmaking to a major role in making public policy.

I can understand why Duterte trolls in the net have a lively name for the senator. They call her “Hontivirus.”

Steps in policymaking process
Political scientists have identified five steps that most policymakers follow in trying to solve a public problem. These steps are:

1. Agenda setting: public attention focuses on a public problem or issue.

2. Policy formulation: policymakers take up the issue, and devise strategies to address the problem.

3. Policy adoption: policymakers formally adopt a policy solution, usually in the form of a law or laws.

4. Policy implementation: government agencies are given the responsibility to make the policy work.

5. Policy evaluation: Policy analysts inside and outside government determine whether the policy is addressing the problem and implementation is proceeding well.

Public policies are made in two broad areas of concern to government: the domestic policy areas, which include social policy such as social security, welfare, and health care, and economic policy such as fiscal, monetary and tax policy; and the external policy areas of foreign policy and national security.

Presidential rhetoric as policymaking
To claim that presidential speechmaking is policymaking is a leap of imagination that I have never heard of. Presidential speeches and statements are at best explanations or elaborations on policy direction or preference of the President. The speech itself, no matter how important, cannot be considered a policy, even if it may accidentally contain the word “order” or “command.” Without a specific law or executive order, a policy idea is only that.

What then do we make of President Duterte’s repeated use of the words “kill’ and “killing” when he talks about the war on drugs with the police?

Similarly, what do we do with his frequent use of cuss words, expletives and profanities in his public speaking. Surely, no one will suggest that “P…..ina” is a state policy.

There is a serious work of scholarship on the US presidency that analyzes the place of rhetoric in policymaking: All the President’s Words by Carol Gelderman (Walker and Company, New York, 1997). The book strives to establish a connection between what the president says and what he does. Speeches, as in the work of Theodore Sorensen for John F, Kennedy, often lead to the final shape of a public policy.

Was Senator Hontiveros correct when she said that “DU30’s urging the police to kill criminals has the “weight of policy”?

She contended: “The truth is, the President has a well-documented record of encouraging violence against drug dependents and suspected drug pushers. ‘Shoot suspects if they fight back, make them fight if they don’t,’ ‘kill all criminals,’ and ‘makapatay lang tayo ng another 32 every day, then maybe we can reduce what ails this country.’” She accused Duterte of smearing the image of the police and “inspiring the culture of killing and impunity”.

Hontiveros knows the police community well. She is a PNP widow. She knows that there are men of honor in police ranks, just as there are soldier’s rascals.

The lady’s object in her tirade is to support her belief that there is “a state policy to kill drug suspects” which is being implemented by the PNP in the war on drugs.

When she blurted this at last Wednesday’s hearings of the Senate committee on public order and dangerous drugs, she drew emotional and tearful rebuttals from PNP Director-General Ronald dela Rosa and Public Attorney’s Office chief Persida Rueda Acosta.

We are left with this: There may be no order or pattern in the killings. But there are killings.

DU30 and Risa personalize the issue
President Duterte and Senator Hontiveros may be in agreement on at least one point. Both have a tendency to personalize the policy issue.

President Duterte invariably personalizes the policy problem and his policy ideas. He talks of the soldiery and the police as my soldiers and my police. He repeatedly talks of the great danger to my country and my people.

In turn, Hontiveros obliges him by personalizing around his person the responsibility for all the killings that have taken place, and the policies that have led to them.

Personalist politics and governance have their price.


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