Strategic thinking, still

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

The annual occasion for chest beating - and if one happens to be situated at the other side of the fence, heckling - also known as the grandest fashion event of the year, is upon us.

The President of the Republic is scheduled to deliver his second State of the Nation Address in a few weeks. This early, pundits are already second-guessing what they think the President would be saying then.

My fearless forecast is that the President will be sticking to three points. First, he will highlight the gains made in the last year in the areas of revenue collection, the generally stable economy, and the pockets of growth in some sectors. Second, he will justify his administrations inability to achieve successes in many areas to the previous administration and to his various critics. Third, he will continue to talk about the need for everybody to trudge along the “straight and narrow path.” I don’t expect him to make major statements about policy directions nor a categorical statement about controversial issues, which require a firm government position.

All eyes and ears, however, will be tuned in to what the President will say in relation to how he intends to organize or reorganize his official family. The one-year prohibition on government appointments for those who lost in the last elections has passed so it stands to reason that the President will be appointing some of his allies to key government positions. We know the President’s defeated vice presidential candidate Mar Roxas will be coming to work in Malacañang soon. There are a number of other names being floated.

This administration has only been in power for about a year so I think we should cut some Cabinet members some slack. It does take a little more time in this country before any government official is able to implement any major, not to mention comprehensive, change program because we happen to have a bureaucracy that has been designed to slow things down supposedly to ensure that “staff work” is completed and to foil corruption.

I used to be an avid fan of Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz and the leaders at the labor department until recently, when I had a disappointing experience with the labor bureaucracy. The professional association of which I am part of wanted to partner with the Labor Department on a program designed to benefit migrant workers and industry. The initial meetings with the key officials of the agency went well, we even sat down with Secretary Baldoz who gave the program her imprimatur. Unfortunately, programs can be driven at the top but have to be implemented below by underlings in the bureaucracy. And this was where we got snarled in the government’s proverbial bureaucratic Gordian knot as we got derailed by a turf issue and as people in the bureaucracy put up all kinds of walls and obstructions under the guise of fine-tuning program details.

This has been said many times but I want to say it again in the hope that if it gets said yet once again, something can be done about it: This inordinate preoccupation with bureaucratic processes is what slows down government’s ability to effectively respond to pressing issues. It is also what discourages private organizations and individuals to volunteer to help government. In the words of a friend who was with me in one of the meetings we had recently “why are we being subjected to intense scrutiny and suspicion when we are the ones going out of our way to volunteer our services?”

This is why Cabinet secretaries must begin by ensuring that the whole bureaucratic machinery in their respective departments is aligned with the speed and towards the direction he or she wants to go. Cabinet secretaries need to be visionaries and have media and public relations savvy, but they also have to be experts in change management and must have competencies in engaging a whole bureaucracy.

I have been told, for example, by relatively senior officials at the Department of Justice that while Leila de Lima seem to be making giant strides in terms of ensuring that the wheels of justice turn faster and more efficiently in this country, she’s practically a one-woman team as she allegedly has been unable to get the bureaucracy working with her and for her. A number of state prosecutors tell me that de Lima is relying on the media rather than harnessing the bureaucracy in support of her advocacies.

Tourism should be an integral component of this country’s growth. But after the “Pilipinas Kay Ganda” debacle, nothing - as in zilch, nada—not even a squeak has been heard from the Department of Tourism. It seems Secretary Alberto Lim has suddenly become media shy because we haven’t seen him making an appearance in media in the last few months.

There are many things we can do to attract more tourists into the country. But we need a more integrated development plan that effectively addresses the needs of various types of tourists, not just gambling high rollers and eco-tourism advocates. There are a number of facilities being built all around the country, but unfortunately, they are replications of the same thing. It’s the lechon manok syndrome at work – everybody is content with copying what is working and saturating the market with the same old tired ideas. If we come to think about it, how many ziplines do we really need in this country? It seems there is one being built in every town and city today.

The advertising congress this year is being held in Camarines Sur. It’s a huge congress that attracts a couple of thousands of local participants. I salute the organizers behind the ad congress for taking a huge gamble on a location that has not been designed to accommodate that many people, nor able to provide the facilities required for a conference that attempt to meet global benchmarks. From what I gathered, the ad congress will adjust their requirements to the limitations of the venue, something that international conferences will not or cannot do.

This is a problem that is clearly indicative of the lack of strategic thinking in this country and the sheer absence of an integrated tourism development plan. There are conference centers in this country but there are just two or three that have been designed to accommodate conferences with more than a thousand participants. Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur have a number of hotels and conference centers that can accommodate even 5,000 participants. The only venue in this country that can effectively host a conference with more than 1,500 participants is the Waterfront Hotel in Cebu City. In Metro Manila, only Westin Philippine Plaza can accommodate a thousand participants. There is the Philippine International Convention Center but it seriously needs a major renovation. The SMX Center at the Mall of Asia is primarily an exhibit hall and is not really conference-friendly.

If we want more visitors and tourists to come to the country, conferences are a captive market. There are hundreds of international conferences being held annually and the ones that are held in Asia are hosted by our neighbors. We just don’t have the facilities to rival those of our neighbors.

What about the other Cabinet secretaries? Like most anyone, I am dying to hear about what they have done in the past year, or what they intend to do in the next five.


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