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Ellen Tuyan for Asiaweek.

Pride Restored

Jesse M. Robredo
Government Service
"I won't trade my principles, friends and family to rise up," says the crusading mayor who brought democracy and transparency to city hall

Does democracy mean good government? Not necessarily. Since People Power in 1986 did away with dictatorship in the Philippines, free elections have failed to wipe out clan control, patronage, corruption and plain incompetence. Politics has remained a dirty word — and many Filipinos have lost confidence in their leaders as a result. But there is hope. When Jesse M. Robredo became mayor of Naga, his hometown, the city had seriously deteriorated from its glory days as queen of the Bikol region southeast of Manila. The streets were jammed with traffic, syndicates operated out of control and unemployed squatters occupied unused property. Once classified by the government as a first-class city, Naga now languished with a third-class rating.

Robredo, a 29-year-old engineer when he took over city hall, changed all that. He had excelled as an executive with blue-chip conglomerate San Miguel but quit to head the Bicol River Basin Development Program in Naga. He wanted to give something back to the community. The chance came when he became interim mayor in 1988 and was elected to the job fulltime the following year. From the private sector he brought with him management principles such as merit-based hiring and promotion — a big change from the post-election tradition of jobs-for-the-boys. He awarded low-level clerical positions to those who had helped him win, but anything above that rank was strictly out of bounds.

That didn't mean Robredo was content with the status quo. "Everyone started with a clean slate, but one mistake, and they were out," he explains. He led by example, reporting to work on time and dressing casually to put employees and the public at ease. After a devastating typhoon, he took up a broom and swept the streets, to the delight of residents. "These are symbols that matter in politics," Robredo says. But he went beyond that. At San Miguel, where he had been in charge of distributing ice cream across the country, he learned that decentralization works as long as controls such as performance reviews and a feedback mechanism are in place. After a year assessing the capabilities of his team, Robredo started setting them targets. Complaints about garbage, for example, had to be dealt with in a day, or else citizens could take their beef directly to him. "We never demanded anything [of employees] that we ourselves didn't do," he says.

Perhaps Robredo's most valuable innovation was to introduce the Empowerment Ordinance, which authorizes citizens to become involved in city policies. Welfare organizations are entitled to sit in on city-hall committee meetings. Though they cannot vote, they are welcome to give their views. The scheme helped the mayor and his administration win public confidence. The importance of mutual trust is something Robredo says he learned from his father, Jose, who lost his eyesight at age 39 due to a hereditary retinal disease. Though he could easily have fooled his dad and gotten away with smoking or drinking when he was young, the younger Robredo never tried. "I had more respect for him than fear," he says. Despite his blindness, his father set up a fishing operation, designing his own boats and repairing engines. Jesse recalls reading aloud from a manual to help his father visualize a motor launch lay-out in his head.

Under Robredo's stewardship, Naga bounced back, recapturing its first-class rating in 1990. He served a decade as mayor — three terms in all — and retired in 1998. During his watch, malnutrition and child death rates fell, while literacy improved. Squatter families were given the opportunity to acquire land. City services improved and graft and corruption decreased. The U.N. recognized Robredo's administration for its excellence and for improving housing. In its 1999 review of Asia's best cities, Asiaweek named Naga as one of the most improved.

Jockin Arputham: International Understanding
Atmakusumah Astraatmadja:
Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communications Arts
Liang Congjie: Public Service

Aruna Roy: Community Leadership

When his term limit came up, Robredo could easily have done what so many Philippine politicians do — go on to the national legislature in Manila. Or he could have continued to wield de facto power in Naga through his wife, Maria Leonor, a lawyer, who was being encouraged by local powerbrokers to succeed her husband. She refused. And Robredo chose to take a two-year sabbatical to study at Harvard University. "I won't run for Congress yet since my children are still small," he explains. But he is considering a campaign in 2004, when his eldest daughter Jessica turns 16. He has two other girls, six-year-old Janine and newborn Jillian. In the meantime, Robredo is working with a welfare group that helps the poor. "I won't trade my principles, friends and family to rise up," he vows, adding that he is "not comfortable asking for favors." In its citation, the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation said it selected Robredo for this year's award for Government Service in recognition of the way he showed that "effective city management is compatible with yielding power to the people." In other words, Robredo proved that democratic government can indeed be good government.

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