The Long View: The Little President


The little president

This is what executive secretaries have been called ever since the very first one, Jorge Vargas: it is both an apt description and criticism of a necessary function in any administration.

Every president needs someone who can keep the paperwork in order, while remaining loyal. Vargas seems to have accomplished this by preparing a daily morning checklist with two columns: administrative decisions for ratification, and political questions which only the president could decide. There is a difference between the two, and trouble erupts in paradise when presidents begin to suspect they are not being fully informed of either. Ferdinand Marcos abolished the position in 1975 when Alex Melchor became too powerful.

Not every executive secretary has been a little president: some lost out to other officials as they ended up overshadowed by other members of the Cabinet. For example, Ronaldo Zamora, perhaps one of the best-prepared executive secretaries, lost out in influence to Lenny de Jesus who headed the Presidential Management Staff during the Estrada presidency.

Three things are required to amass, retain and expand power within an administration: a written mandate for your office; access to the principal; and constant vigilance in protecting your turf, combined with the ability to use the first two to fend off all comers. Here, public prominence is unimportant, and can even be counterproductive.

A case in point was the career of Joseph Stalin, who was tasked by Vladimir Lenin to keep the paperwork moving; in the process he amassed enormous power, turning what was supposed to be the position of chief clerk (general secretary) of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union into the paramount leadership of the movement. Quiet, methodical, and indispensable, Stalin ensured all decisions went through him and amassed dossiers on all possible rivals.

Lenin only realized this had become dangerous when he was on his deathbed. He left a letter to the Politburo warning them of what had happened. Stalin trumped all his rivals by swiftly organizing Lenin’s funeral, using ceremonial and logistics to portray himself as the only bona fide heir to Lenin’s greatness, and then proceeded to purge the party. What Stalin did even had a name: bureaucratic centralism.

In the traditional pecking order, Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea may be first among equals, formally-speaking. But he is not the little president. The real power is in the hands of two other people.

The first is Bong Go, who combines in his person the previous posts of special assistant to the President, appointments secretary, and head of the Presidential Management Staff (PMS). This in itself is a combination of three internally-powerful positions because of access to the principal.

The special assistant to the President heads the private office of the President, handling both personal matters and, most crucial of all, the flow of paperwork to the principal; the appointments secretary is the gatekeeper for appointments and appearances, the PMS takes charge of briefings and logistics for the principal.

The second, and central, figure is Leoncio Evasco Jr., the Cabinet secretary. This was itself a position formerly merged with the PMS, but separated in 2012 to serve as coordinator of government projects within the Cabinet.

Executive Order No. 1 placed under Evasco 12 government agencies covering basic sectors and the delivery of services to them—cooperatives, housing, urban poor, indigenous peoples, Muslims, women, youth, food, coconut industry, and vocational education. Executive Order No. 9 further beefed up the Cabinet secretary’s office, giving it the Public Concerns Office of the PMS, and creating two agencies: the Office of Participatory Governance (OPG) which aims to “promote active citizenship,” and Strategic Action and Response (STAR) Office to nudge government agencies to respond to the public.

These mandates, as we shall see, ensure that Evasco is poised to take charge of two vital efforts of the administration: the reorganization of the entire executive department, and the creation of a mass movement to supplant traditional political parties.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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