The risk in being safe

It pains me to see public officials prefer to be safe and conservative in the way they think and express themselves, rather than be glowing with radioactive ideas that challenge the norm in a creative way.

But that is what government has turned into, a fumbling giant too big to hold, too boring to listen to, and yes, too full of itself.

Last week, I attended a long, long meeting to discuss a government agency’s draft implementing rules and regulations, going through it, provision by provision, juxtaposed with what was actually written in the new law.

My colleagues in civil society probed, bantered, badgered, and offered bold recommendations. The bureaucrats in the room nodded their heads, interjected a few points and jotted down notes. I felt deprived. I wished they fed us ice cream. That, at least, would have given the participants a semblance of “give and take.”

Sometimes, when government decides to play it extremely safe, people die in the process.

The problem besetting 11,000 stranded Filipino workers in Saudi Arabia did not happen overnight. In March 2015, some of these workers experienced a delay in monthly pay. Soon, the “some” became “many,” and for more than a year, no one got paid at all.

The Philippine Embassy and Philippine Consulate-General knew about the rising tide of unpaid workers in Saudi Arabia. Their home offices knew this, too. The Secretaries of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Department of Labor and Employment received updates from the field and the media. It took the new administration less than a week to address the needs of the stranded workers that have been lingering in search for bold solutions for nearly two years.

There was really no one in these two departments at that time, willing to stick his or her neck out in behalf of our troubled OFWs.

Early this year, a Filipino welder hanged himself. A few weeks ago, another worker died of a stroke. They never got paid. They couldn’t leave. And so, they departed in a different way.

I do hope that President Duterte shakes up our bureaucracy. I would rather hear a government official curse out of passion and anger and grief, rather then read sanitized statements written by a staff that has been stripped clean of emotion.

Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III, who visited Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, last Friday, was surprised at how bad things were inside the work camps of Saudi Oger Ltd, a problematic construction firm in Saudi Arabia. He couldn’t believe that the workers’ problems have remained unresolved for that long. At his behest, the labor department is now talking to other agencies to put together a humanitarian assistance package for every stranded OFW and his or her family.

The traditional meaning of safety in government is to do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing extraordinary. One gets paid, anyway. Mediocrity is survival.

I’d rather know about Cabinet meetings where real people laugh while eating their nth “maruya” of the day. I have been in too many government meetings where people think alike, and the only glimmer of passion is when one breaks open a packet of creamer beside a cup of black coffee.

The risk is when the burning passion for change that has awaken us all up dissipates in time because the people around the President prefer to build walls to keep him safe and error-free.

You will read that in the language. You will see it in the visuals. When public officials no longer laugh because they are too busy analyzing the joke. When presidential appointees turn against each other because the President’s trust ratings appear to be going down. When too much is revealed through social media because an elite few in government hate traveling via economy class.

How odd in that we needed the very first septuagenarian President to remind us about the ecstasy of change, and the authenticity of emotions that accompany meaningful public policy. That it is all right for people in government to look for and harness passion in their work.

If we hope to run apace with our neighbors, then our leaders would have to reboot their leadership and management styles, and realize that the brilliance we seek would be in the actions they take. Talk is cheap. Change means action. In this new paradigm shift, playing it safe means risking your job, because there’s no chance you’d fit under the new administration. After all, change is here.


Manila Times Link: Policy Wink

Author: Susan Ople

Susan "Toots" Ople is the President of the Blas F. Ople Policy and Training Institute. She's an OFW and labor advocate based in the Philippines.

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