All the king’s men: Working for the government under the Duterte administration

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Kris Ablan, assistant secretary of the Presidential Communications Office (PCO), sits at his office in Malacañang. He is tasked to carry out a major campaign promise of the Duterte administration: the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It took Lucita Dela Peña two tries to pass the Civil Service Exam. No matter: She would have taken it as many times as she needed to.

Her parents both worked in government — her mother in the Government Service Insurance System, her father in the Bureau of Internal Revenue. Growing up, she was certain she would work in government too.

She entered the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) in 1998. She's still there today, nearly 20 years on.

Amir Mawallil, meanwhile, is just starting his career in the public service. He left his private sector job in 2012 to work for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

It's a big leap, but he points out, "My decision was driven by idealism ... To prove that many young Moro professionals are willing to sacrifice material gains for the honor and privilege to serve our Moro brothers and sisters."

It can be hard not to think of the trade-offs sometimes, though. Paolo Quintos (not his real name) chose not to enter the corporate world like most of his classmates in business school. He's worked across various economic agencies of the government since he graduated.

The workload is beyond compare, he says. Unfortunately, the salary is beyond compare as well.

When asked why they do what they do, the answers are all the same, regardless of their agency, their seniority, or their projects. They want their work to go beyond themselves, to help other people. They say there is simply no job as fulfilling.

This is your government. Their faces don't appear on posters plastered on walls. Their names aren't sung in tinny jingles.

There are no televised speeches, no roaring crowds, no designer ternos to parade during the State of the Nation Address.

There is only the quiet, unnoticed, everyday work of keeping this country going.

GW-7.jpg Behind the televised speeches or press conferences where the administration strives to make its policies understood, are government workers working silently to carry out the Duterte administration's rallying cry of "change." Photo by JL JAVIER

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Filipinos campaigned strongly for change during the last national elections. But we have always heard of the government's plans from the perspective atop the podium. The view from down below is slightly different.

Without the pressure to get votes, or the sheen afforded by popularity. With the experience working across administrations, trying different iterations of the same project. Beyond the flashy name, into the boring details.

Now that it's been proclaimed and promised ... how do we get it done?

Kris Ablan, assistant secretary of the Presidential Communications Office (PCO), was one of those tasked to carry out a major campaign promise of the Duterte administration: the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill.

The previous Aquino administration promised the same but failed to get Congress to pass the bill on time — arguably one of its biggest disappointments.

Taking off from that, Ablan says the PCO decided to make an Executive Order first. It would only bind agencies in the executive branch, but it was a start.

"As the executive version of FOI matures, people will be expecting Congress to deliver a similar law to cover the whole of government," Ablan says.

The PCO is already working with Congress leaders, and Ablan hopes they can get the bill passed into law in the near future.

Pragmatism seems to be a defining characteristic of this administration.

Marie Santos (not her real name) is a project officer for the Department of Education (DepEd).

If there's one thing she's noticed about the Duterte administration, it's that a lot of bureaucracy has been cut out of her work.

Past DepEd chiefs required complete staff work, that all supervisors signed on to a project brief before it reached their desks. Education Secretary Leonor Magtolis Briones, however, has reduced the layers so projects can be approved and rolled out immediately.

GW-11.jpg Lucita dela Peña, who has worked in the Department of Interior and Local Government for nearly 20 years, is witness to the shifts in the department's initiatives from the time of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Photo by JL JAVIER

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It's not just the ways of working that have changed with the new administration, it's the policy priorities as well.

Dela Peña has observed the shifts in DILG's initiatives. Under the presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, fresh from her stint as Social Welfare Secretary, the department focused on anti-poverty initiatives, targeting the poorest households in the country.

Former president Benigno Aquino III, widely praised for his astute economic management, also took this track in local governance. The DILG focused on promoting business-friendly practices to bring more investments to cities and municipalities, dela Peña says.

And of course, today, local governments have a renewed drive to stamp out crime and illegal drugs under President Rodrigo Duterte.

Mawallil has noticed a similar trend. Aquino's strong anti-corruption push helped the ARMM improve its governance. And in 2015, it passed the national government's good governance test — the first time in ARMM history.

However, he credits Duterte — the first president from Mindanao — for finally shining the spotlight on Moro issues like underdevelopment and unending conflict. Duterte has also improved security in areas considered hotspots, he notes.

GW-6.jpg Administrations, contrary to popular belief, succeed each other, not compete against each other. Ideally, policies should build upon what previous administrations have worked on. Photo by JL JAVIER

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Sometimes, the lines aren't drawn as neatly, though.

Mawallil, who works in the public information arm of the ARMM, says not all of Duterte's moves prove popular in the region.

His close alliance with the Marcoses, for one, can be a thorny issue among Moro leaders.

"Only a few politicians, mainly dynasties, benefited from Martial Law while the greater majority of the ARMM's constituency suffered during Marcos' reign,” he says.

"Moro rebellion started during Martial Law," Mawallil explains. Human rights violations are still a sensitive, unresolved issue.

"Many victims of abuses committed by the government in Moro areas, especially those by the military, were not properly documented and never reported in mainstream media during those dark years," he says.

For Quintos, who's monitored the economy from the Aquino to the Duterte administration, there are also concerns.

Duterte has chosen to continue the previous administration's economic plans. But where he seems to differ is how closely he listens to his economic team.

Former Finance and Budget Secretaries Cesar Purisima and Butch Abad were right-hand men of then-President Aquino. Whatever they said, you knew had the backing of the President, and vice versa, Quintos says.

Duterte, however, has clashed more than once with his economic managers: announcing a split with the United States and promising to raise pension despite fears of bankrupting the Social Security System.

The president has since reconsidered both stances (with Duterte recently approving a thousand-peso pension hike, along with increased contribution rates, to mitigate fears), Quintos says with relief. But instances such as those don't build certainty and, consequently, confidence.

GW-5.jpg Boxes of paperwork line the shelves of the PCO in Malacañang. Photo by JL JAVIER

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Regardless of these differences, though, public servants will hesitate to compare.

Administrations, contrary to popular belief, succeed each other, not compete against each other.

Santos looks at DepEd's work as a progression. During the Estrada and Arroyo administrations, public schools struggled because teachers weren't receiving their salaries. When that was settled, the Aquino administration could focus on improving the system and putting in K-12 education. With that as its foundation, the Duterte administration is now working on alternative education for those who cannot access formal schooling.

It's a relay race. The baton is passed on from one presidency to another.

Besides, it's precisely that personality-driven kind of politics that undermines the work of the public service.

It's a common experience among the interviewees to have their projects approved and readied under one administration and then scrapped altogether after an election — for no other reason than they were somebody else's.

That's why Ablan lauds the current administration. Despite the political friction, Duterte has largely picked up where Aquino left off.

"From the outside, presidents get pitted against each other,” Ablan jokes. “But inside the government, it's just status quo. The work just continues."

Governance, after all, is not a six-year project. Presidents step down, administrations end, and the electoral circus starts all over again. The government, however, remains.