Strengthening the Philippine Service System: myth or reality?

“Strengthening the Philippine Service System:
An Agenda for Reform Through Legislative Action”
( 21st Diliman Governance Forum held 22 January 2010 at Assemby Hall, UP-NCAG)

A Reflection Paper in Public Administration:
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Preliminary
This colloquium gathering four former chairpersons of the Civil Service Commission under one roof sponsored by joint House of Representatives MPA Scholars and Class of PA 201 is rare.

It is commendable as it provides occasion for scholars in public administration and governance in this national college to listen to a wealth of wisdom shared by the chairpersons themselves who run our Philippine civil service system. Some of these should open gates for serious study and research in the field of public personnel administration and related areas.

It isn’t really the well-attended conference as we normally it in UP confined as it may have been to a particular audience, in this case, the students of UP-NCPAG although we saw the face of a former college dean, Dr. Ocampo, who shared his predicament with the way the GSIS, as a unit in the bureaucracy must have been badly run. He gave warning that public service must practice a ‘vow of poverty’ and wouldn’t mind those in the private sector if they must preoccupy themselves to become as rich as possible.

Reflecting, this clearly delineates what public sector is and what private sector is on the other hand. Indeed, like priests, public administrators may well have to be bound by conscience than by instruction in the conduct of their office. Dr. Ocampo shared his misgivings with GSIS when upon retirement, he was surprised to have arrears in the tune of over P2 million on account of the absence of what he calls an “early warning device” where GSIS must inform people with loans on the status of their arrears.

Dr. Ocampo rightly saw a one-sided affair where GSIS borrowers are penalized in interests while GSIS can always delay payments in their regular pensions without accruing interests. It raised very important point that may well be worth a congressional inquiry with the end in view that by legislative action, an amendment to the existing GSIS law may be drafted for enactment in order to streamline its institutional mandate.

Another professor from the College, Dr. Moreno pressed ‘alarm button’ as when he feels that there is a need to bring back honor in public service. In his very words, he said: “Ibalik ang karangalan sa paglilingkod bayan”. This statement serves notice that in our present day bureaucratic climate, it would appear that we no longer nurture an ‘ethical climate’ or ‘ethical culture’ where serving in government should be regarded as a noble profession. Indeed, when students graduate from college, it seems that government service is not the road to go. For scholars in public administration, what that good professor shared to the forum really challenges reflection.

Discussion

What came into the surface in this conference are two central concerns, namely:
1) to professionalize the Philippine civil service system and
2) to insulate it from politics or let us call it for purposes of discussion, the need for recruitment in government service, be it military or civilian, to be “de-politicized”.
First, it was worth our while to listen to each and every resource person, be it Ms. Patricia Sto. Tomas, Ms. Karina David, Ms. Corazaon Alma de Leon, or Mr. Ricardo Saludo Truly, each in their own right must have made a dent toward strengthening the institution that they have chaired with their own agenda for reform having been probably satisfactory met.

David realized that it may have been impossible to toe the line of ‘exemplary leadership’ from top down since the recruitment of cabinet secretaries waived the requirements set forth for all other positions below the cabinet portfolio. In other words, even cabinet secretaries, before they should have been appointed by the President of the Philippines must satisfactorily meet the mandated requirements to that office such as a master’s degree or a license to practice law, as the case may be. In short, she bats for the whole notion of professionalism or meritocracy.

She rightly pointed out actual cases where appointments were signed despite the individuals to be appointed did not pass the requisite CESO examinations. And this came about when DILG Secretary Ronnie Puno bungled his weight by giving the go signal for their appointment or promotion, consequently, putting aside the norms as well as the requirements of a supposed-to-be strengthened Philippine civil service system under her watch. To my mind, this is a good area of further study since it graphically illustrates where the loopholes are in our efforts toward a highly professionalized bureaucracy and appetite for radical reforms..

This is the reason that David spoke of “compromises, horsetrading, et cetera” in so far as politics invades the realm of civil service system that should not be within its province to meddle with in the first place. Thus, until the Civil Service Commission is truly insulated from politics, it will always have its setbacks.

One other very important point raised by David is the fact that we actually have more laws than we probably need in so far as civil service is concerned leading to a situation where the Supreme Court decides cases that have become ‘self-contradictory’. In this country, it seems clear that we cannot really implement the law as it should be applied. According to Dr. Co, Singapore copied from our Procurement Law and thus became a world model for governance and accountability. But here we are, hardly even faithful to the implementation of a good law we have enacted by legislative action. On this note, perhaps, Congress itself, must be held accountable, at least, ethically, if not jurisprudentially. Thus David even to this day thinks that we have yet to have a professional Legislature. She aired Shakespeare’s lament in saying that our “lawyers make the worst laws”.

On the matter of laws as well as policy, I remember having proposed in my graduate class in Philosophy the need to imbed in the bureaucracy a ‘tiny bureau’ that would “oversee’ every policy that comes out of Malacanang or law from Congress and subject this to a rigorous validation process in terms of its multi-dimensional impact. A single law is certainly gestalt, come to think of it. Thus, there ought to be organized a multi-disciplinary nucleus of experts from various fields of expertise, social sciences or natural sciences, to deliberate upon every policy or law before these may be implemented or enacted. This proposal is yet to see the day since we do cannot have a ‘think tank’ whose official mandate it is to review, study, and validate the relevance of any policy or law. US and its Rand Corporation has it, except in our case.

Indeed, the highest level of the bureaucracy must be professionalized. This requires what David suggested as ‘limiting’ the appointing authority of the president in order to insulate the CSC from partisan politics and as a powerful mechanism for ‘check and balance’. Unfortunately, David must not have seen that day.

Also discussed in the forum is about the attempt to grant eligibility to employees who have served for five years in lieu of having to pass the Civil Service Commission exams. Again, this could be a good area of further study for scholars in the field as it dramatizes the conflicting requirement of merit on the one hand, and mercy on the other. Let me just call that the vicious clash between meritocracy and “mercitocracy”, the latter being bound by giving mercy to those who cannot pass the desired and requisite written test.

Mr. Saludo seems organized in having set the theoretical guidelines toward a reformed civil service system as they bear upon public information, integrity, morale, and performance. In other words, until the performance parameters are clearly set, government personnel might fail in their ‘periodic report cards’, so to speak.

On her part, Ms. Sto. Tomas made mention of a need that should not be overlooked or that government personnel do undergo physical and medical examinations if only to check their fitness in office. She strongly commented against the way GSIS seems to pass the buck on the problems that CSC now experiences. She firmly believes that at all costs, GSIS should pay the retirement or pensions on time without having to point to IBM as the culprit in the delay or in fact, non-payment of retirement claims.

In fact, when I applied for retirement, I realized that there is a congenital defect in the GSIS law erected by Congress especially in its notion of one gets only ‘the same value of the premium paid to the GSIS’ which totally abandons any conception of what a pension fund should be as practices in all well-meaning bureaucracies. In our case, it is truly just like getting all your money back, and in fact, computation-wise, you will be getting less than what you actually paid to the system. Why this is so? There are perceived defects in the stated provisions of the GSIS retirement law.

Ms. De Leon cited the case of whether to pay P20 parking fee without receipt or P30 with receipt. She admonished that we should chose the latter if only we can promote an intellectual climate consistent with the aims of a Philippine civil service system. Perhaps, this is why, dishonesty is a grave administrative offense punishable with dismissal from the service under our civil service law. It was she who warned us that ‘there is much to be done but we have very little time’.

One panel reactor dutifully read her insights on the work of Osborne or Reinventing Government especially on the requisite five Cs. She does lament that accountability does not seem to be in the bureaucracy’s “DNA”. Rightly so if present conditions are gauge for up until today, the recruitment culture in the House of Representatives is a situation of “passing-it-on” to your own kind – a vicious cycle altogether that does not permeate of professionalism.

Rep. Gonzales of the Committee on Civil Service and Professional Regulation expressed stand on the eligibility law and he wants the “best people in the public service realm” and that the whole process should in fact be de-politicized or insulated from political considerations as they are not the parameters set forth under the System. He likewise goes for a mindset whereby people treat people in government with dignity, not them being treated like “house help in the office”. I cannot but agree with this notion of meritocracy to abandon the old crippling culture of patronage even in appointments to the highest echelons in the corporate public hierarchy.

From where I stand, I must subscribe to the overarching worldview that for a merit system to be properly applied, it must move upward than follow the downward direction. If De Leon saw for herself the replicability of China where the emperor honors those who pass their civil service examinations and if Dr. Moreno saw for himself the replicability of Korea where many students enroll in their graduate schools of public administration since they all consider joining government service as an honor, then we can probably see a bright future for our own Philippine Civil Service System over the immediate term.

The next generation of public administrators must themselves be agents of change and I think UP-NCPAG as begun efforts in this direction – imbuing students a strong sense of responsibility and accountability. All, told, the Civil Service Commission might have found itself in the intellectual trap of “preaching what it cannot practice”.(END)