[OPINION] Leachon unmasks a crisis in COVID-19 response

Tom Villarin
[OPINION] Leachon unmasks a crisis in COVID-19 response
'What we have now is a disastrous response to a disaster'

How does the bureaucracy respond to a crisis? Are bureaucrats required to be always transparent with information in dealing with the public? 

These questions come into focus in light of the resignation of Dr Tony Leachon, a consultant for the government’s COVID-19 response team. Leachon criticized the Duterte administration’s approach to fighting the coronavirus. (WATCH: Rappler Talk: Dr Tony Leachon on PH’s handling of COVID-19 pandemic)

Leachon argued that telling the truth, and being transparent and straightforward are important in times of crisis. 

But General Carlito Galvez, COVID-19 National Task Force head, wanted criticisms be done internally. Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque chimed in to say it’s the President who wants Leachon out. (READ: Tony Leachon miffed Duterte himself)

In modern public administration, we have several theories to explain how bureaucracies behave and respond. The theories of bureaucratic politics seek to explain how bureaucrats define and justify their actions. 

In Graham Allison’s (1971) book Paradigm of Bureaucratic Politics (Essence of Decision), there are 3 dominant paradigms in decision-making: a rational actor, organizational process, and bureaucratic negotiations. 

When governments decide based on the paradigm of a rational actor, its main motivation is self-interest. Bureaucrats can also further the interests of others to serve their own self-interest. 

In rational choice theory, decisions can be understood by viewing them as the product of a single actor in pursuit of his own self-interest that drives decisions and actions. When a problem occurs, the government will identify the potential responses to such problem, assess the consequences of the responses, and choose the action that maximizes the benefits and minimizes costs. 

After 3 months of lockdown, the President (self-interested actor) responded with a more or less functioning infrastructure and seemingly coherent plan at an appropriate scale of intervention. 

But the absence of leadership shows that the motivation to decisively tackle the crisis was lacking. The President was first dismissive of the threat and dismissed critics as just wanting to spread fear. Weekly, late night announcements showed him rambling, at times confused, petty, and overbearing. 

When the first case of COVID-19 was recorded a month before the lockdown, this should have signaled government to impose travel restrictions and mitigating measures. However, the DOH waited for the first case of local transmission to happen. The indecisiveness of the DOH was responsible for the failure to contain the spread of the virus. 

In the organizational process paradigm, numerous actors are involved in decision-making. The decision-making is highly structured through standard operating procedures. In contrast to a rational actor paradigm, the government relies on organizational routines instead of a rational cost-benefit calculus in deciding its course of action. 

Mass testing was based on established international epidemiological protocols. The IATF guidelines for the various degrees of community quarantines came from decisions of a collegial body. It should not be subject to political bargaining.  

In the bureaucratic politics paradigm, the bureaucracy is composed of different organizations and individuals with divergent objectives and agenda. What the “whole-of-government” decides to do is the outcome of bargaining and compromise – product of a political process. 

The extent and scope of the community quarantine or a lockdown was obviously a “political resultant” that took into account several dilemmas – from saving lives vs saving jobs, health of citizens vs the health of the economy,to data privacy vs public health emergency.

But once an action is decided upon, the task of implementing that decision is handed over to others who must also make decisions about specific actions to take.   

Under our disaster management laws, the DILG together with the LGUs, are the “first responders” in disaster preparedness. The DILG for its part came up with guidelines for addressing COVID-19 by LGUs as early as February 6, 2020. However, it was only on April 16, more than two months after the first COVID-19 case was reported, that the IATF ordered the DILG, PNP, and LGUs to organize contact tracing teams.

The DILG’s tiff with some LGUs implementing the ECQ became a source of conflict. Pasig City mayor Vico Sotto and other mayors were cited in contempt of the national government for interpreting the guidelines according to how they saw fit.

But LGUs exercise a degree of fiscal and administrative autonomy. In agency theory, the LGU is the agent, as their constituents are their principal and not the DILG. 

In James Wilson’s (1989) Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It, he puts forward two key organizational dimensions to bureaucratic politics theory: 1) behavior of bureaucrats and 2) the institutional structure and the distribution of power. 

Behavior looks at why bureaucrats and bureaucracies do what they do. The day-to-day situation bureaucrats must respond to is shaped by peer expectations, professional values, and ideology. When goals are vague, “going by the book” provides operators low-risk behavior. 

Public administration theory builds on the assumption of rational self-interest. It suggests that a set of behavioral biases was common to all bureaucracies – bureaucrat’s motivation to distort information to reflect favorably on their goals and themselves. 

Bureaucrats always favor policies fitting their self-interests and goals. Their reactions to directives depend upon how these serve their self-interests. The bureaucrat’s risk tolerance for responsibility is lower, but seeking power as a goal is higher. 

The issues of lack of sense of urgency, problems in COVID data management, and transparency in communication process in DOH, as stated by Dr Leachon, fall into this behavior of bureaucrats. If the goal is to flatten the curve, the information communicated should be towards that and not garnished confusion. 

There are different typologies of bureaucrats, according to Anthony Downs, an economist specializing in public policy and administration in his book An Economic Theory of Democracy.

They can be “conservers,” “climbers,” or “statespersons.” Conservers are “maximizers” of security and convenience and likely to defend existing prerogatives and functions, oftentimes invoking the phrase “serving at the pleasure of the President” or appointing authority. 

In government, there are a lot of climbers who pursue responsibility blindly and aggressively. Such was shown in the case of a Malacañang official who wanted to probe the relief efforts of Vice President Robredo, and of a DILG Undersecretary announcing that human rights are suspended during the crisis. 

The lessons from Dr Leachon’s going against the bureaucracy show that government is working for its “self-interest” and deflecting public interest. (READ: Leachon’s posts ‘jeopardized’ gov’t messaging on pandemic – Galvez)

The announcement of the Ombudsman’s investigation of irregularities in the DOH’s COVID-19 response, from procurement of supplies, releasing of financial assistance to frontliners, and the confusing and delayed reporting of deaths and cases, could be a sign that government is responding to the public’s frustration.  

But it may be a way to let off steam for the public and not to address the problems Dr Leachon and most citizens see in the government’s response. 

Trust and reputation of public official are key factors for people to cooperate. In a public good setting, the first move is cooperation and not deflection. In a crisis, these values are intrinsic for effective communication on what people should expect and do. 

Networks and non-government organizations, business groups, and the medical community are indispensable actors that should be tapped by a networked bureaucracy in a crisis. But what we see is a military mindset and culture taking over a public health emergency. 

It is a top-down, “obey-first before you complain” protocol. Its response is a policy-based evidence approach analyzed in silos, and not evidence-based policy with the public’s lens integrated in analyzing the problem.     

Citizens expect clear guidance they can trust and services that address their needs, and for businesses, the policies on financial security to tide them over this crisis. They want leadership that stays the course, provides clear direction to a path forward, and a working environment that ensures their safety. 

What we have now is a disastrous response to a disaster that can’t be mitigated by a top bureaucracy that just serves their own purpose and no longer the public. – Rappler.com 

Tom Villarin is former congressman of Akbayan Party List in the 17th Congress. He authored the law Institutionalizing the 4Ps and the Safe Spaces Act, co-authored the Universal Health Care Law, Expanded Maternity Leave Law, Free Tertiary Education in Public Schools, and the vetoed Anti-Contractualization Law, among others.

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