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No angels can be found

June 03, 2020 - Wednesday 4:06 AM by Atty. Jamil Matalam

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Why do we often see government planning failing or going wrong? In an interview, the economist Milton Friedman remarked that a government composed of angels as its officials can nowhere be found. Appointments in high government positions, sad it may seem but is true, is still highly influenced by political clout and accommodation. The appointments are not so much based on the level of expertise and skills of the person. Some appointees, if not most, are simply not that competent for the job.

The structure of bureaucratic offices in the country reinforces this class of appointments in the government. A clear case is the qualification of appointees for level of Directors and higher compared to the lower positions. Although it would be best to have highly qualified people holding these high offices, they are what we call coterminous appointments; at the bottom line, the essential requisite is only that you have the confidence of the appointing authority. Only need a President’s trust, or someone close to them. Compared this to the positions below the Director level, the Division Chief, for instance. The qualifications for such a position is quite high. A division chief must have, at least, a master’s degree, must have undergone several technical and supervisory training, and have a long job related experience to be appointed as such. Most of the time they know more about the technical aspect of the job than their bosses.

One may point out that between the higher positions and those that are lower, the former are not permanent positions and has no security of tenure. This point nowhere justifies appointment of the lesser qualified to higher offices, and more importantly the point here is not about comparing the benefits attached to a position. It is about trying to point out some reasons why we should not be too confident with government planning. High positions being coterminous with the appointing authority rather on mainly technical qualifications only helps erode that confidence in government planning.

Most of the time, not only in poor countries but in wealthy ones as well, government officials are not really competent for the task. They rely so much on their staff for the technical side of the work, who, more or less, also had the job because of clout; and most of the time not courageous enough to go against their bosses. In short, because less competent people are directing the planning, they are usually poor in quality. Hence, the government planning goes wrong.

But even assuming that they are highly qualified, it would not assure us that their planning would work at all. The good thing is that they can explain better why they have chosen such a plan over another. In that case, they have better chances of success in the planning. The reason mainly for this is because no complete information about the world is available to any individual. No matter how well the government plans the society, in terms of its economy and order, a problem, one way or the other, always props up. Society as a whole has too many networks, transactions, and other activities and cannot be captured by an individual, or a group of few people, as information to serve as the basis of their government planning. An individual no matter how good has epistemic limits. They cannot know everything, and hence failing in the decisions they take will always be a possibility. 

Take the case of the planned opening of public transportation during the easing up of the country’s COVID-19 related quarantine. I assume that it was well planned, simulations were done prior to the opening, but it still encountered problems. Things did not happen as simulated. Let us take another example, the car number coding scheme in Metro Manila. The goal supposedly was to lessen vehicles on the road, but instead we do not see significant reduction in the volume of vehicles on the road. In fact, we have experienced quite the reverse, an increase in the number of cars after its implementation. For a significant number of individuals the cost of buying one more car is worth it than taking public transport and the inconvenience it brings. A more recent example is the distribution of cash assistance under the special amelioration program. Many LGUs did not meet the deadline, some of the cash assistance did not reach the hands of intended recipients fully, if at all. 

So whether the governments are run by competent individuals, nothing assures us of great success. Nevertheless, we can not abandon the idea of advocating competent people to be appointed in high government positions because of this. In the end, we are better off with the competent ones in the government. There are no absolute certainties in this world; but we have to at least aspire for the possible best available government this real world can offer. What is important is not to avoid government planning at all but instead to avoid a rather dogmatic thinking that government planning will definitely work -- that government planning may save us all. And more importantly, we should be more forgiving in their failings and do what we can for ourselves, because as Milton Friedman pointed out, angels in the government can nowhere be found.