Profiles in “Out of the Universe Leadership” (part 1)

Posted on October 25, 2008

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I consider myself fortunate to be one of the radio anchors of Lider Totoo, the Saturday-morning program on Radyo Veritas that tackles servant leadership through the experience of real leaders working in different fields and different parts of the country. There are few things I enjoy better than listening to great minds sharing their experiences, challenges, and aspirations, and working on this program makes it worthwhile for me to wake up early on a Saturday morning and trek all the way to North Avenue. (And I live in Pasay… so you can get the picture.)

My first interview, held on 11 October, was with Naga City Mayor Jesse Robredo, who started public service at the age of 29 (!) and introduced many innovations in government service, including running a website where Nagueños could log in to learn anything about their government and the services that they needed. Through the website www.naga.gov.ph, the people of Naga could look into ordinances and executive orders, view public biddings and government transactions, and gain free access to information that they, the public, had the right to know.

Naga City Mayor Jesse Robredo (photo taken from Naga.gov.ph)

Naga City Mayor Jesse Robredo (photo taken from Naga.gov.ph)

In 2000, Mayor Robredo won the highly prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, where this citation was presented:

It is sad but true. Democratic government is not necessarily good government. Too often, elections yield power to the few, not the many. Injustices linger beneath the rhetoric of equality. Corruption and incompetence go on and on. Voters, alas, do not always choose wisely. And yet, in Asia and the world at large, much is at risk when democracy founders, because democracy is the hope of so many. Jesse Manalastas Robredo entered Philippine politics at a time when hope was high. As mayor of Naga City from 1988 to 1998 he demonstrated that democratic government can also be good government.

In the wake of his country’s People Power Revolution in 1986, Jesse Robredo responded to President Corazon Aquino’s call to public service. He abandoned his executive position at San Miguel Corporation to head the Bicol River Basin Development Program in Naga, his hometown. In 1988, he stood for election as mayor and won by a slim margin. He was twenty-nine.

Once the queen city of the Bicol region, Naga in 1989 was a dispirited provincial town of 120,000 souls. Traffic clogged its tawdry business district and vice syndicates operated at will. City services were fitful at best. Meanwhile, thousands of squatters filled Naga’s vacant lands, despite the dearth of jobs in the city’s stagnant economy. Indeed, Naga’s revenues were so low that it had been downgraded officially from a first-class to a third-class city.

Robredo began with a strike against patronage. He introduced a merit-based system of hiring and promotion and reorganized city employees on the basis of aptitude and competence. He then moved against local vice lords, ridding Naga of gambling and smut. Next, he relocated the bus and jeepney terminals outside the city center, ending gridlock and spurring new enterprises at the city’s edge. In partnership with business, he revitalized Naga’s economy. Public revenues rose and by 1990 Naga was a first-class city again. Robredo’s constituents took heart and reelected him.

Spurning bodyguards, Robredo moved freely among the people. By enlisting the support and active assistance of Naga’s NGOs and citizens, he improved public services dramatically. He established day-care centers in each of Naga’s twenty-seven districts and added five new high schools. He built a public hospital for low-income citizens. He set up a dependable twenty-four-hour emergency service. He constructed a network of farm-to-market roads and provided clean and reliable water systems in Naga’s rural communities. He launched programs for youth, farmers, laborers, women, the elderly, and the handicapped — drawing thousands into civic action in the process. No civic deed was too small, he told the people, including the simple act of reporting a broken street lamp. He sometimes swept the streets himself.

Consistently, Robredo prioritized the needs of the poor. Through his Kaantabay sa Kauswagan (Partners in Development) program, over forty-five hundred once-homeless families moved to home-lots of their own. They became part of Naga’s revival. So did a revitalized city government. Applying techniques from business, Robredo raised performance, productivity, and morale among city employees. As a culture of excellence overtook the culture of mediocrity at City Hall, Naga’s businesses doubled and local revenues rose by 573 percent.

Reelected without opposition in 1995, Robredo urged the Naga City Council to enact a unique Empowerment Ordinance. This created a People’s Council to institutionalize the participation of NGOs and people’s organizations in all future municipal deliberations. When obliged by law to step down after his third term, the popular Robredo made no effort to entrench his family. His advice to would-be leaders? “You have to have credibility.”

In electing Jesse Robredo to receive the 2000 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, the board of trustees recognizes his giving credence to the promise of democracy by demonstrating that effective city management is compatible with yielding power to the people.

What struck me most during the interview was Mayor Robredo’s answer to our question about the legacy that he wanted to leave the people of Naga, and whether he feared that, as a last-term mayor, his achievements would be overturned by future city executives who might have different priorities and agenda items from those which he had promoted in Naga City since he first took office in 1988.

He said that the milestones they had achieved in Naga City were not his alone–they were achievements of the Nagueños themselves, who now had the power to work with their government because of the systems that had been institutionalized in the city. He said that if anyone tried to wrest power from the people and try to undo all the good work that they–the government and the people, together–had done over the past 20 years, then the people themselves would not allow it. They would not stand for a government that would trample over their rights, and they would make sure that whatever progress they had achieved over the past two decades would not go to waste. Mayor Robredo expressed his faith and belief that the people of Naga would remain vigilant and ensure that good, participatory governance would continue to rule over Naga even long after his term.

Why did the answer strike me? One reason was the mayor’s sincerity in his belief that his constituents are, first and foremost, not stupid. He knows that they had worked just as hard as his government had in ensuring a better life for themselves and their families. He relates that when a tax hike was being considered, residents and landowners even agreed to a tax hike in support of better social services. When citizens agree to a tax hike, it means that they know where their money is going.

Another reason was the mayor’s belief that participatory governance, because it had now empowered the people of Naga, will not end when his term does. Of course, there are risks that a city government with a drastically different agenda will alter Naga City’s course, but again, the people are not stupid. Having experienced their city’s transformation over the years, they will most likely vote for someone who can build on the city’s success. Perhaps, their participation in governance has also made Nagueños more mature than other segments of the electorate.

I admit to learning about Mayor Robredo’s accomplishments very late into my socio-political involvement, but now I am more eager to learn about the systems that have been established in Naga City as a result of his tenure. How much of a role does enabling technology truly empower people? What offline processes are essential to building a truly enabling environment? What management skills must one possess in order to make this happen? Is this kind of leadership replicable, and on a greater scale? Is this the kind of leadership that the Philippines needs? I don’t know the answers to these questions yet, but I will try to find out.

I suggest that you–believers and skeptics alike–try to do the same.

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*Want to know more? Read the PCIJ report entitled “People Power Thrives in Naga City”

**NEXT ON “PROFILES IN ‘OUT OF THE UNIVERSE’ LEADERSHIP”: Dr. Jaime Aristotle Alip of CARD-MRI

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