Jesse Robredo, a man for others

Dean Tony La Viña

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Whether as Naga City Mayor or DILG Secretary, Jesse always got his feet wet, was on the ground first, and showed by example what service and leadership meant. In this way, he was a leader who inspired.

Dean Tony La Viña

Jesse Robredo and I belonged to the same generation of Ateneans. He was a student of Ateneo de Naga High School at the same time I was studying in Xavier University-Ateneo de Cagayan.

He must have been exposed to the same Jesuit mantra as all of us in that generation were: “You are called to be men and women for others,” a phrase coined by Fr Pedro Arrupe, SJ, Father General of the Society of Jesus, in a 1973 speech to alumni of Jesuit schools.

Upon hearing of the crash of Jesse’s airplane while I was in Kathmandu, Nepal last Saturday, as a way of coping with my helplessness and worry, I decided to prepare for the worst and began thinking of how to honor this great man.

I did not have to look farther than what our Jesuit mentors taught us. More than anything, as a leader’s leader, a servant of the people, and a family man, Jesse Robredo was truly a man for others.

Let us recall Arrupe’s definition of “men and women for others,” the prime educational objective of Jesuit institutions: “men and women who will live not for themselves but for God and his Christ – for the God-man who lived and died for all the world; men and women who cannot even conceive of love of God which does not include love for the least of their neighbors; men and women completely convinced that love of God which does not issue in justice for others is a farce.”

Later in the same speech, Arrupe elaborates and says a man-and-woman-for-others lived simply, committed to a life of service, and sought to change unjust social structures. This is an accurate description of Jesse Robredo and how he lived both his private (to the limited extent I was exposed to this) and public life.

A simple life

Jesse Robredo lived simply. Stories abound of how Jesse was so unassuming, dressed always modestly, lived in ordinary abodes (not villas nor mansions), had simple (but great) taste in food, and was always comfortable, as the mayor of Naga and Interior secretary, to “mix it up” with his constituents and his staff.

Indeed, as one of his staff commented on television, he enjoyed being with people on the ground and the streets more than being with those in social events.

My colleagues Joy Aceron and Francis Isaac, in Frontline Leadership, a book published by the Ateneo School of Government, described how the way Jesse dressed gave “the impression that fashion is not among his priorities.”

They recount his wife Leni’s story of how she once bought her husband a Lacoste shirt and how he never wore it, knowing perhaps how much it cost. Robredo, according to Aceron and Isaac, attributed his simple taste to his parents. “Growing up in a family that did not put a premium on material goods or riches, he and his siblings were taught by their parents to refrain from seeking any favor or special privileges, and instead to measure the degree of their success based on the amount of labor that they have exerted.”

This simplicity was not just a personal, private thing. As a government official, he was also very thrifty. He rejected all types of extravagance and was extra careful with the people’s money.

His record at the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) will show how transparent and scrupulous he was about government finances. Because of this, he made many political enemies but he persisted and eventually the DILG bureaucracy, as did the Naga City Hall, became more appreciative of what he was doing.

Life of service

Jesse Robredo lived a life of service with a strong commitment to help the poor. His early years in Naga were formative in this respect. According to Aceron and Isaac, Robredo grew up and became friends with poor children coming from a nearby urban poor community. This experience “opened his eyes to the sharp division between the rich and the poor.” Jesse told the authors:

Lumaki ako na ang mga kaibigan ko ay mga iskwater sa likod ng bahay namin. Ang kasama ko sa basketball team mahihirap. Nag-aaral na ako sa La Salle, ang mga kalaro ko ng basketball, hindi nga nag-college. Parang na-balance ’yung pananaw ko na may mga taong mahihirap na kailangang tulungan. (I grew up with my friends who were squatters living at the back of our house. My basketball teammates were all poor. When I was already studying in La Salle, my basketball playmates were not even going to college. Somehow, it gave me a more balanced view that there are poor people who needed to be helped.)

This preferential option for the poor defined and determined Jesse’s days as a mayor and DILG Secretary. He worked hard and demanded excellence from himself and from those who worked with him.

But he did not do this because he was a perfectionist. He did and sought the best because he wanted the best for the Filipino people, especially the poor. He treated rich and poor people alike but clearly his heart belonged to the poor. That was why the delivery of basic services was so central to him as a public official.

Jesse exemplified the servant-leader described by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, first published in 1970. He said, The servant-leader is servant first…It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.”

Whether as Naga City Mayor or DILG Secretary, Jesse always got his feet wet, was on the ground first, and showed by example what service and leadership meant. In this way, he was a leader who inspired.

A reformer’s life

In his 1973 speech, Fr Arrupe said that men and women for others must have “a firm resolve to be agents of change in society; not merely resisting unjust structures and arrangements, but actively undertaking to reform them.”

How accurate a description this is of the kind of leader and public servant Jesse Robredo was. While he has made many contributions as a national and local official, ultimately, it is the reforms that he initiated in his various offices – when they stand the test of time and political transitions – that we will remember Jesse Robredo for.

In Naga City, also known as “ang maogmang lugar” (The Happy Place), Jesse reinvented its bureaucracy through a productivity improvement program. He was also instrumental in strengthening the city government’s participatory mechanisms by crafting the Naga City Citizens Charter as a guidebook on the 130 key services being offered by the local government unit (LGU).

It included an accreditation system for NGOs operating in the area and multi-level consultation channels wherein specific sectors, groups, or even entire constituencies could participate in the identification of developmental priorities.

The Sangguniang Panlungsod of Naga also passed local legislation, dubbed the Empowerment Ordinance, that led to the formation of the Naga City People’s Council. The said assembly is responsible for the appointment of NGO representatives in the city government’s local special bodies, who in turn, participate in the deliberation, conceptualization, implementation and evaluation of the projects, programs and activities of the LGU.

Lastly, under Robredo’s watch, Naga established the i-Governance Program that encourages ordinary citizens to participate in all matters of governance by providing a 24/7 venue for engagement and feedback-gathering through the city website and short messaging service. Access to this is made more available through numerous cyber-schools and cyber-barangays.

During his stint in the DILG, short as it was, he initiated fundamental reforms in procurement and local government administration that have far-reaching consequences.

In procurement, he brought DILG procedures into the 21st century, making sure the process would be the most transparent as possible and ensure that tax money was properly spent. But more than anything, he will be remembered for the ways he engaged and inspired local government reforms. 

Local governments are the most critical government agencies in the country, far more important, I believe, than any department or national agency.

Governors and mayors are the most powerful and important government officials, excluding of course the President, who is still the most powerful official of the land. But the capacity of local governments is still limited, and they need help, including setting directions and implementing reforms.

Jesse Robredo was the first DILG secretary who really paid attention to local governments. Other secretaries tended to concentrate on the police side of the work as it was more glamorous. But Jesse, true to his background, focused on local governments and how to make them engines for development and vehicles for peace and justice.

As in procurement, Jesse focused also on making LGUs more transparent, insisting on a full disclosure policy. He made disaster risk reduction a priority. As in Naga, the delivery of basic services and the role of local governments were central to his vision.

Beyond Naga City

After 6 terms as Naga City mayor, Jesse knew it was time to move on. It was in this context that I got to know him well. As Dean of the Ateneo School of Government, I asked him to teach at the school, among others, and to go around the country to share with other local governments his experience in instituting reforms.

He also graced many of our forums, roundtable discussions and executive education seminars. Later, when our school facilitated the creation of the Kaya Natin Movement, Jesse went around the country to preach the gospel of ethical and effective governance.

In all of these, he had one consistent message, passionately delivered: there is a solution to our problems as a country: it is good governance. “Kaya natin!” – we can do it – was always his final word.

Kaya natin. We can all be men-and-women-for-others. We can all be like Jesse Robredo and serve the people and country, without fanfare, with utmost sincerity, with the best that we can do.

And we can make a difference. If we want to honor Jesse’s memory, we must remember this and not be defeated by this sad moment. Kaya


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