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Frontline Leadership: 5 local execs show how

MANILA, Philippines -- The president of Ateneo de Manila University, Fr. Bienvenido Nebres, SJ, ended his remarks at a book launch on a thought-provoking note on national leadership.

“I look forward to the future when the next President of the Philippines does not come from the Senate but from [the ranks of] mayors or governors,” Nebres said, eliciting cheers from the other guests at Wednesday’s dinner program for “Frontline Leadership,” a book project of the Ateneo School of Government that was backed by the German foundation Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.

“I do hope that a next generation of leaders will emerge and see local leadership as the wave of the future,” he said.

“Frontline Leadership” features the stories of five local chief executives as examples of “how things get done” at the grass roots, away from Manila-centric politics. It offers hope for reform and renewal in Philippine government, not in the lofty national agencies, but in the low-key efforts and rolled-up sleeves of town and city leaders.

Written by several authors, the book recounts the performances of four former local officials -- including an unnamed female governor in the Visayas -- and one incumbent.

Those named are Naga Mayor and Ramon Magsaysay awardee Jesse Robredo, former San Fernando, La Union Mayor Mary Jane Ortega, former Bulacan Gov. Josie de la Cruz, and former Surigao del Norte Gov. Robert Lyndon Barbers.

Each subject has a chapter discussing their rise in politics, their accomplishments and toughest challenges, and even the criticisms leveled at them. Ortega and Barbers, for example, had earned brickbats for their “dynastic” family background, De la Cruz for her perceived penchant for foreign travels, and Robredo for his “stinginess” as a gift-giver at weddings, baptisms, fiestas, etc.

No halos

The book does not put a halo over the heads of the featured leaders, but rather showcases the concrete results of their efforts and their varying administrative styles.

“These are stories of resourceful officials who have endeavored to soar ahead even when they hovered over a sea of troubles in politics and personal life,” its blurb reads.

Dr. Angelita Gregorio-Medel, project director, added in an interview: “They make compromises, but within limits that allow them to remain true to their beliefs and principles, their non-negotiables.”

Robredo, now on his sixth term as mayor, is credited with “transforming [his] once quiet, nondescript small city into the bustling urban center that sets Naga City apart from the rest of Bicolandia.”

Naga’s economy has grown so steadily under his watch that its average household income has risen 42 percent more than the national average and 126 percent higher than the Bicol average, the book notes.

The city’s fiscal prudence and bureaucratic efficiency have enabled it to surpass “longtime rival” Legazpi City in terms of investments: It now has about 5,000 business establishments, compared to the more than 2,000 in Legazpi.

Naga’s telephone per household ratio of 1:1 is now even higher than Metro Manila’s current ratio of 1:3.

Highs and lows

The Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry has also cited Naga as the country’s Most Business-Friendly City for 2002, 2003 and 2005, elevating it to the Hall of Fame.

During Ortega’s three terms as mayor, San Fernando City (SFC) was adjudged No. 1 in the Asian Institute of Management’s list of “Competitive [Small] Cities.”

The book says in part: “Adult literacy is high. There is a large selection of higher learning institutions. Infant mortality is low and incidence of theft is low.

“Tourism [has] invigorated economic activity, with the Botanical Garden, Bacsil Bridge and the like as main tourist spots. SFC is noted for its excellent communication facilities.”

According to the city government website, SFC had achieved, as early as 2003, a 95-percent employment rate, 88-percent household access to piped water and 91.8-percent household access to electricity.

For Bulacan, the book particularly notes “a source of pride” for then Governor De la Cruz in the field of peace and order.

During her watch, the province was said to have achieved one of the country’s lowest crime rates at 7.08 incidents per population of 100,000.

In 2005, the city government’s anti-illegal gambling drive led to 165 arrests and the filing of 95 cases. That same year 1,178 drug pushers and users were arrested and some P1.7 million worth of drugs was confiscated.


The chapter on Barbers dwells candidly on his disciplinary, three-strikes-you’re-out approach.

“When he assumed office, Barbers immediately earned the moniker ‘Hitler’ or ‘estrikto,’” the book reads. “His first term was particularly stormy … a kind of love-hate affair with the heads of the line agencies as well as the rank-and-file in the various units.”

It soon became clear, especially among his closest staff, that certain behaviors were “unacceptable” to Barbers, who had early on declared that he would run the capitol with a “corporate attitude” and not with the laxity and indulgence of a traditional politician.

It was also observed how it was “difficult” for the US-educated Barbers “to adjust to the so-called Filipino time, used as he was to being on the dot.”

In his office he kept a “strike board,” a kind of scoreboard or checklist to keep track of his staff’s “tardiness, absences and mistakes.”

4 rules

In line with that chart was his “Four Rules of the Provincial Governor’s Office.”

Rule 1 read: “Do not give the Governor problems without solutions.”

Rule 2: “All instructions from the Governor should be followed unless it will damage the personality and image of the concerned staff.”

Rule 3 was about Barbers’ three-strikes policy on tardiness, absences and mistakes: “One is enough. Two is too much. Three cannot be -- you’re out.”

Rule 4, the “General Rule,” governs all others: “The Governor is always right. If the Governor is wrong, please refer to [the previous line].”

Those who disobeyed the rules were “sent on ’exile’ to hardship postings, like the provincial jail or one of the islands. In most cases, they learn,” the book quotes Barbers as saying.

The then governor also claimed: “I refuse invitations to crown local [beauty pageant] queens. I don’t like it when women are promoted like commodities, especially when people are looking forward to one thing -- the bikini swimsuit portion.”


The fifth subject of the book, the anonymous local executive from the Visayas, is described as someone who has retired from politics, for health reasons.

(This former governor was not named because the protocol to obtain her approval of the final text was not completed, according to Ateneo’s academic program manager, Dr. Dennis Gonzalez.)

The book takes particular interest in the ways by which she discharged her duties. It notes, for instance, that she handed out checks to her town or barangay leaders only during public functions -- like fiestas -- to ensure many “witnesses.”

She was apparently so meticulous as a “micro-manager” that she corrected the grammar and syntax of her staff’s paperwork, and even had a say on the color of the tablecloth used in functions.

Known for her “hands-on” mindset, she seldom relied on field reports to be updated on the status of public works projects. She herself visited the work sites and covered “85 percent” of a town doing so.

And returning from each trip, she astonished her staff with her “prodigious memory” of the people she had met. Without benefit of notes, she could recall the names of the pregnant women, or that of a constituent whose mother had fallen ill, or the color of a grandmother’s dress on a particular day.

Circles of consensus

In his remarks, Nebres observed that when the Ateneo School of Government was set up 10 years ago, “we especially decided that we would focus on local government, because we believe reform in the Philippines is best achieved through local governments.”

When mayors begin to take charge of public schools rather than work through the Department of Education, for instance, “things begin to move,” he said.

“I always get into arguments as to why [we didn’t] also look into national government,” Nebres said. To this query he would often say: ’If you have [worked around the Philippines], you would realize how fragmented the country is because of language and geography.’”

Added Nebres: “Circles of consensus are very difficult to achieve on the national level. You are more likely to achieve circles of consensus and circles of trust -- which are essential to governance -- on the local level. And these are very essential if you are going to get things done.

“The mayors and governors [featured in the book] got things done, even if sometimes not everybody was happy with it. But I hope in the end people recognize it and say that, OK, there was a price to be paid, but everybody was better off.”


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