Time to sweat the small stuff
There is a saying, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Translation: Don’t focus on the small, seemingly petty things; focus instead on the bigger picture, on things that make a difference.
There’s a different school of thought, however, that says if you ignore the small, everyday stuff that produces negative results, bad habits develop and these will undermine larger decisions made later.
In many ways, it’s the seemingly small, petty stuff that is the fundamental elements of what is collectively referred to as “rule of law,” the principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated.
A competitive and socially equitable Philippines requires a platform of governance built on 4 key elements: Leadership, systems, programs, and resources (e.g. people, finance, technology). Organized and wielded properly, this will result in sound public policy (direction), effective execution (implementation), and the development of the right political culture (social behavior).
The Aquino administration has ably set new policy direction in legislation (e.g. passage of the RH bill, sin tax law, new regulations on government corporations, among others), the economy (e.g. public-private partnerships) and social welfare (universal health care; K-12 basic education).
Execution has seen a sea-change from the past with the Open Government Initiative, the timely passage of the national budget before the start of each fiscal year, procurement reforms, infrastructure building, and the delivery of social services intended to break intergenerational poverty (i.e. Pantawid Pamilya Pilipino Program).
It is in the arena of political culture, however, that change is needed if the reform gains of the Aquino administration are to be sustained beyond the President’s term (post-2016).
This is the greatest risk to our long-term development and one that might follow the experience of the Ramos presidency (1992-98) when two succeeding presidents eroded, if not destroyed, the reform gains (and international respectability) of that period.
The cautionary tale today might be to focus on the small stuff (in the face of all the large-scale gains) to develop good socio-political habits for doing things right in the future.
Where to start? A good place are traffic rules, petty as it might sound.
Alex Lacson wrote: “Traffic rules are the most basic of our country’s laws. If we learn to follow them, it could be the lowest form of national discipline we can develop as a people…crucial to our destiny as a nation.”
But it isn’t only about not following traffic rules that can sink us. What is problematic is the pattern of allowing local traffic enforcers to use their discretion to turn off the system as they see fit. Traffic lights are designed to bring order to chaotic traffic movement. It is a systems approach to a large public problem. When traffic enforcers turn off traffic lights to take over traffic management, the system for traffic management is in fact undermined and the situation worsened.
This is a classic example of how local decision-making (localized to a single intersection in fact) flies in the face of the need for a system solution to traffic. The solution should be overall traffic signal coordination with the role of traffic enforcers limited to keeping intersections clear of traffic when this builds up in certain directions at certain times. There is a logic to a system-wide solution that shouldn’t be interrupted by local discretion especially when the local decision-maker cannot see the impact of their decisions on a larger scale (e.g. more traffic buildup in other chokepoints).
This problem is also reflected in the way our airports are being managed by public airport authorities.
When certain local carriers decide not to use airport loading tubes (also called air bridges) and require passengers (whether elderly or with infants and young children) to climb up and down mobile stairs and walk on busy airport tarmacs in Manila and leading provincial city airports despite modern facilities, this not only inconveniences passengers who pay terminal fees but can’t use all the facilities; it is outright dangerous. Passengers should not be made to risk life or suffer accidents walking on busy tarmacs.
If this practice is not allowed in modern airports around the region (I have seen Cebu Pacific airplanes having to use the air bridges in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport), why is it allowed here despite the obvious danger to passengers? What does it say when a private carrier can dictate to public authority what it wants to do for its own profit?
This habit of allowing local discretion in the face of public authority is not just seemingly petty (traffic lights) or driven by profit (airport loading). The same occurs in the outright disregard of the law.
Individuals indicted and subject to trial are making similar decisions not to submit themselves to authority when charged with major crimes.
First done by a member of the Senate without consequence (not even a reprimand for excessive absence from the institution of which he is a member), this has become the preferred route to take by a number of public figures (and now, more private individuals) wanted by the law.
Worse, the inability of police authorities (some interpret this as indifference or even collusion) to find and capture such fugitives as Palparan and the Reyes brothers, among others, sends out the message that culpability can be circumvented by a decision to disappear until such time as the coast is clear.
What is the connection between these three seemingly dissimilar cases?
All 3 feature local decisions made in the face of public good. All 3 in fact display personal (or corporate) behavior that trump public authority, regulation or law.
Beyond the personal discretion, however, is how the public responds. When the public, despite its dismay with these cases, chooses to ‘live with it,’ this indifference (at best) or acceptance (at worst) shapes a national psyche for tolerance that undermines reform.
Why can’t public authority clearly establish the parameters for what is acceptable discretion exercised by public officials, private corporations and individuals and what the norms for acceptable social behavior should be? These factor into what is called Rule of Law: "…the extent to which agents (i.e. citizens) have confidence and abide by the rules of society.”
The Philippine case is about realizing two sides of this coin called Rule of Law: Acceptable local participation and decision-making (Democracy) on the one hand, coupled with the need for strong public authority and regulation (Development) on the other. Unlike the Singapore model expounded by former prime minister (now elder statesman) Lee Kuan Yew that prioritizes the latter at the expense of the former, the Philippine model is built on the political desire to wed the two ideas into an organic whole.
The Philippine reality, however, is that both concepts of democracy and development are still at a low-to-intermediate stage of maturity. This is the challenge for the Philippines under the Aquino administration.
As the country celebrates the positive gains of the past year, this might in fact be the right time “to sweat the small stuff.”
Unless the foundations for rule of law anchored on acceptable social behavior begin to take form in our Philippine polity, the risk is that the gains of this administration will not be sustained in the long run. Instead, discretion will dictate what is to be followed and what to ignore. - Rappler.com
Juan Miguel Luz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is dean for Development Management at the Asian Institute of Management.