How did Jesse do it? Robredo’s advice for politicians

The widow of the late Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo shares advice from her husband on good governance and efficient leadership

RECOGNIZING ROBREDO. President Benigno S. Aquino III graces the awards ceremony of the conferment of the Quezon Service Cross award on the late Interior and Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo who died in a plane crash off Masbate coast last August. Photo by Macalanang Photo Bureau.

MANILA, Philippines – On the 100th day since the death of late Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, President Benigno Aquino III awarded him the Quezon Service Cross for his contributions to public service, the highest honor in the country.

The awarding coincided with the launch of the Department of the Interior and Local Government’s Full Disclosure Policy portal, a project initiated by Robredo to increase transparency and accountability in local governments.

In his hometown of Naga, a 5pm march is scheduled for the memory of the man who served as mayor for 18 years. Residents will walk from the City Hall to Eternal Gardens where his remains lie, before a nationwide candle lighting for him at 6:30pm.

In a recent interview with Rappler, Robredo’s wife Leni shared some of the most important lessons she learned from her husband when he was still alive — advice that may be most useful for government officials.

Below is a list of her take aways from Robredo, a symbol of good governance who, in Leni’s words, “represented a brand of public service that was fueled by humility, selflessness, and dedication:”

1) Heed the call of the people

Leni said one important lesson she learned from her husband, which other leaders should follow, is a piece of advice on how to serve the people: listen.

“My husband always used to tell me that a public servant should know how to heed the call of the people even if it’s against his wishes. He must have the ability to understand what the people want, to shift gears just to heed the call of the people,” she said in a mix of Filipino and English.

Leni, who was convinced to run after an outpour of pleas and support from her constituents, said his words inspired her to take on the challenge of politics, despite her intitial hesitation and even with her husband gone.

“I think I’m in that stage. Even if this is not what I wanted, I am embracing it wholeheartedly so I could do what is needed,” she said.

2) Put into law what you believe in

Robredo believed that the time given to a public official is extremely valuable. He often told his wife that public servants must fight for what they believe in, especially if they know it is good for the people.

“It’s very basic. He always said that being a public official comes and goes. So when you’re there, do everything you can possibly do,” she said.

“He also believed that if you have do something right, if you find a project that you have proven works, you make sure to put it into law,” she added. “Because you’re not there for a long time. You should make sure that even when you’re no longer in power, your project will still be there, no matter who is in power.”

As mayor, Robredo was able to transform Naga from a third-class city to a booming first-class city largely due to policies he instituted during his six terms in office.

3) Don’t be ‘epal’

Robredo was also a big believer that being “epal” or seeking for attention is not necessary to win elections.

In Naga, Robredo successfully eliminated posters and tarpaulins that included names and faces of candidates, as well as projects that trumpeted donors and funders — an anomaly in the province of Camarines Sur.

“He always said you don’t need to be ‘epal.’ He always said that he could survive in politics, even if he has no money, because of good governance. He always told those in his line-up that their best campaign was their past projects,” Leni said.

She added that Robredo survived campaigns solely on money given to him by his family after his first term, after his constituents saw what he could do.

Robredo’s entire slate always won all the elective city posts whenever he campaigned.

4) Engage people to be part of governance

Among the many contributions Robredo accomplished, Leni considers one to be his most significant: making people truly care about their city.

She said this was the turning point that made Naga successful, and it was Robredo’s belief that engaging people to be part of governance made them feel invested in their city, which in turn paved the way for good governance.

“I think his biggest contribution to Naga was that every Nagueño was proud again that they are from Naga. At they point, everyone became very cooperative with everything happening in the city. They regard themselves not as subjects but as stakehodlers,” she said.

“When people started feeling proud of being citizens of Naga, they became engaged. Even the governors, local leaders, they couldn’t afford to do any wrong because the people were vigilant about their rights.”

5) Avoid the perks and privileges

When Robredo died, many were surprised about the humble lifestyle he led despite having been in politics for over two decades.

He lived in a modest home, owned only two vehicles, and often took the bus from Manila to Naga on the weekends. Robredo dressed casually, often in tsinelas, and was seen biking around the city on his own.

Leni said her husband made a conscious effort to avoid the perks and privileges that came with the job, in an effort to keep him grounded.

“He didn’t want to accept the perks. He personally took measures not to enjoy those perks and privileges. He always said, ‘If i start enjoying them, I will keep searching for them and it will be hard for me to let go,'” she said.

When Robredo’s body was recovered from the waters of Masbate, Leni said she wasn’t surprised to see he was wearing simple jeans, an old Timex watch, and his DILG uniform. –

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