content analysis

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.