COMMENTARY: De-Centralizing Executive Power

MELBOURNE, Australia (MindaNews/05 June) — As the electorate prepares for the 2016 elections, I propose that we rethink the rationality as well as the practicality of a government framework wherein the delivery of public services, from revenue collection to urban housing, all intersect at the Office of the President.

We have known for years that Malacañang’s strong influence in all matters of government is the very life-source of political patronage. Indeed, many of us will have a story to support this assertion. However, my clear favorite would be the meeting called by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on October 11, 2007.

This gathering with local executives inside the Palace was ostensibly to discuss matters pertaining to development projects. A few days after the meeting however, two provincial governors revealed that they were each given a gift bag with half a million in cash.

There was a public uproar following this revelation, demanding the President to explain why her office was handing out cash gifts to local officials. It was later on admitted by one of her cabinet secretaries that the giving of cash gifts to local chief executives had been a normal practice in the Arroyo administration. Probably, to keep her allies at the local level on a tight leash.

This subservient attitude is not the exclusive domain of local officials. Indeed, we are often witness to the medieval-esque tradition of cabinet officials treating their tenure in government as serving at “the pleasure of the President”. A sad excuse commonly used by embattled officials to fend off frenetic calls to resign. We heard these words quite regularly during the term of President Macapagal-Arroyo.

It is certainly plausible that the debilitating “political umbilical cord” to Malacañang, which according to former Senator Aquilino Q. Pimentel, Jr. was already severed by the Local Government Code in 1991, still actually pulsate with life. For this could be the reason why decentralization has not produced the level of development envisioned by the esteemed lawmaker.

The challenge therefore is finding a way to re-configure executive authority in order to minimize, if not remove, the hovering influence of Malacañang in the overall administration of government. There are two ways to accomplish this and the first one is constitutional reform.

South Korea’s executive structure in its constitution is worth emulating here. Article 66 (4) of the Constitution of the Republic of Korea explicitly provides that “Executive power shall be vested in the Executive Branch headed by the President.” The other members of the Executive Branch are the Prime Minister (see Article 86) and the Supreme Council (see Article 88).

The most notable difference in the South Korean model is that executive power is given to an institution and not to a person. Moreover, under this framework, the exercise of executive power is diffused because the same is technically held by three persons. And therefore the responsibility to manage government is accordingly distributed. The fate of the nation’s affairs does actually not revolve around a single person.

The second way is structural reform through legislation. Congress can help relieve the chokehold of Malacañang over government administration by institutionalizing the involvement of the community in the various offices in the executive branch.

In other parts of the globe, non-government sectors of the polity now play an increasingly important role in designing and executing policies and services. The fact is some public goods are best delivered by decentralized specialist agencies that are managed by public servants with the appropriate specialized skills set.

This kind of governance structure is actually reflected in the organization of the Monetary Board (MB) where five of the seven members come from the private sector. Here at the very least, the public can reasonably expect that five people in the MB will not just have the proper expertise but will also be assuming the office without the usual “baggages” accompanying a person officially attached to Malacañang.

It does make me wonder why this governance model has not been replicated at all. In fact, the “long hand of Malacañang” model is still the standard governance structure for government agencies and offices. Consider for instance Republic Act No. 9003 which created the National Solid Waste Management Commission (NSWMC).

Under Section 4 of this law the NSWMC shall be under the jurisdiction of the Office of the President. Believe it or not, this commission is composed of 14 members from the government sector and only 3 members from the private sector. Of the 14, seven are officially considered the alter-ego of the President, three are under his supervision and control and four are local government officials under his general supervision.

The private sector is represented by the following: (a) A representative from nongovernment organizations whose principal purpose is to promote recycling and the protection of air and water quality; (b) A representative from the recycling industry; and (c) A representative from the manufacturing or packaging industry.

What is wrong with this set-up is self-evident. The people deeply involved in solid waste management are far outnumbered by people who are politicians by profession. How then can the public be assured that this office will function properly according to its given mandate?

And I must point out that giving the community a direct line in managing the delivery of services could significantly weaken the leverage of politicians (i.e. Malacañang lackeys). This is a scenario which can disturb the culture of patronage in our political system and hence, diminish the influence of dynastic politicians in the administration of government.

The ever increasing dominance of the Chief Executive in all matters of government is the bane in our political system that urgently needs to be remedied. It has stifled political and economic development in the country. It has even undermined the Constitutional mandate to promote local autonomy.

I believe voters would be very keen to hear how this challenge of de-centralizing executive power is addressed by Binay, Roxas or whoever else is aspiring for Malacañang in 2016. (Atty. Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, LL.M is a practicing lawyer. He is the author of the book “Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective.” He conducts research on current issues in state-building, decentralization and constitutionalism.)