Sunday, December 04, 2005

Gov't Bureaucracy: Why is not transparent?

Blogger's Note: I have to get some data from this government agency so I called up first to know to get the data. I was told to prepare a letter addressed to the director of the bureau before I can get a copy of the data. The first question that pop in my mind was why should I first go to the director's office to get the said data which is located in one of the divisions there? Have they not seen how National Bookstore or any bookstore sell data? Dr. Habito had the same dilemma as I have. Read on... 8-)

No Free Lunch: Managing to empower
Posted: 3:59 AM | Dec. 05, 2005 | Cielito Habito | Inquirer News Service
(Published on Page B2 of the December 5, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer)

MY wife and I took a PAL flight home from Bangkok recently, and as luck would have it, the audio consoles on our seats gave nothing but static noise. It was particularly disappointing as the movie showing on the screen was something we wished we could have followed; the video looked interesting, but the audio was just not there. As the flight was full (overbooked, we were even told), there were no other seats we could be moved to.

To be fair, a flight engineer tried to fix the malfunction, but had to give up after a couple of attempts to fiddle with the equipment. And that was it. No word of apology from the crew, no attempt to make up for the inconvenience. In typical Filipino fashion, it was treated as just one of those things that you shrug your shoulders about, and then grin and bear it.

Industry practice
But I wouldn't let it pass just like that. I later asked if it was not customary for them to compensate passengers for this kind of inconvenience. I distinctly remember three past instances when exactly the same thing happened to me or my family members in other airlines, and was promptly compensated by the crew for it-once with a service voucher worth $200, another time with 500 bonus points in their mileage rewards program, and a third time with a bottle of wine to take home. I've seen it happen many times to other fellow passengers too, and it seems standard practice in other airlines to make up-even in a token manner-for this kind of inconvenience, including other similar mishaps like delayed luggage, malfunctioning seats, and so on. But not, it seems, with what claims to be Asia's first airline. PAL may have been Asia's first, but it isn't exactly keeping up with common practice in the rest of the industry nowadays.

No authority
Don't get me wrong; I'm not writing this to publicly demand compensation from the airline. I'm not that kind of columnist. I merely wish to highlight what I believe to be yet another clear example of what might be keeping the Philippines behind most of its neighbors-in this case, of what appears to be a critical shortcoming in the way we manage and govern our firms and our institutions.

The kindly flight attendant who heard me out explained to me, in a somewhat frustrated tone, that they in the flight crew simply had no authority to offer aggrieved passengers like us any compensation of the sort I mentioned for incidents such as these. They could even be reprimanded for doing so, he explained. He did concur that I could write the management if I wished to pursue the matter. Upon asking which company official I should write, I was again struck by his reply: I should write the company president. I was only expecting the name of an official responsible for customer service, but no, I was referred directly to the top man (well, at least he didn't refer me to the airline's well-known chair of the board and majority owner).

Disempowering governance
Nothing could be a clearer manifestation of what needs to change in our governance if we as a country are to move forward, and be internationally competitive. If our own national flag carrier can't seem to be world-class even on a small matter, what more when it comes to larger matters?

The flight crew are not empowered to make on-the-spot decisions to deal with an inflight concern, and must refer such decisions to the higher-ups-in this case, even the highest-up! A microcosm, it seems, of the same lack of subsidiarity (i.e. being able to make decisions at the lowest level possible) in the Philippine bureaucracy. I recall an instance years ago when as a UP Los Baños professor, I sent a research assistant to the Department of Energy to obtain time-series data on world crude oil prices which I needed for a research project. This is information that is very public and far from being sensitive. I was thus appalled when my hapless assistant came back after practically wasting a day going to Manila and coming back, and told me that the DOE bureaucrat she encountered required her to produce a letter addressed to her boss signed by me, to formally request for the data.

Bureaucratic weaknesses
To me, that incident reflected at least four problems with our bureaucracy. One, government employees have imbibed a "culture of secrecy" and are so tight-fisted about information, even with those that are inherently public in nature. Two, many are not even competent enough to tell the difference between what is sensitive information and what is public information. Three, public servants tend to be unwilling to exercise judgment at their level and are more comfortable if someone higher up makes the decision instead. And four, many are too insensitive to the welfare of their clients and stakeholders. Not even her plea that she had traveled all the way from Laguna to get the data could get the bureaucrat to be more sympathetic to my assistant.

The way our government works, transparency seems to be a privilege, not a right. There is a great deal of incompetence that plagues our government workers and officials at various levels. Decision-making is marked by top-down governance, rather than subsidiarity and empowerment. I've heard it said many times that the Philippine president is much more powerful than the US president within their respective governments, having so much more authority over so many more matters of governance than the latter. And to top it all, many of our so-called public servants don't even deserve the name. They are not only insensitive to the public welfare; worse, many believe they are in office not to serve, but to be served.

Whether as Asia's first airline or as Asia's first democracy, I'm afraid we are not being very good examples to those around us. Comments are welcome at

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12:36 PM  

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