The Philippines’ Mayor

Michael Scharff
Jesse Robredo’s life and career continues to set the standard for what effective, good governance can, and should, look like

This article is an abridged version of a longer case study authored by Michael Scharff when he was a Senior Research Specialist at Innovations for Successful Societies, a research program at Princeton University. Scharff, who is currently pursuing graduate studies at the University of Oxford, reflects on the early career of Jesse Robredo, a former mayor of Naga City, Philippines, who passed away in August 2012.

Jesse Robredo was in his element. The man whose close friends had urged him to run for president of the Philippines was seated next to the man who held the job, Benigno Aquino III. Under the chandeliers in an ornate reception room of the Presidential Palace, Robredo was celebrating community groups receiving an annual award for outstanding local governance. His effusive congratulatory handshakes to group members as they ascended to the podium, and wide smile, left little doubt of Robredo’s pleasure at being part of the March 2011 ceremony. For Robredo, whom Aquino had recently named Secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government, recognizing achievements in local governance represented the culmination of a movement he had helped pioneer two decades earlier. 

In the late 1980s, the people of Naga, a sleepy, landlocked city of 100,000, wanted change. Once a thriving center for education and commerce, years of mismanagement by city leaders had created big problems. Tax collections were way down and the city spiraled into debt. Illegal activities like lewd shows and gambling were persuasive. Frustrated by the city’s decline in stature, civil society groups called for more citizen participation in government. The influential archbishop of the Catholic Church in Naga also sought the end of illegal activities. (Naga was the seat of the archdiocese that represented about a quarter of all Catholics in the predominantly Catholic nation.) 

Naga’s 1988 elections offered the chance to reverse, or at the very least halt, the downward spiral. Naga’s voters, said Willie Prilles, who worked in Naga’s City Planning Office, “were expecting something new.” Robredo’s uncle, Luis Villafuerte then the governor of Camarines Sur, the province in which Naga was located, encouraged the young Robredo to run for mayor of Naga. Robredo had no political experience. Armed with a Masters in Business Administration degree, he had done stints at a couple of national-level companies before taking a job as head of a World Bank-funded project to promote development in the Naga area.

At first glance, Robredo seemed the most unlikely of change figures. In a city ruled by family dynasties, the Villafuerte name was synonymous with entrenched power. The governor’s father, Mariano Villafuerte Sr., had been a two-term member of the legislature and governor of Camarines Sur in 1942. In 1959, Luis Villafuerte’s brother, Mariano Villafuerte Jr., became vice mayor of Naga. In 1979, the autocratic president, Ferdinand Marcos appointed Luis Villafuerte as his minister of trade. In fact, the Villafuerete’s were beneficiaries of many of the practices, like gambling, that Robredo would soon seek to eliminate from Naga.

Yet the changing national landscape provided the political cover for Robredo’s proposed reforms, which he felt were necessary not only because people demanded them, but because they were the right thing to do. The 1986 nationwide protests against the dictatorial Marcos brought Corazon Aquino to power. President Aquino pledged to answer protestors’ demands for accountable government and a greater voice in government.

Two years after the nationwide change in power, the then 28-years-old Robredo eked out victory in Naga, and set about upending the traditional way of doing business.

“We immediately addressed long-standing problems that were doable, but difficult, just to gain the confidence of the constituency,” Robredo told me in a 2011 interview. To build public confidence and bolster his voter appeal, Robredo decided to first eliminate what he called the “symbols of bad governance,” specifically gambling (called “jueteng” in the local language) and the popular nude shows. These actions, Robredo figured, would signal to the public that he was serious about reform.

As with these initial and subsequent reform efforts, Robredo had to deftly navigate the minefield of entrenched interests that sought to maintain the status quo.

Robredo’s uncooperative police chief, whose appointment was sanctioned by the national-level government (and supported by Robredo’s uncle), refused to help crack down on illegal activities. So instead Robredo gathered his own security detail and volunteers from the private security company that guarded City Hall and created a “vice squad.” The vice squad first moved to shut down the lewd shows that were outlawed under Philippine law. In order to provide proof of illegal activities, the city’s official photographer accompanied the vice squad to each venue. After the photographer captured evidence of illicit activities, the officers from the vice squad arrested the venue’s owner. City Hall then canceled the business’ operating license.

Robredo had less success closing gambling operations, which were often run out of the backs of vehicles and thus hard to detect. It was not until 1992, when Fidel Ramos—whom Robredo had campaigned for—became president that Robredo got a police chief sympathetic to his cause. The extra manpower granted by the chief gave Robredo the tools he needed to effectively push gambling outside Naga’s city limits. Not surprisingly, Robredo’s relations with his uncle Luis soured. The two men would never reconcile.

In his first term in office, Robredo also moved to close the city’s budget deficit. Robredo and his team, which included his secretary, Francis Soler, and his public information officer, Gabriel Bordado Jr., were suspicious that businesses were underreporting their true income levels and therefore paying less in taxes. To confirm this notion, Robredo instructed the city treasurer to make rough estimates of the daily sales at local businesses. As a test case, the treasurer’s office assigned staff to count customers at a movie theater. “I think the original computation was only 34 people entering the movie at the time,” said Prilles of the City Planning Office, referring to the number of patrons the movie theater claimed frequented the establishment on an average day. “It was outrageous for a movie theater to be having only 34 or even a hundred patrons every day.” The treasurer’s office expanded the pilot to cover businesses throughout the city.  

When business owners came to City Hall to renew their annual licenses, Robredo’s team summoned them to the mayor’s office, and, comparing the businesses most recent returns with City Hall’s count of their earning potential, urged their cooperation. It was impossible to pinpoint the exact amount of taxes owed, but Robredo could argue that if the investigation went forward, the owner might owe even more. “Literally, one-by-one we negotiated with the businesses about their increases,” said Soler.

The movement for a more responsive government that had ushered Corazon Aquino to power in 1986 called for greater public participation in government. People in Naga wanted more input into City Hall’s decision making. Yet the fact that the majority of city councilors were in the opposition during his first term made it difficult for Robredo to create formal channels for citizen participation. However, Robredo’s reelection in 1992 brought a majority slate of city counselors aligned with his interests and created the opening to establish a formal way for people to participate in the governing of their city. 

When one of the councilors in Robredo’s camp proposed an ordinance to grant representatives from civil society organizations a non-voting seat on city’s special bodies and standing committees, Robredo urged his colleagues in the council to approve the measure. The ordinance eventually passed despite resistance from some over the fact that non-elected members would have a sizeable role in the decision making process by way of their seats on committees like the Urban Development and Housing Board and the Investment Board. (Admittedly, a 1991 national law that required local governments to involve citizens in government affairs certainly helped Robredo’s efforts, though he and the council did have autonomy to decide what that involvement would look like. By all accounts, Naga’s “People Council” was groundbreaking in the scope of citizen involvement.) 

Robredo’s popularity propelled him to a third, three-year term beginning in 1995. Constitutional limits prevented mayors from remaining in office for more than three consecutive terms, so after a short break to attend the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, he returned to Naga for another nine years. 

The mayor of 18 years received wide praise during his stewardship of Naga. In 1999, Asiaweek magazine named Naga one of Asia’s “most improved cities.” The magazine cited Robredo’s pivotal role in energizing the bureaucracy and improving people’s participation in governance. The following year, Robredo received the Ramon Magsaysay Award. Considered Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize, the award recognized Robredo’s efforts to sustain citizen participation through the creation of the People’s Council.

Reflecting on his early attempts to build trust and change the way governing was done, Robredo told me, “Initially, I was a novelty, reporting to work early and getting out in the city and interacting with people. But later on, it became the standard.” As the residents of Naga, and people throughout the Philippines mark the one-year anniversary of his untimely death in a plane crash, Jesse Robredo’s life and career continues to set the standard for what effective, good governance can, and should, look like. Reaching for that high bar is a tall order. The community groups recognized yearly at the Presidential Palace are one example of those who are trying, and succeeding, in carrying on Robredo’s legacy. –

Author’s Note I remember clearly our first meeting. The packed holding room. The hushed excitement amongst the visitors as they waited. And then Jesse’s warm smile. I had flown halfway around the world from Princeton University in New Jersey, USA—where I worked as a senior researcher at a policy center—to Manila, Philippines, to meet with the man many in the Philippines hailed as one of the greatest local mayors ever. I wanted to find out what the talk was all about.

When we met in March 2011, Jesse Robredo, the former mayor of Naga City, who turned a once sleepy, corrupt, and dysfunctional municipality into a model city by demonstrating the importance of good governance, had since become Secretary of the Interior and Local Government, a national cabinet level position. Jesse spoke with great excitement as he recalled the challenges he faced—including his patron uncle who benefited from many of the illegal practices in Naga—and options he weighed in trying to turn around the city.

Everyone who I had spoken with prior to meeting Jesse heaped praise on his efforts. But they also deeply admired him for something else: his genuine concern for the well-being of others and his grounded personality. I quickly learned what they meant. My meeting with Jesse was already running over schedule and he still had many more meetings to attend. Yet rather than usher me out, Jesse, perhaps recognizing that I had a long trek back to the hotel from his office, invited me to join him and his team for lunch in a small conference room. Jesse passed around the communal dishes, ate quickly, and excused himself. Many more people were waiting to see him.

I met Jesse two weeks later, again at his office. His choice of attire was a pair of blue jeans and a button-down flannel shirt. I remember I was not surprised at all by his lack of formality. I had spent the time between this and our first meeting speaking with friends and former colleagues of his in Naga. Everyone attested to his “man of the people” style. That was just who he was.

Halfway through our meeting, Jesse’s Blackberry buzzed. A couple of police officers had been killed in a shooting in a distant part of the country. (Responsibility for the country’s police services fell to Jesse.) He immediately began working the phones. I volunteered to excuse myself but he told me to stay. I admired how quickly Jesse attempted to gather all of the details, and how thorough he was in his instructions. I got the sense that he truly cared for the officers and their families.

One year ago, it was time for others to show concern for Jesse—whose perished, tragically, in a plane crash—and his family. The response by the authorities and the outpouring of emotion by people throughout the country was not merely because of his stature as a cabinet secretary. Rather, it was a reflection of the impact Jesse’s warm and personal touch had had on so many throughout the years.