Department of Something or the other

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    ‘Underscoring the need for the creation of a department may not be the best
    reaction when people are still stranded on their roof tops, shouting for rescue.’

    SEEMS like after every devastating storm or calamity rolls in, there’s always talk of creating a department to address the concern specifically. While it’s good to explore other avenues to see how government as a whole can better respond to emergency situations, it’s also good to take stock of what is already in place. While a bill proposing the creation of a department might look good on the resume of a legislator, it would make little or no sense to add another layer of bureaucratic process to situations that need quick responses. As a former boss of mine was always quick to remind his team, “the right identification of the problem leads to the right solution.” So in this case, what is the problem, really?

    Take for example Typhoon Ulysses, and the horrific tragedy it inflicted in Rizal, Marikina, Cagayan, Isabela, Pampanga, and many other areas. It was clear that the local government units and their constituents were not adequately warned about the strength of the typhoon, with the added complication of flood waters rising quickly due to the dams releasing water.

    Right now, it is still a he-said-she-said situation, with dam authorities saying that they warned affected LGUs about the scheduled release of water, with most local chief executives saying otherwise. A copy of a supposed memo from a mid-level bureaucrat to the Isabela LGU floated around on social media over the weekend.

    Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the said memo is authentic, and that it has been sent to the LGU. Given how bureaucracies tend to move, it is highly likely that the said memo was left unattended in someone’s inbox, or perhaps sent to a person who may or may not have been in a position to do something about the information. I was very surprised at Interior Secretary Eduardo Año’s proposal to have the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council approve the release of water from dams in calamity situations. Isn’t this something that should have already been discussed during the NDRRMC meetings? Isn’t that part of the reason why the Department of Energy sits as a member of NDRRMC, so it can instruct the dam authorities (through the National Power Corporation) about coordinated releases?

    On the other hand, the DILG is there so it can have the information about coordinated releases and relay that directly to the LGUs affected. Yes, in this day and age, that means making a good old-fashioned phone call to mayors and governors – this is still the fastest way to make sure that the local chief executive is fully informed of what is coming, so they can move to preposition relief goods and assets, not to mention mobilizing the barangay officials (in tandem with the PNP in their area) to conduct pre-emptive evacuation.

    Underscoring the need for the creation of a department may not be the best reaction when people are still stranded on their roof tops, shouting for rescue. Telling calamity victims currently stuck in waist-deep flood water and pleading to be rescued that they did not heed government warnings is also not the most stellar (not to mention, compassionate) response that we should be hearing from our public servants.

    Finally, there is a saying that “offices are only as good as the incumbent,” referring to the truth that any office or the power that it holds is only as good as the abilities of the person exercising that power. At the hands of a competent and well-meaning public servant, even a small office with a limited budget can help by leaps and bounds (see the case of the Office of the Vice President, with its relatively small budget but relentless drive, also fondly called “the Little Office That Could.”) Conversely, an office with a massive budget and thousands of personnel at its disposal, at the hands of an incumbent – who cannot be bothered to respond or move when needed – is just a sad waste of our taxes.