Assessing PNoy’s freshman year: the good, the bad and the ugly
In numerology, the number 1 bears singular importance. The first, the start, the origin of anything bears significance and meaning in the sense that it opens up possibilities, it sets the scene, and it leads the way. The level of anticipation and anxiety is always highest at the start.
The mistakes and lessons, the first impressions and achievements all have lingering effects. So it is with the first year of PNoy’s administration: the learning curve, the birthing pains and the wall of public expectation he has had to scale was close to insurmountable.
Comparisons and contrasts
In assessing his first year, the problem of finding an appropriate yardstick has been highlighted before. For those that attempt it by way of contrast, PNoy has done a remarkable job in his first year simply by not being Mrs Arroyo. Some similarities can be drawn with his mother in that she too had to sort out a lot of problems left behind by Mr Marcos and high expectations on the part of the people.
Others like me have drawn some parallels between PNoy and Estrada in the way the president went about managing factions within his cabinet. Some have questioned the president’s work ethic. ‘Do nothing’ was a constant line of attack presented by his detractors.
The question here is, had PNoy not succeeded Mrs Arroyo, how would his first year have been measured? Corollary to this is, had PNoy not been an Aquino, how would we perceive or rate him? The nation treats PNoy almost like an older brother or ‘kuya’. His being the son of ‘Tita’ or Auntie Cory makes an objective assessment difficult because of kindred ties and the ‘halo’ effect.
Factoring out the ‘noise’
Then there is the problem of events outside the evaluatee’s control, or the noise factor. The worsening global economy emanating from the Eurozone, Japan and MENA as well as from the US, have been used to explain the weakening foreign investor confidence in the Philippines.
As Ben Diokno rightly points out, our relative performance to some of our ASEAN neighbors allows us to factor out the ‘noise’ in that our peers in the region all have experienced the same global slowdown, but as the first quarter data shows, they were able to increase their levels of foreign direct investments, while we saw ours shrink.
We need to bear this in mind whenever we hear officials justifying the slowdown in our economy by citing global affairs or cyclical factors like the elections of 2010. We might be maintaining growth in an absolute sense, but in a relative sense, we might fall behind our neighbors in the region. We therefore need to determine whether this poor performance relative to them is due to some of the things the administration is doing or failing to do.
Having said that, I would first like to focus on the positive things I believe the administration has done. This would include both its tangible and intangible achievements. I will start with the tangibles.
The introduction of universal kindergarten in public schools which studies show provide long-term learning benefits, the reduction of hunger most recently attributable to the conditional cash transfers program which is really designed to address intergenerational poverty and not fix the unemployment problem in the near term, and the reform of government corporations and debt management which have led to meaningful savings for the government are all worth a positive rating.
With regard to intangibles, the confidence engendered by the government which has led to private domestic firms releasing pent-up demand for capital goods and the greater trust or faith in government leaders are two things that this administration can be congratulated for. If the government can continue to make inroads in these areas it will have done a tremendous service to the Filipino people.
On the needs improvement column, I would have to cite firstly the government’s handling of its legislative agenda. Both the scope and the pace at which it has been pursuing this have serious flaws. The absence of the FOI and RH bill among its priority measures for instance was a major failing. The fact that it took nine months for it to hammer out its agenda led to meager legislative trophies in the first year.
Secondly, our response to China’s emerging role in the region as a superpower to counterbalance the US our traditional ally has been all over the place. First, we sided with China unnecessarily in not attending the Nobel Prize conferment ceremonies for one of its leading dissidents. Then, in handling the Spratlys issue, we engaged in sabre rattling by sending out a navy vessel into disputed territory, again unnecessarily. A more considered and strategic foreign policy is required.
Thirdly, in prosecuting cases against Mrs Arroyo and her allies, many will assail the efforts of PNoy as unsatisfactory or timid, as several church and citizen’s groups have done. Personally, I would not consider this too much of a problem, but I know that many have that expectation. So what I cite as a failure by this government is its inability to manage such high expectations. More importantly, I would like to see greater safeguards and economic measures put in place to ensure that the Ombudsman and Solicitor General’s office are well resourced to perform their functions.
Sharper focus required
Finally, I would like to cite areas that deserve sharper focus by this administration. These are things that the administration needs to prioritize if it is to make a lasting impact. The first has to do with its development strategies contained in the Philippine Development Plan 2011-2016. As I have stated in a three part series, entitled the National Development Program, there are serious gaps in the Plan that need to be addressed.
Secondly, in its first year, the government has shown serious shortcomings in its budget plans and execution. Having had a head start by way of Congress’s early approval of their budget, the government should have done better at releasing its funds for infrastructure projects. The practice of forced savings due to off-target collections also has to be addressed. This cannot continue as per the ratings agencies reports if the nation is to keep to its growth trajectory.
Thirdly, in generating much needed employment, this government has to start thinking ‘outside the box’ if it is to keep up with the growing workforce. PPP’s or public-private partnerships are an existing tool already wielded by preceding governments. For it to have a successful employment program, the administration will have to develop a robust industrial policy. To do that it needs to reshape the economic bureaucracy as I have pointed out here.
Looking back, moving forward
A periodic performance appraisal is always necessary for any government to benchmark itself against the undertaking it has given to the people, to celebrate successes and take stock of where it needs to improve or devote more attention to.
The first year of any government is always the hardest. Unexpected roadblocks and landmines often litter its path. The ability of any regime to survive its first year relatively unscathed or even stronger than before usually is a good indicator of the caliber of its leaders.
We will have to say that the government despite all the sound and fury has survived relatively intact. The remaining five years will contain many twists and turns. Hopefully, the correct lessons from its first year will help inform these remaining years. For this reason, it is important for citizens to remain as engaged as they have been during this first year as we here at Propinoy are determined to be.