SONA 2012: From moralist to manager

President Benigno S. Aquino III, in his third state of the nation address to Congress, has come off as being more managerial and less moralistic.

At the Batasang Pambansa, before taking to the rostrum, the president took a big gulp of water from a glass offered by an aide. He needed to wet his tongue for what was to be a very verbose speech nine thousand words long. It took him ninety minutes to run through all of them with 105 rounds of applause in between. In the end, the sum total of his presentation seemed to add up to one convincing portrait of a government hard at work.

If in his past two SONAs, the president took pains to expose what he felt were the excesses of the previous government, in his third address, he sought to prove that his administration had turned things around. Mindful of the upcoming mid-term elections in 2013, he knew that his party would have to run on his record. He could no longer shift the blame for poor performance to his predecessor.

As a politician, we cannot fault the president for devoting part of his speech to address political matters. He definitely needed to given the events of the past nine months when the legislative process was taken over by the impeachment trial of the chief justice and where the strength of our institutional fabric was put to a severe stress test.

Quantitavely, the speech moved decisively away from moralistically preaching to the choir to managerially determining the objectives, goals and targets that he seeks to achieve before his term expires. A content analysis of the text of his speech (in Tagalog) reveals that he devoted about two thirds (based on a word count) to discuss policy matters, while about a quarter he reserved to talk about the politics of the past two years.

Qualitatively, there was a toning down of rhetoric even when the president spoke of politics. There was less venom in his delivery and less gloating. When he talked of running after corrupt officials, there was less of a partisan or vindictive strain in his voice. But not only that, there seemed to be conviction and credibility.

Perhaps this stemmed from the events of the past year which saw the arrest of Mrs Arroyo his predecessor and the impeachment of Mr Corona the former chief justice as well as the decision of the Supreme Court to distribute the Cojuangco family’s hacienda to farmers under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program. These events perhaps will become a watershed for the elite in Philippine politics when their privileges became seriously curtailed.

Indeed when the president spoke of one law now applying equally to the powerful and the peasant, the mighty and the meek, he was talking about the case of Mr Corona, but his words could have equally applied to that of the Cojuangco/Aquinos. The double edged sword with which this white knight slew and vanquished his foes cut deep into his own skin fulfilling the command of scripture that says if your hand causes you to sin, then cut it off.

As for the policy discussion, only five percent of the text was devoted to legislative priorities. These included the enactment of laws covering sin tax indexation, reproductive health or responsible parenthood programs, mining policy and taxes, defense modernization and ammendments to the anti-money laundering law.

The fact that two of the five measures consist of revenue or tax bills could be considered an acknowledgement by the president of the limits of moralism. It is an admission on his part that fulfilling his social contract requires him to back track on his campaign promise of no new taxes. The extent of corruption and by the same token the efficiencies which good governance could generate were grossly overestimated.

It was easy as a member of the opposition to criticize the government and make great claims about how to eliminate waste and improve tax collection. Now that the cold hard reality has set in if our elected representatives want to avoid the political fallout of increasing taxes right before the next election, the president has given them the sales pitch by offering worthy programs those new taxes would fund.

The remainder of the policy text was split almost equally among economic, social and security concerns. The agenda set by the president covered a broad sweep of things. Under the economic portfolio, he discussed the improved business climate and renewed investor confidence, as well as the resurgence of business process outsourcing, tourism, and agriculture. These were all anchored on improving the infrastructure backbone of the country.

With respect to social services, the president emphasized the increased coverage of social and health insurance through the Pantawid Pamilya and PhilHealth programs via the the National Household Targeting System which identifies the poorest of the population. He also talked of closing the resource gaps in the education system from primary to technical and higher education, of completing agrarian reform and increasing community based initiatives to protect the environement.

With respect to defense and security issues, the president spoke of reducing the crime rate, modernizing the armed forces, providing housing to soldiers and police officers, bringing about peace and development in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, and settling international disputes over territorial claims. He also talked of improving disaster preparedness capability through better equipment.

In all of these discussions, the president reported what his administration had been doing or what it had achieved, his plans for the future until the end of his term, and the goals and targets he would abide by to monitor and track his performance. This is the new managerialist stance that he has taken.

Having been stung by accusations of not doing much early in the year (noynoying was the term coined for doing nothing), the president sought to prove that not only was his government working hard, it was producing concrete results. If in his past SONAs the president tended to get bogged down with details and as a result seemed incoherent and directionless, in this one he portrayed himself as a competent executive, setting targets with a clear program and strategy for meeting them.

I believe he owes this transformation to his chief ideologue, Budget Secretary Butch Abad. With the program based budgeting process that was instituted in the Department of Budget and Management, the president had a framework with which to identify the goals in each portfolio that he would highlight in his speech.

Not only that, but with the recently released policy document detailing the Organizational Performance Indicator Framework adopted by the government, the administration is seeking to align incentives within each agency from the corporate level down to the individual level. This is why the SONA and the budget statement detail a performance based bonus scheme amounting to as much as nine billion pesos.

Time will tell of course whether this framework can be universally applied across the whole bureaucracy. The tools and techniques of managerialism do not always work out as they intend to both in the private and public sectors, which is why it has gained a somewhat spotty reputation in the West. At any rate, it is an admirable goal to try and achieve some form of alignment between staff output and pay. Where this cannot be realistically applied (think teachers, soldiers, and nurses where the “output” may be hard to define), then a combination of efficiency wages and rigorous performance appraisals would have to be put in place instead.

Hopefully in the coming SONAs, not only will the president give us a report on how well his administration is tracking with respect to all these targets, but government agencies through their websites should have published their annual reports which would detail not only their financial statements but their performance reports vis-à-vis their organizational targets as well. This would move us one step closer to greater freedom of information and transparency despite the absence of an FOI Law.

Having produced SONAs in the past that were long on rhetoric and short on results, filled with platitudes but no coherent plan, the president has finally turned a corner by following the famous quote attributed to a governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, who said that as a leader, “you campaign in poetry and govern in prose.”

With his third SONA, PNoy has proven that not only can he wax poetic, but his prose ain’t so bad after all.

Doy Santos aka The Cusp

Doy Santos is an international development consultant who shuttles between Australia and the Philippines. He maintains a blog called The Cusp: A discussion of new thinking, new schools of thought and fresh ideas on public policy ( and tweets as @thecusponline. He holds a Master in Development Economics from the University of the Philippines and an MS in Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University.

  • manuelbuencamino

    Bail has been granted. Gloria Arroyo can now go home to La Vista to await her warrant of arrest for plunder.

  • manuelbuencamino


    The SIN tax is not a tax, it is a penalty. 🙂

    But seriously, I like your pie charts and appreciate the effort you put into giving us a graphic illustration of the SONA. Are you satisfied with the distribution of the policy texts and do they reflect his priorities? For example can we infer, based on the policy text chart, that defense is his biggest priority?

    • Thanks. Well, I should mention that defence and security incorporates so much including the AFP modernization and housing projects, criminality, ARMM and the West Philippine Sea issue. So that is why it has such a big slice. It is the one portfolio I did not break up into bits, unlike Social and Economic Services ones.

  • Absolutely superb content analysis. It is good to read an assessment that does not have an axe to grind from the getgo. Best perspective on the SONA that I’ve read. I’ve actually come to the conclusion lately that Mr. Aquino is indeed an executive-style manager. Delegating, expecting a lot, reviewing progress with a sharp eye to details. Then letting go again, delegating follow-up. He also has some quality executives on his cabinet. He still has his quirks, like speaking too much on the China affair rather than letting Mr. Del Rosario be the “bad cop”, and interjecting his political arm into impeachment affairs. But there is no Jesus president, never has been, anywhere. This one is damn good.

    • Unfortunately. Joe, I don’t have the software needed to do a proper analysis with the most frequently used words and so forth. But thanks for the compliment.

  • UPnnGrd

    PersiNoynoy may have to quickly put back his “Moral Supremacy” hat and shine the spotlight onto “Justice” equals “GuLLOOO should be in Jail!!”-mantra no matter what the judiciary says.

    Because judiciary has just said — BAIL granted..

    • I don’t actually mind the folksy, verbal imagery of daang matuwid. And I don’t fault the president for returning to it time and again. It is what got him elected in the first place. It encapsulated the social contract into a clear and concise vision. It is when it becomes vacuous pandering to his base that it starts to become unbearable. A president has to govern on behalf of all the people and needs to put some substance behind the rhetoric, which I think he is attending to now.

  • Roberto

    Doy is talking sense here as usually he does, now with pinpoint accuracy. And finally Doy is seeing some light in the direction the new government of Pres. Noynoy is heading as us denizens in the majority hoping for the best for our nation falsely branded as the “yellow army” have always predicted to happen when we decided to cast our lot on the yellow color during the last election, :).