Headless Commissions

(published 23 February 2015, MST)

The Aquino administration has been so busy firefighting these days and the nation has been so preoccupied watching it. Often we forget that there are other areas in governance that must be addressed and for which this leadership must be held accountable.
There is a vacuum in government these days and nothing is being done about it. It’s been called a “silent emergency” by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism—but no solutions have been effected so far.
Any law student would know that alongside the three branches of government—the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judiciary—there are three other commissions identified in the Constitution. These are the Commission on Audit, the Commission on Elections and the Civil Service Commission.
Article IX of the 1987 Constitution spells out the qualifications of these commissions’ officials and the circumstances under which they may be appointed. 
As of today, however, all three commissions are all at the same time leaderless, their chairmen having retired in recent weeks.
Former COA Chairperson Maria Gracia Pulido Tan, Comelec chairman Sixto Brillantes,Jr. and CSC Commissioner Francisco Duque have all stepped down.
Their records, and the people’s perception of them, are mixed.
Pulido Tan will be remembered for leading the COA at a time when the people became more knowledgeable of its role in good governance. Under her watch we came to know how the Priority Development Assistance Fund had been abused and misused for many years by lawmakers and their conduits in the executive branch as well as the non-government organizations set up precisely for the purpose of lending the appearance of legitimacy to the scheme.
She also led the COA as it opened up to citizens who wanted to get more involved in the audit process, specifically through the Citizen Participatory Audit Project.
Meanwhile, former election lawyer Brillantes left 15 months before the conduct of the next national and local elections. The commission’s latest deal with Smartmatic, which provided the precinct count optical scan machines used in previous elections, for the repair of these same machines just a few days after his retirement has put the Comelec under a cloud of doubt.
Several groups are now questioning the various decisions of the Brillantes-led commission. Just before he left, Brillantes expressed his wish that Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, also a former election lawyer, succeed him.
Meanwhile, Duque was one of the few officials from the Gloria Arroyo administration who were not replaced when the PNoy government took over in June 2010. While he was supposed to serve at the CSC until 2017,Duque seems to have chosen to step down earlier following a Supreme Court decision voiding Arroyo’s executive order that made him an ex-officio director or trustee of various other agencies concurrent to being CSC chairman, according to the PCIJ.
Whatever the reasons and varying perceptions of the three officials who have stepped down are, the fact remains that three of the country’s vital institutions are now leaderless, and consequently, directionless. Other officials and employees, despite their good intentions and dedication, still do not have anybody from which to take their cue.
The COA is crucial in the continuing fight against corruption and in the pursuit of accountability among public officials. The next COA leader should ideally have no actual or potential conflict of interest, such that the commission can have a free hand in doing its job without protecting or singling out anybody.
The Comelec is the guardian of the people’s will. The ideal appointee must not be a politician, nor somebody with long and cozy associations with politicians that might compromise his or her independence. The next head of the commission must not allow himself or herself to be used to subvert the election process to advance the agenda of some officials both in the national and local sphere. After all, elections are the ultimate expression of democracy.
Finally, the CSC is the body that ensures that government officials at any level remain true to their sworn duty to put the nation’s interest above their own. This is what public service is truly all about.
At this crucial stage in our nation’s life, we cannot afford to have these vacancies for much longer. If the President is taking his time because he wants to ensure that he appoint officials with both eminent qualifications and unassailable integrity, then well and good. Perhaps his advisers could remind him that caution has to be balanced with swift, decisive action, because the consequences of having leaderless commissions may be bigger than he would imagine.
But if no decision is being made right now, weeks after these crucial posts were vacated, because the President thinks the status quo is manageable, that the situation is not important, or is torn on whom to appoint because of personal loyalties to the various contenders, then the vacuum reflects poor leadership all the way up to Malacanang. 
The process is still long. After he appointment, there will be scrutiny by the Commission on Appointments. There will be time for the public to react, There will be a learning curve. All of these limit the already narrow window for the next appointee to get some real work done.
(While he’s at it, perhaps Mr. Aquino could also be prevailed upon to decide who the next chief of the Philippine National Police would be -- someone who has enough time and enough gumption to lead an embattled organization.)
We know the President is putting out a lot of fires, and he is in perhaps the most challenging test of his presidency if he even realizes it. But this is never an excuse for lethargy.  He should remove the “re” in “react”.
He can start by appointing people to head these commissions. ASAP.