4 , 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 30 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK
Tuyan for Asiaweek.
RAISSA ESPINOSA-ROBLES Naga
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.
"I won't trade my principles, friends and family to rise up," says
the crusading mayor who brought democracy and transparency to city
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.
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.
Write to Asiaweek at firstname.lastname@example.org
edition's table of contents | Asiaweek.com
Scroll: More stories from Asiaweek, TIME and CNN
November 30, 2000