Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Lessons in Power, Ethics and Accountability

Below is an essay I've written for our "Power, Ethics and Accountability" course at the Ateneo School of Government which constitutes our mid-term exam.

“Reflections on Ethical Leadership and Good Governance Reforms”

By Oliver M. Mendoza


The last two months taking up the module “Power, Ethics and Accountability” at the Ateneo School of Government has been quite interesting and intellectually stimulating for me. Our professor, former CSC Chair and DSWD Secretary Corazon Alma de Leon, has a novel approach to teaching. Perhaps knowing that actual life experiences would have more impact on us students than any theoretical discussion or classroom lecture, Professor de Leon would invite resource speakers to do a lecture in our class every Saturday. So far we have had Rose Yengko, a noted psychologist, Lucy Lazo, the former TESDA head, Mrs. Sonia Roco, who spoke about her late husband Senator Raul Roco, Miss Ava Cariquez, an Atenean who spent 11 years in the Correctional facility for women, and Willy Parayno, the former Bureau of Customs chief. Our class also had fun with the Starship presentation, a thought-provoking group exercise which required us to use our imagination and creativity in establishing a new social order in a distant planet.

A Nation of Free Spirits and Positive Thinkers

One of our first resource speakers was Dr. Rose Yengko, a noted clinical psychologist, who presented her “Nine Archetypes of the Filipino Psyche” paper. Miss Yengko postulated that 100,000 years of shared human experiences have brought about common personality traits (which she termed as “archetypes”) in certain groups of people. These so-called “archetypes” greatly influence how we view our world, our attitudes and behavior. She identified nine archetypes that characterize our people, namely: the Filipino is an “Artist,” “Navigator/Wanderer,” “Tribal Person,” “Warrior-Protector,” “Healer,” “Mystic,” “Islander,” “Reveller” and lastly, a “Child of Eden.” Each of the nine archetypes exists in each one of us, albeit in varying degrees of intensity and influence.

Dr. Yengko’s characterization of the Filipino as a “Tribal Person” explains why our leaders are so parochial and why majority of our population cannot seem to see the “big picture.” The “Navigator-Wanderer” archetype depicts the Filipino as a migratory people, adventurous and restless spirits forever looking for the proverbial greener pasture. This partly explains why we have the OFW phenomenon, which apparently has been going on for hundreds of years. But of all the nine Filipino archetypes, the one that struck me as most insightful was Dr. Yengko’s characterization of the Filipino as a “Child of Eden.” It is said that the Philippines before the Spaniards came was 97% covered with tropical rain forests – a real “Garden of Eden” on Earth. Thus, the pre-historic Filipino did not have to work hard to have something to eat since nature provided him ample bounty. This probably explains why Filipinos developed a happy-go-lucky, “bahala na” attitude towards life. Worrying about the future is not in our genetic make up, and Filipinos in general are optimistic. We somehow expect good things to happen to us.

Today our country is no longer a paradise and yet we continue to carry on as if we are still living back when the Philippines was a Garden of Eden. Our forests are long gone and our seas are over-fished, and yet we continue to consume without thinking of leaving something for future generations. Our people seem incapable of saving for the proverbial rainy day. Indeed various studies have shown that the Philippines has one of the lowest bank savings ratios per population in Asia. Our political leaders lack the ability to plan long-term and despite the fact that our country is regularly visited by typhoons, we always seem to be caught flat-footed and unprepared for calamities. But despite all of the seemingly hopeless problems we are facing today, we have retained our sunny disposition. In fact, in their 2009 survey the Happy Planet Index ranked the Philippines as the “14th Happiest Country on Earth” (with a rating of 59%). According to the survey, Filipinos were found to be happier than people living in more economically-developed countries like Sweden (48%), Japan (43.3%) and the United States (30.7%).

The “Child of Eden” syndrome is really both our boon and bane. It is a bane because it makes us easy to please, easy to forgive and easy to forget. It is a boon because our sunny disposition has helped us weather the countless storms that life has to offer. Foreigners often marvel at the Filipino’s capacity to smile even when they are in the direst of straits. I myself have often wondered how a “tambay,” a teenaged mother of three or a scavenger at the Payatas dumpsite can still appear so cheerful despite their poor prospects in life. I guess we just cannot help it – we simply are cheerful people. It’s part of our genetic make up. Alan Greenspan, the celebrated U.S. Federal Reserve chairman, would call this sort of behaviour “irrational exuberance.” We Filipinos call it “mababaw ang kaligayahan.”

On the Prerequisites of Good Governance and Ethical Leadership

Dr. Yengko’s “Nine Archetypes of the Filipino Psyche” gives us a useful insight into the underlying psychological foundations of our culture. Understanding the culture is vital to the success of any reform program because governments exist within a larger cultural framework. Any reform initiative that is incongruent with our culture will most likely fail.

It has often been said that graft and corruption has become part and parcel of Filipino culture. It has become so imbedded in our culture that it is virtually impossible to root it out. Miss Lucy Lazo, Mr. Willy Parayno and the late Senator Raul Roco attempted to root out graft and corruption in their respective agencies. Lazo abolished the Artist Record Book as a prerequisite for the employment of our Overseas Performance Artists (OPAs) to Japan after discovering that it was a major source of corruption at TESDA. Mr. Parayno relied on Information Technology (IT) to curb the rampant corruption in the Bureau of Customs. Secretary Roco gave principals greater autonomy in managing their schools. He also broke the “cycle of indebtedness” among public school teachers by making sure that teachers’ salaries arrive on time and by entering into a loan restructuring agreement with GSIS.

I was quite privileged of having worked for Roco for more than six years in the Senate and I can proudly say that I have yet to meet a man to match his personal integrity. Although I do not know Lazo and Parayno personally, I am quite convinced that they too are exemplary individuals with strong moral compasses and keen ethical senses. Roco, Parayno and Lazo were among the best, most qualified people ever to serve in government and yet, while they succeeded in curbing corruption during their watch, it became “business as usual” in their agencies soon after they were gone. It is also small comfort to learn that reformers in this country are not rewarded but punished for their efforts. On his first day at DepEd, Secretary Roco was mobbed by the teachers and most of the career staff adored and admired him. A year later they all hated him for disallowing their “overtime” pay. During lunch breaks a number of them would even stage a mini-rally in front of the flagpole to condemn Roco’s “unfair” and “dictatorial” policies. Eventually, Roco failed in his campaign for the presidency. Lazo wanted to save young girls from ending up as prostitutes in Japan, but she was loudly condemned by the very people she wanted to “save.” For his efforts Parayno was slapped with a number of graft cases in the Sandiganbayan, a couple of which continue to “pester” him to this day. While Roco, Lazo and Parayno were unsuccessful in stemming the tide of corruption, there are nonetheless several very valuable lessons to be derived from their experiences.

First, a leader cannot succeed if he does not enjoy the full support of his boss. After the tumult caused by the Artist Record Book issue, Lazo was booted out as Director General of TESDA and “kicked upstairs” to become Undersecretary of DOLE. She eventually left government service altogether for a more lucrative and “less demanding” job in the private sector. Parayno disclosed that one of the main reasons why he was so successful in Customs was because he got the full backing of his boss, then President Fidel Ramos. He revealed that each time he felt discouraged and ready to resign from his post, President Ramos would summon him to Malacanang to give him a “pep talk.” He would then return to Customs reassured and “refreshed.” Roco resigned from DepEd after the Presidential Anti-Graft Commission (PAGC) filed trumped-up corruption charges against him. He was then perceived to be a strong contender for the presidency and the graft case (which was eventually dismissed) was lodged mainly to sully his sterling name. In the case of Roco and Lazo, both failed because of lack of support from the top. Parayno’s case was the complete opposite. He was successful because he was perceived to be “untouchable” and enjoyed the full backing of Malacanang.

Second, a leader has to set the standard. Roco, Parayno and Lazo were successful in curbing corruption in their respective agencies because they had spotless records and did not partake in the shenanigans in government. Underlings look to their higher-ups for cues and the general public really look up to their leaders to set the example. Filipinos will be “good” if their leaders are “good,” but if their leaders are “bad” the people feel they have a justification to also become “bad.” It is rather child-like, but it is our nature. Parayno probably described it best when he said that ours is a “follow-the-leader” culture.

Third, reform cannot be rushed. It takes time and also requires the right “timing.” Lazo encountered great resistance, from within and without TESDA, after she arbitrarily abolished the Artist Record Book. Stakeholders complained that they were not properly consulted and clamored for the President to fire her from TESDA. At the time of his death Raul Roco was eulogized as “the best president our country never had.” But, in the words of Professor de Leon, Roco may have been ready for the Filipino but the Filipino maybe was not yet ready for him. In other words, his timing was not right. In his best-selling book “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference,” Malcolm Gladwell wrote that people must first “want” change before any real, long-lasting change could occur. Gladwell cited the case of New York City which in the 1970s and 1980s was widely considered to be a dangerous and decadent place. By the 1990s New Yorkers decided they’ve had enough and in 1993 elected Rudy Giuliani as their mayor. During his first term Giuliani streamlined City Hall (he fired 12,000 “redundant” employees in his first term alone) and downsized the budget for social welfare (from 1,112,490 in 1993 the city’s welfare rolls decreased to only 497,113 in 1998). He then focused on police reform and law enforcement, starting with the highly-publicized arrest of 180 “squeegee men” (for jaywalking) who have been pestering and menacing commuters in New York. Much of the credit for turning New York City around has been given to Mayor Giuliani. But in his autobiography entitled “Leadership,” he said that he couldn’t have succeeded in imposing his “iron-fisted” policies if the people of New York did not want it in the first place. Rudy Giuliani saw himself more as the “right man at the right time” and pundits observe that if he had ran for office in the 1970s and 1980s, back when racial assimilation, affirmative action and social welfare policies enjoyed immense popularity, the electorate would have probably dismissed him as a “fascist” and a “racist.” But by the 1990s the mood of the people of New York has shifted towards conservatism and Giuliani became a “rallying point” of the people’s cry for change. Thus, a good leader must not only have the “balls” but more importantly an ability of knowing when the time is ripe for the particular reform.

We were taught that today’s ideal of leadership is that of the “leader-servant.” We were also taught that good governance involves the following elements: it is participatory, accountable, consensus-oriented, transparent, follows the rule of law, is responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive. But if you examine closely, you will realize that most of the abovementioned concepts are alien to our culture. Take for example the concepts of the “leader-servant” and “accountability,” which theorists define as “the obligation to explain publicly policies, programs and decisions of government.” These concepts are Western in origin and are not really inherent to our political culture. Our electoral system is not exactly conducive to creating an environment which makes our government officials “servants” who are accountable to the people. A politician who spends millions to get elected definitely will not see himself as a “servant” and will not feel accountable to the people. A career public servant, who gets admitted into the Civil Service thru his own merit and rise thru his own diligence, will not exactly feel indebted to the people. The “leader-as-servant” concept is contrary to the Filipino model of leadership of the strong and decisive individual reminiscent of the “man-on-horseback” mold. We look up to our leaders to “lead” – to set the tone, set the goals, the over-all strategy, etc. – and I have serious doubts whether a leader whose management style is “consensus-oriented” and “participatory” will become an effective manager in the Philippine setting.

We were also told that government should be “responsive, effective and efficient.” But government is structured as a bureaucracy and bureaucracies, as the term connotes, are inherently inefficient. Government is also a monopoly - LTO, for instance, is the only entity allowed to issue driver’s licenses, NBI is the only organization authorized to issue NBI clearances, etc. – but whereas private corporations develop into a monopoly because they have become so efficient as to eliminate all competition, governments on the other hand became monopolies by virtue of social contract. Periodic elections should motivate governments to become “responsive, effective and efficient.” But elections in this country have become so costly for our politicians that their efforts to recoup their expenses often pose a hindrance to our people’s desire for a more “responsive, effective and efficient” government. Thus, it will really take a long time to transplant these foreign ideas into our system. This is not to say that we should give up and stop trying altogether. It is only that we should proceed slowly, but relentlessly.

My Recipe for Reforms

Based on my personal readings and our classroom lectures at the Ateneo School of Government, there seems to be two schools of thought on why corruption is so pervasive in our society. One school of thought believes that corruption is inherent to our culture. This “culture as culprit” theory was first propounded by James Fallows in his essay entitled “A Damaged Culture.” Because lying, cheating and stealing is in our nature, public managers must therefore put in place fool-proof procedures to prevent Filipinos from defrauding government. The rigid regulations, checks-and-balances, exacting ethical standards for public employees and very stringent procurement requirements all stem from this “position of distrust” that assumes the worst in every Filipino.

The other school of thought believes that the Filipino is inherently good – it is the system that makes him bad. Put a traffic aide on the street and pay him P3,000 a month and chances are he will mulct commuters because his salary is not enough to cover his family’s expenses. Tell a businessman that it will take 7 months for his business permit to get approved and chances are he will look for someone to “facilitate” his application for him. Even the much-maligned Filipino politician, whom voters approach for virtually all their needs, steals primarily to fund his political expenses. If civil servants are remunerated properly, if businessmen get their permits right away, if politicians can win elections without having to buy votes, then no one really needs to bribe or defraud the government.

I tend to believe that majority of Filipinos are intrinsically good and it is the corrupt system that makes us bad. Fix the system and people will instinctively abide by the rules. But then again, we Filipinos do have this child-like habit of “ayaw magpahuli” and “follow-the-leader.” Observe that during heavy traffic it only takes one car to counter-flow and then everyone else will follow, with the lead car seemingly acting like a “magnet” attracting other vehicles to follow it. And since so many cars have already counter-flowed, the hapless traffic aide could not apprehend them all and the drivers who violated the traffic laws ironically are the ones to arrive faster to their destinations. Meanwhile, the drivers who opted to obey the rules and stay in their lanes are the ones stuck in traffic, most of whom are probably blaming themselves for not grabbing the “opportunity” to join with the other offenders. Obeying rules for its own sake is really not our defining trait.

The great economist John Maynard Keynes once said: “the difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.” Most of the reform ideas that I will be writing about here are not new. In fact, someone at some time has already thought them up and some in fact have already been incorporated as part of official government policy. Here are three strategic action steps that should be taken to curb graft and corruption in government.

1. Eliminate Red Tape in Government Transactions. To be fair, I would like to start by saying that government services have generally improved compared to what it was ten or twenty years ago. For example, I had my driver’s license renewed last month and it only took me exactly 2 hours and 22 minutes to get it at the LTO-SM Megamall Satellite Branch. Ten years ago it would usually take me half a day to process my driver’s license. Be that as it may, there is still plenty of room for improvement. For example, I look forward to the day when I can renew my driver’s license online. Like Mr. Willy Parayno, I too am a great believer in the power of Information Technology and I believe that government should really invest in computerizing its systems to make its transactions faster and its operations more efficient.

Government also needs to seriously implement Republic Act 9485, otherwise known as the “Anti-Red Tape Act of 2007.” Section 6 of the said Act requires all frontline government agencies to put up “Citizen’s Charter” billboards which details the step-by-step procedure, documentary requirements, the name of employee responsible for each step, maximum time to complete each process, amount of fees, and the procedure for filing customer complaints. Compliance to this particular provision of the said law is sporadic. Last month I visited the Mandaluyong Fiscal’s Office, Quezon City Fiscal’s Office, NBI Quezon City Office and the LTO SM Megamall Office and it was only at the LTO Office in SM Megamall that I saw a Citizen’s Charter. Information is power – by giving people access to information on the transaction process many will not fall prey to fixers.

Lastly, public managers really have to change their mindsets. One of the biggest stumbling blocks to efficient government is the “policy of distrust” which I mentioned earlier. In their quest to make their systems fool-proof, public managers often introduce intricate procedures which unwittingly results to more red tape. But easily 99% of our population are honest, law-abiding citizens. If some public employees commit graft or if private individual short-circuited the process, the proper solution then is to catch the culprits and not to punish innocent, law-abiding citizens with additional regulations. Red tape is really the mother of graft and corruption because, in the words of my fellow MPM student David Medel, “kung walang naghihintay, walang maglalagay.” Cut the red tape and you cut corruption – it is as simple as that.

2. Give Civil Servants Their Proper Due. The concept that public employees should receive salaries at par with the private sector is certainly not popular. For one, Filipinos strongly believe that their “corrupt and inefficient” government officials do not deserve to get high salaries. Also, there is the long-established notion that civil servants are more than amply compensated by the “honor” of their positions. Hence, public sector salaries in this country have always been lower than that of the private sector.

A 2007 study conducted by UP Professor Toby Monsod entitled “Philippine Bureaucracy: Incentive Structures and Implications for Performance” had some very interesting findings, to quote: “salaries for senior managers and highly technical personnel in government were 74% below comparable jobs in the private sector, and that salaries for professional and technical personnel were about 40% below, while clerical and trade personnel were actually 20% above the benchmark.” In other words, our government is actually paying its janitors, messengers and other lower ranking employees more than their counterparts in the private sector while underpaying its mid-level and senior-ranking officials by 40% to as much as 74% less than their corporate counterparts. In a phrase, the current government compensation structure can best be described as “the higher you go, the more underpaid you become.”

There is something fundamentally wrong in a society which pays an entry-level call center agent more than a lieutenant in the army. Because of the ridiculously low pay, government service is no longer an attractive career option for most of our youth today. Government needs to make its salaries comparable with that of the private sector to attract quality talent and to avoid becoming into a “government of clerks.” Our country cannot afford a government manned by clerks, especially in today’s Information Age where governance has increasingly become more complex demanding more specialized skills and knowledge.

I believe that public sector salaries should be pegged at three-fourths of what their counterparts in a middle-sized Filipino corporation are receiving. If Ramon Ang of San Miguel Corporation for instance earns P10 million a year, then a public official with tasks and responsibilities similar to his, say a Cabinet Secretary, should be receiving P7.5 million in annual salary. Paying our civil servants salaries that are commensurate to their responsibilities would preclude them from having to commit graft and corruption. Giving civil servants their due is the only way we can prevent corruption and realize efficiency in government.

3. Protect Whistleblowers. By exposing official malfeasance, whistleblowers protect the public interest. One world-famous whistleblower is Jiang Yanyong, a retired military doctor who exposed the cover-up by Chinese authorities of the SARS avian flu epidemic in China in 2003. His revelation forced China to divulge the true state of the SARS outbreak and this enabled other governments to set up measures to prevent the epidemic from spreading to other parts of the world. Dr. Yanyong’s timely expose undoubtedly helped save thousands of lives and in recognition, he was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service in 2004. But Dr. Yanyong, who was already in his 70s when he made his SARS disclosure, was persecuted by his government and forced to undergo months of “political re-education” by the Chinese Communist Party.

Like Dr. Yanyong, most whistleblowers are often maligned, ostracized and persecuted for spilling the beans. This is especially true in our country, which values highly the ethos of “pakikisama.” But persons who blow the whistle on official malfeasance serve the common good. The State therefore has an obligation to protect them from reprisals. Government should also encourage the development of a “positive whistleblowing culture” among its civil servants to preclude the “powers-that-be” from engaging in corrupt acts. One of the most effective ways of achieving this is by establishing a monetary rewards system for whistleblowers.

There are currently several Whistleblower Protection bills pending in Congress. One of the bill’s most noteworthy feature is the so-called qui tam provision which will grant all whistleblowers 10% of whatever amount recovered by government as a result of their disclosures on official malfeasance. The bill will also provide police protection to all whistleblowers who ask for it and government employees who disclose anomalous transactions in their departments cannot be demoted, transferred or fired from their jobs as a result of their disclosure.


Of all the resource speakers, it is perhaps Miss Ava Cariquez who delivered the most compelling lecture and made the deepest impact on me. This is why I saved her for last. Her life story is also a fitting example for the last point I want to make in relation to Ateneo’s “Our Country is Our Business” motto.

Miss Cariquez had a privileged upbringing and went to the best schools (Ateneo of course), she was charming and attractive, and was earning serious money from her customs brokerage business that allowed her to live large. But her hedonistic lifestyle soon caught up with her and she lost her daughter in a tragic accident. Ava consequently lost the affection of her family and they filed a parricide case against her. The courts found her guilty of parricide and sentenced her to serve reclusion perpetua in the women’s Correctional facility in Mandaluyong. While inside, Miss Cariquez claimed she experienced a “catharsis.” She was unable to explain to our class what exactly was her “catharsis” but all she can say is that it completely changed her as a person.

I believe that Ava’s “catharsis” was the realization that she is not “entitled” to anything. In other words, she lost her “sense of entitlement.” Outside, she lived and behaved like a “princess” – she got everything she wanted, expected people to do things for her, and did anything she liked. She never learned to appreciate all the good things coming her way because she thought she was “special” and felt that she was “entitled” to all of it. But inside Correctional, she discovered she was just a number.

It is very hard to feel contempt for Ava because her egotistical outlook and hedonistic lifestyle is so typical of our generation. As children we were all taught that we were “special” and that we deserve to be “happy.” Today, everyone feels entitled to “happiness,” whatever that is – a nice car, a big house, a loving family, a satisfying career and so forth. And people nowadays are more self-absorbed and have increasingly unrealistic expectations in life. Sociologists have aptly dubbed today’s crop of young people The Generation “Me.”

Emblazoned in the building of the Ateneo Professional Schools in Rockwell is the phrase “Our Country is Our Business,” which is really a take-off from the Jesuit credo “Man and Woman for Others.” Both slogans underline the Atenean ethos of putting the “other” before the self first. It is quite ironic that Miss Cariquez had to learn in jail what the Jesuits tried to inculcate in her when she was studying at the Ateneo, but catharses often occur when people find themselves in a crisis of catastrophic proportions. Only when everything was taken away from her did Ava realize not only how lucky but also how foolish she was to have taken all her blessings for granted. Today she is a changed person – sharing and helping others, appreciative and not taking for granted the small kindnesses of people, cherishing each blessing that comes her way – and she is no longer the egoistic and hedonistic Ava Cariquez of old. Miss Cariquez’s life story serves as a poignant reminder to each one of us to always count our blessings and be content with what we have because after all, we are all just passers-by and are not “entitled” to this world.

06 November 2010

1 comment:

Carlos said...

A very good read Oliver.