Plea Bargain

Long overdue: Bureau of Customs abolition

So, this morning’s banner story in the Philippine Daily Inquirer reads: Bureau of Customs abolition planned.

Who’s planning it? Malacañang. Who is proposing it? Embattled Customs Commissioner Ruffy Biazon. That’s right, the head of the agency itself who has been under the pump for failing to curb the rampant smuggling activities that are allegedly continuing despite the president’s mantra of Daang Matuwid.

In a face-to-face conference with editors of the PDI, Biazon offered up the possibility of overhauling the agency from the top-down, by replacing it with a new professionally led one. He says resistance to his reform measures from the frontline staff at the bureau has led him to take this view. In public policy parlance, we call this phenomenon the tail wagging the dog or “street-level bureaucrats” distorting the policy decisions made at the top. Here is a quote from the report:

Biazon cited the example of Peru, which, to defeat corruption and smuggling, abolished its custom department, put up a new one, adopted strict qualifications for hiring, and paid higher salaries to the new officers and employees running the new agency. In the case of the Philippines, Biazon said, corruption is deeply entrenched in the customs bureau’s culture and system so firing a few people or catching some smugglers will not solve the problem. [emphasis mine]

Well, well, well, I am happy to see that something I had recommended back in July 2011 in a piece called, the National Development Project, is finally being given some serious consideration although my proposal included not just the Bureau of Customs, but the Bureau of Internal Revenue and all other revenue generating agencies. Despite their best intentions, it has taken the palace nearly two years to catch-up to the policy conclusion I had already made regarding its anti-corruption campaign in the bureau.

Pursuing good governance doesn’t come cheap. I recognised this fact. But the administration of PNoy felt that it needed to wage a moral crusade first to separate “light from darkness”. My proposals at least acknowledge that if we are to address the cost impact of Daang Matuwid, we have to raise additional revenues. And to do that we need to ensure that our revenue generating agencies are professionally run. With respect to the proposal itself, here is a brief quote from my previous post:

Corporatization is the way by which the government has been able to pay its agents salaries commensurate to, if not exceeding that of, their private counterparts. Singapore achieved this for its entire bureaucracy, but it is the sole Confucian state to do so. The others achieved it through a combination of salaries, allowances and benefits.

The newly minted GOCC (Government Owned or Controlled Corporations) law now provides greater safeguards against abuse done by non-performing companies. It will govern the corporatization of the BIR and BoC. In exchange for the higher compensation, transition into the new agencies must be based on merit and not guaranteed for old bureau officials.

The boards of the new revenue agencies should be allowed to appoint people from among the ‘best and brightest’. Tougher qualifying exams, educational attainments, and past performance should all be part of the selection process. Where posts cannot be filled with existing staff, recruiting externally should be the resort.

Biazon supports the idea of the new corporate entity to takeover the Bureau of Customs to retain 3 per cent of the total revenue it produces to allow it to pay its staff according to their performance. This again was something I had broached before with regard to prosecutors of corruption cases.

It was my view that these state prosecutors were not paid well enough to exert best efforts in retrieving ill gotten wealth, and as a result, certain cases have been left languishing for decades, or worse, settled for a pittance through plea bargain arrangements. Here is what I said on the matter:

The Ombudsman and the Office of the Solicitor General (essential generals in the fight) which are given the task of prosecuting graft cases before the Sandiganbayan and Supreme Court respectively need to have more than a kind of altruistic motivation for performing their duties. They need to have protection and financial security.

Paying them higher salaries alone might not be enough to motivate them to exert maximum effort even in very winnable cases. Some sort of sharing in the spoils which would go both to their office and to chief prosecutors and their staff needs to be put on the table.

I know that some will argue that this is the people’s money and that any recovered ill-gotten or plundered wealth needs to be returned 100% to the coffers to fund social programs. This assumes that we are working with incorruptible Confucian super bureaucrats. That is not the case here. We need to live in the real world, not in some ideal fantasy land.

Apart from these two suggestions, I also proposed outsourcing the main functions of the Commission on Audit to private accounting firms, which is the practice in Australia. If we are to truly tread the good governance path, the government has to start taking seriously these recommendations. At least with respect to customs collection, they may finally be doing so.