Revving up government

Second of 3 parts
LAST week I advanced two interlinked notions.

One, the government’s dubious track record in running profit-making corporations dampens enthusiasm for Sen. Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go’s proposal to put up Tienda Malasakit centers. These centers are supposedly intended to take the place of middlemen whose business operations create conditions that deprive poor farmers (rice farmers in particular) of a fair price for their products.

Two, the Go proposal reinforces the current trend by which the government is being upsized at a questionably fast rate. This follows the same tired formula that yielded nothing more than overlapping of functions and its attendant red tape. Worse, it can open yet again the flood gates for corruption risks. The National Food Authority (NFA) was put up to work the way Tienda Malasakit is now being groomed to take shape. But despite benefiting from enormous amounts of direct inputs from several government agencies, NFA remains dependent on taxpayers’ subsidies to continue operating.

The question, as it relates to many of government’s poverty-reduction interventions, is obvious and has in fact been raised countless times before: How can one expect different results from things done the same way?

I argued that in order to better respond to the needs of the poor, the government must be revved up rather than beefed up. If the goal is enhancing efficiency and effectiveness in government service delivery systems, the way to go is not increased staffing. The key is improved coordination.

Coordination suggests getting deadwood out of the way. Somebody said it is not enough that we believe we can fly; we also need to let go of any baggage that weighs us down. I share the view of many who believe that the government needs to shed its extra poundage and strip itself of superfluous baggage. When personal computers arrived in the 1980s, people thought government operations, going forward, would become more efficient even if its workforce were maintained at a certain level. This apparently did not happen.

Today, the civil service is turning to job order employees for actual heavy lifting, relieving the career officials of much of their workload. The total number of “contracted” workers has risen dramatically over the past few years, although knowing the exact figure is as hard as for the Philippine Health Corp., or PhilHealth, to determine with certainty if thousands of centenarians in its database are still alive or not.

But having said all that, the proper time to lay off people remains dependent on context. There is no justification for that in the middle of a crisis. In fact, mass employment, as a time-bound emergency response, should be a compelling option. Fortuitously, however, this pandemic may have also given rise to cases where one can establish the viability of government offices running optimally on the so-called “skeletal” force moving forward, in adapting to the emerging realities of the new normal. This informs ideas of how a truly responsive, inclusive, and revved-up revolutionary government should look like. Here are the tentative box works:

1. The 32-inch waistline (to copy then Philippine National Police Chief Panfilo Lacson)
Burn extra fat by freezing government hiring indefinitely. A downsizing rate that corresponds to the rate at which career civil servants retire should be maintained. Two things shall complement this strategy. One, a performance-based security of tenure. This requires renewal of civil service eligibility every x number of years. A public feedback mechanism should constitute the equivalent weight of at least 50 percent of the entire performance rating system. Two, compensation upgrade. To attract and retain the best people in government, the average pay scale in the public sector must be notches higher than the average pay scale in the private sector. Savings from dehiring can fund the across-the-board pay increases.

A lean but mean bureaucracy serves many ends. It enhances efficiency and facilitates coordination. It helps to deconstruct the intractable web of systemic corruption. It cuts to smaller sizes the playground for patronage politics and dynasty-building. The allegation is that politicians — members of Congress in particular — are quick to create government offices not because they aspire to better serve the poor, but because they need a golden cage in which to fatten their bagmen and proxies. I mean, tell me a scandal-rocked government office and I will show you a politician’s hand behind it.

2. Ignore Congress
In hyping up Tienda Malasakit, Senator Go said: “Pera n’yo po ito, ibinabalik lang sa inyo. Wala po kaming ibang hangarin ni Pangulong Duterte kundi kabutihan ng Pilipino dahil mahal namin kayo.”

One of the basic functions of Congress is to act as a middleman. Citizen A pays taxes. Congress allocates the money to buy fertilizer for Citizen B, who is a farmer. Five — heck, make it 10 — elections later, Citizen B has yet to receive a ganta of fertilizer.

It used to be a simple process. Until something happened to a politician who lost millions in a casino and called Mr. Secretary first thing the next morning to say he needed a “project” (source: Philippine Senate archives).

Here, then, is the plan: Enact a law (by people’s initiative) that ignores Congress altogether. Example: Citizen A spends money on Citizen B (for farm inputs like fertilizer, or equipment, or even for education of his children, hospitalization, start-up capital, etc.). Citizen A can then use the receipts/invoices for his expenses to claim tax credits, or deductions for taxable income.

Of course, knowing how creative people can be, safeguards are needed to protect the integrity of the process. The point is that anything that keeps public funds out of politicians’ reach would be a welcome relief to a corruption-weary crowd.

3. Abolish Congress
I will discuss this next week as I have just run out of space.



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