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Civil service reform

Whose service?

by Alan C. Robles
President Arroyo visiting a housing project for the poor in Metro Manila

President Arroyo visiting a housing project for the poor in Metro Manila

The Philippines, Southeast Asia's oldest democracy, can claim a civil-service tradition going back a hundred years – and even longer, if the three-century Spanish colonial period is counted. Unfortunately, pedigree isn't a mark of quality; and the challenges encountered in the Philippines will seem familiar to people from other developing countries.

“The delivery of government services remains dismal,” reports the Senate Economic Planning Office (SEPO). And according to Clarita Carlos of the University of the Philippines, “many times the bureaucracy we encounter is arrogant, aloof, arbitrary and corrupt in its behavior”. She refers to a study according to which “almost 50 % of government expenditures is lost to corruption”.

Foreigners aren't any happier. Peter Wallace, a Manila-based political-risk analyst, describes Philippine bureaucracy as “slow and convoluted”. The World Economic Forum warns that one of the hindrances to doing business here is the inefficient government bureaucracy.

Asked to compare her country’s civil service with its Southeast Asian counterparts, the recently-retired chief of the Civil Service Commission (CSC), Karina Constantino-David, replies: “The best way to describe it is, I'm salivating when I look at Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and, to a certain extent, Vietnam.”

The civil service's problems – corruption, inefficiency, politicisation, imbalances in staffing and salaries – afflict bureaucracies the world over. What sets the Philippines apart, though, is that problems have been around for generations, defying attempts to solve them. As the SEPO notes, “reorganising the bureaucracy has been on the agenda of every administration since the 1940s”. It's almost a ritual for every incoming president to vow a knock-down, drag-out decisive fight against the bureaucracy, involving words like “reform”, “re-engineer” and, more recently, “re-invent”.

The result? According to Alex Brillantes, dean of the University of the Philippines National College of Public Administration and Governance (UP-NCPAG), “things have changed, but things have stayed the same ... many of the problems remain: politicisation, resistance to decentralisation, persistence of corruption”.

Irrational remuneration

One example is salary reform. David says that instead of studying compensation packages for civil servants, various presidents typically gave “across the board” increases – for example, one thousand pesos to every government employee: “So if you're earning 3,000 pesos, and your boss is earning 20,000, you’d get a 33 % increase while your boss only gets five percent.” In David’s words, “salaries aren't just low, they're irrational”. The result is “clerks who are well-paid, and janitors and guards and gardeners who stay on and on because they cannot get a better deal elsewhere".

Today, public employees at the lowest level receive 20 % more than their counterparts in mid-sized private companies. By contrast, government professionals and managers are paid 30 to 70 % less than their counterparts outside the public sector.

Reforms tend to follow an old routine – trim, reduce, restructure – based on the conviction that the bureaucracy is “bloated”. Yet despite years of slash-and-purge attacks, the civil service has expanded relentlessly. According to the SEPO, from 1960 to 1997 the bureaucracy grew faster than the population – 282 % against 160 %. In 1970, there was one civil servant for every 90 Filipinos. By 2001, the ratio was one to 50. That year, one out of five employed Filipinos worked for government. David says that politicians’ constant talk of re-organising and streamlining shows they don't understand bureaucracy. It is really a very complex organisation. As the Congressional Planning and Budget Department points out, “the bureaucracy... is not a monolithic entity.
It is composed of dozens of organisations tackling a huge variety of societal concerns, including health, education, housing, currency, security, law and order, environment and assistance to or regulation of industry and other production sectors”. The Department acknowledges that the people manning – and managing – these organisations have “various levels of efficiency, moral standards and work ethic”.

Frustrated ambitions

Experts agree that there is no lack of dedication and commitment among the 1.5 million people who currently comprise the civil service. "We have gems and jewels working at the national and local level," says Brillantes, the scholar. Former CSC chair David asserts: "Most people in the bureaucracy do believe in public service. Most of them want to be honest, they do not want to close their eyes to corruption and dishonesty. But they very often do." The reason lies in what she sees as the biggest problem: politicisation.

She explains: “The entire structure of the bureaucracy is such that your highest career people – about 10,000 of them – are all presidential appointees.” The CSC vets each and every government employee – hundreds of thousands of them every year – but it has no say when it comes to presidential appointees (note article below).

Political appointments short-circuit the rules on qualifications, and bypass qualified civil servants who've put in the years. Demoralisation and fear are among the consequences. Faced with a patronage system where who you know matters more than what you know, David says, “people in government learn to be quiet, to be timid, to be politic”. She says the prevailing attitude in the civil service is: “Never mind if you’re wrong as long as you don't step on anybody’s toes, not the mayor’s, not the congressman’s, not even the barangay (village) councillor's.” To David, the reason why Filipinos are unhappy with their civil service is its inefficiency. And there will be no incentive to improve so long as civil servants see their leaders relying on patronage. What they would need instead is incentives to perform well.

David bemoans a lack of real political leadership. Instead of indicating long-term directions, those in charge make “demands to change acronyms of projects, or to undertake short-sighted and short-term projects that must carry the name of the new political leader”. Even while heading the CSC, David didn't refrain from saying that patronage worsened under President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. The irony of the matter is this very president has been emphasising civil-service reform. Executive Order 366 is a directive to prepare a “rationalisation plan” where selected employees will be encouraged to take voluntary retirement, while certain agencies are evaluated for “structural reforms”. And to succeed David, President Arroyo has appointed Cabinet Secretary Ricardo Saludo.

Asked what he thinks of the government's reform programme, UP-NCPAG Dean Brillantes says it is really only one more example of the well-known rhetoric of “reorganise, streamline, remove redundant people”. Leaders have been using it since President Quirino in 1950. He observes: “It’s a history and mindset we're trying to undo.”

Rooted in history

Indeed, history and political culture contributed to making the civil service what it is. Filipinos got their first taste of bureaucracy from their Spanish colonisers, and it was both unpleasant and formative.
Jose N. Endriga, a former dean of the UP-NCPAG, writes that “the outstanding characteristic of the Spanish colonial regime ... was the wide discrepancy between the letter of the law, which upheld idealistic and noble standards, and actual practice, which was repressive and oppressive”.

Three centuries of a capricious, corrupt and exclusive colonial administration bequeathed four things:
– the idea that everything should be rigidly run from Manila,
– a suite of go-slow bureaucratic techniques best summed up by the Spanish expression “obedezco pero no cumplo” (I obey but don’t comply),
– a profound distrust of government on the part of the indigenous people, and
– the notion that it is somehow patriotic to subvert the bureaucracy.

In 1898, the USA beat Spain in war and displaced the colonial overlords. In 1900, the Americans enacted the Civil Service Act, establishing a civil service that was meant to be efficient, based on merit and politically neutral. In practice, however, the American model was dominated by the executive. Brillantes notes: “We really have a system that is excessively dominated by the presidency, one that is almost a dictatorship.”

It’s also a system which never escaped from the poison of what's called “traditional politics” – the concept of public power being wielded for the benefit of a few families and their cronies. In his book “An Anarchy of Families” historian Alfred McCoy calls it “the subversion of the public weal in the service of private, familial wealth.” People came to regard government simply as a spoils system.

Related to this, and complicating things further, is the value that Filipinos place on personal relations. For the same reasons, this is a well-known phenomenon in other post-colonial societies as well – India, for instance, to name only one. According to risk analyst Wallace, “Filipinos are very personalistic, it’s very difficult for them to stand back and look at things from a dispassionate point of view”. A governmental bureaucracy, however, should treat everyone in the same way.

Today, CSC chair Saludo claims that “it is possible to have a bureaucracy with a lot of personalism, group ethics and family, and still work well.” He acknowledges that personalism marks the Philippines, but points out that that is similarly the case elsewhere in Asia, Latin America or Spain.

Leadership, decentralisation, performance

One thing is clear: meaningful reform will have to involve the political leadership, the civil servants and the public itself. Governance scholar Brillantes argues that changing the bureaucracy has to begin “at the top” and that progress is “a matter of political will”. He says that demoralisation often stems from leaders not respecting civil-service rules and regulations: “You need good shining leadership above all.”

He also thinks decentralisation – empowering the local governments – should be accelerated. In his view, the bureaucracy’s “frontlines” are in the provinces, whereas “Imperial Manila” continues to dominate the archipelago. As much as 86 % of public finance, Brillantes points out, is still controlled by the national government. He hopes that “somebody with sympathy for decentralisation and local governance should be our next president.”

At the same time, internal reforms in the bureaucracy have to include capacity-building, imparting a performance ethic, Brillantes says. He laments that performance is traditionally measured in terms of “how many meetings, how many letters”. The approach is process-oriented rather than goal oriented. After all, process is easier to measure. Brillantes praises the effort to set up an “Organisation Performance Indicator Framework” to address this issue.

He also thinks the Civil Code should be revisited. It would make sense, to allow civil servants to organise in trade unions, in order to empower them to be more assertive, he believes. Instead, Brillantes says, the civil-service culture is one of obedience.

Former CSC chair David states the bureaucracies of other Southeast Asian countries pulled ahead of the Philippines because “there was a genuine recognition of their importance”. By comparison, Filipino presidents and legislators were lazy, she says.

Congress, in one report, proposed more oversight of the bureaucracy. However, in David’s view, it would make more sense to simply pass the civil-service reform bills that have languished in its chambers. Among them she lists a redesigned Civil Service Code that Congress hasn't even looked at for 15 years, and a Government Compensation and Classification Act that still has to be discussed by the appropriate committee. She finds encouraging that Congress seems to be moving on the Career Executive System Bill, which would reduce the President's powers of appointment.

People’s power

Brillantes urges the citizens to speak up: “We should learn to assert our rights, we are our own worst enemy.” In the end, he says, the bureaucracy is there. “Unless you want to go to the hills or leave the country you have to work with the bureaucracy.”