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Now that the elections are over and new senators and local government officials are going to assume office, can we the citizenry expect the “promising” men and women who courted us for our votes and promised a Utopian government to please, please, puleezze make good on some of those promises?

No, we don’t expect you to fulfill all or even most of your promises. We know that many — most — of those promises were B.S., but that’s the way politics works. What we would like to appeal to you is to provide one or two proofs of reform.

Well, okay, even just one.

Yes sir, yes ma’am, just ONE PROOF that you folks are serious about being of service to the people (while you go about “recovering” your campaign expenses plus the usual ROI or return on investment).

We would like you to do something about the dozens of signatures, initials, notations, endorsements, confirmations and counter-approvals required just to get some service from the government.

Expectedly, the usual “Crusaders for Good Government” will focus on high-profile issues like gambling, drug dealing, smuggling and big-time influence peddling because these are the kind that land in the papers and generate TV interviews. They pay little attention to the “autographs” because the matter is not considered “serious enough” to give priority to.

The fact is that those “autographs” are among the main vehicles for graft and corruption in the civil service. I’ve been writing about these blasted signatures for years and the only time a plan was ever announced that something would be done about them, it turned out to be inadequate, it was actually funny.

Newly installed President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who had displaced President Joseph “Erap” Estrada (for corruption, remember?), was apparently aware of the profit generating magic of signatures and initials on government application forms. She also appeared to be aware of the potential for red tape and the undue burden that too many “approvals” and “endorsements” were being inflicted on the citizenry.

She obviously knew that ordinary folks had to pay for each blasted signature. And not just one signature but many. And if they didn’t pay, forms and papers had a way of getting lost or ending up at the bottom of a pile.

It’s a bribery-extortion racket, that’s what it is.

Arroyo, having been involved in politics since she was knee-high, must also have been aware that there was no use complaining about the red tape and the bribery-extortion rackets because, likely as not, the upper-level person with whom the complaint would be filed was in on the action. And the one above him, too.

In her first State of the Nation Address, the newly-minted “redeemer” of an unspeakably graft-ridden Estrada administration vowed that she would cut red tape in government, making a specific reference to the issuance of housing permits. According to her, the processing of housing permits required 188 signatories. She then vowed to reduce that to “only 45.”

45 SIGNATURES???!!!! BAKIIIT???!!! But then 45 is a dramatic reduction from 188, hindi iba???

At any rate, how did Arroyo fare on this promise, among many promises she made in her SONA? Months later, they were “still working on it.”

According to reports from the palace, Arroyo had issued Executive Order No. 45 concerning “the issuance of housing-related certifications, clearances and permits and imposing sanctions for failure to observe the same.” The reports added that getting this Executive Order off the ground required consultations among government agencies. Naturally, that would take a while.

With the Executive Order released, an Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) had been drafted. That was reportedly still being studied by the legal eagles in Malacañang. Naturally, that would also take a while. It would then be submitted to Congress for action. Of course, that, too, would take a while.

We lost track of the progress of that “major anti-corruption initiative” because the Arroyo government got embroiled in too many cases of bigtime corruption such that the “small matter” of signatures got snowed under.

If it’s any consolation to corruption-weary citizens, “play for pay,” which is what these approvals are called in other countries, is common and apparently continues to fester in spite of the fact that a lot of officials are aware of it.

In a story in the Washington Post, a high government official talked about the problem of corruption in public office: “Corrupt and overlapping bureaucracy is choking the growth of small business.”

Sounds familiar? The story continued:

“He laid the blame squarely on the government — especially on permit-givers, inspectors and regulators ‘who feed off small business at every stage of its development’ and who limit the growth of businesses by ‘constant extortions.’”

This story, written by Sharon LaFraniere was about present-day Russia under President Vladimir Putin. According to the piece, Putin’s “biggest challenge” will be “to alter the culture of corruption.”

Apparently, in Russia, “most small and medium-size businesses pay bribes in one form or another.”

Big business has the “political muscle to cut through smothering state bureaucracy” but small business owners are at the mercy of the bribe-takers and extortionists.

And here’s something that could well have been part of the first State of the Nation Address of Arroyo: “Putin’s economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, recently held up a chart on national television depicting the more than 500 steps that are legally required to start a business. Hundreds more agencies then regulate almost every aspect of business life, he said. Each step in the bureaucratic chain presents an opportunity to extract a fee, a gift or a gratuity from a business owner whose existence depends on government approval.”

The Washington Post story added:

“‘The president has sent a signal that the attitude of the government is changing,’ (Alexander) Ioffe (of the Russian Entrepreneurial Organizations Union) said. ‘But what lies ahead will be very difficult, very painstaking work because it will mean depriving officials who are financially doing pretty well.’”

THERE is where the problem lies.

As in Russia, cutting the red tape and reducing the number of autographs in this and future Philippine administrations will mean “depriving officials who are financially doing pretty well.”

Yes, indeed. It will mean depriving politicians, bureaucrats and even-lowly government clerks of a major source of income — a prospect that no one relishes, particularly those who have to survive on measly civil service wages.

If the newly-elected senators and local officials would like to provide proof of reform, this is where they should start.


Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.