WHEN this writer first joined the Cabinet under President Gloria Arroyo, few knew what he did or even what his position was. The Cabinet Secretary then was an obscure post, not worth the headlines now accorded new appointees to the post, like its last three holders: Jose Rene Almendras, Leoncio Evasco Jr., and now former congressman Karlo Nograles.
But even in the Arroyo years, the CabSec was already performing its key functions of planning and documenting Cabinet meetings, prepping agencies for the discussions, and monitoring major directives to national bodies through the Cabinet Secretariat, a unit within the Presidential Management Staff (PMS).
These functions must be strengthened even more today, as President Rodrigo Duterte gears up to address recent troubles in rice and drugs, and deliver on major initiatives, from Marawi reconstruction and Bangsamoro transition, to massive infrastructure and the shift to a federal form of government.
Quite simply, if CabSec Nograles doesn’t do his job well, neither will the Cabinet.
Obscure no more
The post wasn’t even deemed crucial under then President Benigno Aquino 3rd, who didn’t fill it for over two years of his administration, even though his mother, then President Corazon Aquino, created the Cabinet-level position three decades ago.
Only after key programs were lagging did the second President Aquino appoint CabSec Almendras, then energy secretary, in November 2012. Aquino also left the post vacant in the last four months of his rule, when Sec. Almendras took over the Department of Foreign Affairs.
But under Almendras and even more so under Sec. Evasco, the CabSec position gained more clout and prominence than ever. At one point, Almendras became a key troubleshooter, addressing among other issues the 2014 Manila port congestion.
Former rebel priest Evasco got even more work, supervising the National Food Authority as NFA Council chairman, as well as the housing agencies as acting chairman of the Housing and Urban Development Coordination Council (HUDCC).
His rice import tussles with NFA Administrator Jason Aquino eventually led to the surge in rice costs, as subsidized NFA rice ran out, allowing traders to jack up prices. That eventually prompted the return of NFA, along with the Philippine Coconut Authority and the Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority, to Department of Agriculture supervision.
Evasco also took charge of a Palace unit tasked with sectoral and grassroots dialogue and mobilization, while supervising poverty-alleviation agencies.
After transferring the agriculture-related agencies in September under Executive Order 62, President Duterte signed EO 67 just over a week ago, moving the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority and the Cooperative Development Authority under Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez.
The National Commission on Muslim Filipinos, the Philippine Commission on Women, and the National Youth Commission went under local government czar Eduardo Año, while the National Anti-Poverty Commission, the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, and the Presidential Commission on Urban Poor moved to the social welfare department.
Back to basics
Far from diminishing CabSec’s importance, refocusing the position on its main duties of Cabinet meetings and monitoring should enable Sec. Nograles and the Cabinet Secretariat to have greater impact on governance and national affairs.
As this writer did for seven years before becoming Civil Service Commission chairman in mid-2008, the CabSec should suggest and work out meeting agenda with the President, based on monitoring of national and international developments, and suggestions from the Cabinet.
As soon as meeting agenda are decided, the secretariat would not only advise agencies to prepare presentations. The CabSec would also preview the reports, to ensure that they address the concerns and issues of import to the President.
Too often one has seen Cabinet meeting presentations that got cut short for missing key policy issues. Invariably, they were made without CabSec advice, like an unfortunate Department of Education report stopped after two slides — right in front of media invited to witness the meeting.
Also crucial is the CabSec tasks of documenting meetings, issuing directives, and monitoring them. Clearly communicating instructions to implementing agencies is the first and indispensable step in getting things done exactly as the President and the Cabinet have decided.
Agencies and their heads may have their own agenda, and could deviate from agreed action points if these are not properly conveyed. And some might even want directives altered from what were discussed, like one secretary who asked that a P6-million allocation be doubled in the meeting minutes and instructions (this writer did not do it).
Often most crucial in implementation, however, is the CabSec’s monitoring function. Armed with on-the-ground field monitoring by PMS staff nationwide, the Cabinet Secretary should meet regularly with implementing agencies to get updates on directives, and address delays and other problems.
This may require elevating stubborn or contentious issues to the President and the Cabinet for resolution. In President Arroyo’s time, it helped that she wanted regular directives updates during weekly or fortnightly Cabinet meetings.
Only in this way will directives move, and obstacles be cleared before they gravely or even totally undermine major initiatives and cause mission failure and national distress.
Plainly, if there had been constant and proper monitoring of, say, the NFA rice security measures and the Marawi rebuilding, the rice crisis might have been prevented, and postwar rehabilitation issues would have been acted upon months ago. Ditto other initiatives delayed or derailed in this and past administrations.
A thankless job
Relaying clearly presidential instructions for Cabinet reports and directives, vetting agency presentations to ensure issue focus, and monitoring and pointing out problems in implementation — that job description would not make the Cabinet Secretary the most popular among his peers and their agencies.
Nor is the post a good platform for media exposure and grandstanding, since the CabSec cannot give scoops about what will be or were discussed in meetings, nor the problems he unearths in monitoring directives.
But someone has to do it and well if the President, the Cabinet, and the government are to respond promptly and properly to national concerns, and implement initiatives without great delays and defects.
Best of luck, CabSec Karlo.