(First of two parts)
The public furor that erupted this week over the apparently invalid appointment of National Food Authority chief Orlan A. Calayag is a sign that President B.S. Aquino 3rd’s stubborn political nepotism may have finally gone too far; a population that has largely tolerated appointment after appointment of people with dubious or non-existent qualifications to important government posts is now beginning to openly question the Administration’s cynical regard for human resource management.
That the administration has been stung by the revelations about Calayag is reflected in the announcement by the Palace that the erstwhile NFA director’s appointment “would be reviewed,” an extraordinary move from the office of a President who has never once entertained even a suggestion that he might have been wrong about anything.
And of course, the sudden focus on the qualifications or glaring lack thereof of Calayag for his post has spilled over onto other officials, with his boss Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala being the next name on a list that grew as the week progressed. While fitness for office of these individuals is indeed an important issue, it is only symptomatic of a bigger problem. The Philippines’ process—a term used very loosely here—for finding managers for its government offices is completely ineffective, and must be comprehensively overhauled.
The process as it is now is similar to the appointment-and-confirmation process in the United States, where a large number (but not all) of the vast number of offices appointed by the President are subject to the approval of the Senate. Appointments are first vetted in the relevant committee, and then if approved, passed to the entire Senate for a vote. Instead of giving the Philippine Senate that authority, the 1987 Constitution created a Commission on Appointments including members of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, but otherwise the process is approximately the same. In both countries, the systems work reasonably well on paper, but have become highly politicized in practice. It is only when the technical requirements of the appointment in question—such as for the post of treasury secretary—are indistinguishable from political considerations does the process result in an even remotely empirically sound choice; in most other cases, who the nominee knows takes precedence over what he knows, although of course the system takes pains to at least give lip service to the matter of fitness for office.
Here in the Philippines, these basic flaws in the appointment process are compounded by a couple unique handicaps. The Philippine Constitution in general, and in the matter of appointments in particular, is extraordinarily deferential to the authority of the President, a great irony considering the Constitution was written with the memories of a dictatorship fresh in the country’s mind. As a consequence, a far greater number of key positions are exempt from the appointment process compared to the US system, while a couple of positions, such as those of executive secretary, press secretary, and low-ranking diplomatic officers, are unnecessarily included. NFA head Calayag, for instance, was not subject to Commission on Appointments vetting, but only whatever undefined process is used by the Executive branch.
The second big problem with the Philippine system is that sufficient leeway is given the President to allow him to simply ignore the Commission on Appointments. Outright rejections of nominees are rare; instead, most unapproved nominees are “bypassed,” an ambiguous status that has no practical effect whatsoever. Bypassed nominees simply stay in office at the President’s pleasure, because there is no clear rule—or actual authority on the commission’s part to enforce it—compelling them to step down. In the US, by contrast, the system does not provide that option; the available options are “confirmation” or “rejection”; “maybe” is not possible. Under the US system, Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Ramon Paje, Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, and Social Welfare and Development Secretary Corazon “Dinky” Soliman, all of whose appointments are still pending before the commission, would almost certainly have been obliged to vacate their posts long before now, if not prevented from taking them in the first place. But under the present system, none of them have anything to worry about; they will serve as long as their boss wants them to, or until another Cabinet-level position opens up and requires one of those games of executive-level musical chairs the administration occasionally plays.
The important point in all this is that a system that follows the mandate to provide for “the harmonious and efficient functioning of the government” on paper and not in deed, has real-world consequences. Were it not for the overall poor management quality of the Philippine government, this country would not be grappling with quite so many problems and would be a more credible regional competitor. Fixing the system, however, will unavoidably involve altering the Constitution, and that is something which the present administration—and truth be told, a sizable part of the population—finds distasteful.
It cannot be helped. If the Philippines is going to improve its institutional performance and at least make a start toward preparing itself for regional integration in 2015, drastic changes need to be made in the way it manages human resources. In the next column, I will explain a possible solution framework—not an answer to everything, perhaps, but some practical ideas that could very well lead to long-overdue improvements.