(Action for Economic Reforms has collaborated with the Department of Finance for more than 25 years, and one of those who made the partnership durable was the late former Finance Undersecretary Elsa Agustin. Ms. Agustin passed away recently. AER thus requested her former Finance colleague and mentee Lyonel Tanganco to write a tribute for Ms. Agustin.)
“The President is wrong!” was the last thing I expected to hear an Undersecretary (USec) say in a meeting with the Office of the President. This happened a few years ago, when Usec. Elsa Agustin and our team from the Department of Finance (DoF) met with the President’s office on a policy reform concerning government finances.
“Oh crap!” were the first words that came to mind. What Usec. Elsa said might not have been the wisest thing to say, I thought. We needed the support of the President and his office for our reform. I was also afraid. We were meeting Malacañang, after all! I kept quiet, though. I was only there to support my principal.
“Ma’am Elsa,” as we fondly call her, entered the DoF as an economist in 1991. I first met her in 2017 when she was already the Director of the Fiscal Policy and Planning Office, which was in charge of projecting macroeconomic figures and government revenues. She played an instrumental role in reforms, such as the TRAIN (Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion) Law that secured our government’s financial position and paved the way for inclusive economic growth.
Ma’am Elsa was petite and soft spoken. She had short hair and wore a dark blazer. We often saw her hands inside her pockets or clasping the lapels of her blazer, with her elbows pulled close to her waist. She would get cold, she said. She was smart and kind. A good listener, but also a straight shooter.
In 2019, she served as an Alternate Executive Director in the World Bank Headquarters in Washington DC. She came back to serve as an Undersecretary in the DoF amid the COVID-19 crisis. She led the team previously headed by then-Undersecretary Karl Chua before he was appointed Socioeconomic Secretary. It was during Ma’am Elsa’s time as Undersecretary that I had the privilege of serving directly under her.
Having worked in the government for three decades, she had every reason to be jaded, hopeless, or compromised, but our experience working with her showed us that she was anything but those. Despite her seniority and a 30-year bout with diabetes, she was the energy of our team.
In every policy consideration that we had to study despite tight deadlines, she would drive us to pursue and present the best options for the sake of the Filipino people. She would measure our proposals against principles of good governance and fiscal responsibility to ensure that hard-earned taxpayer money was not wasted. She repeatedly motivated us to aim higher and fight for the right policies, even if they were not popular or easy.
She worked hard, too. She personally studied all the projects assigned to her. Some weekends and late nights, I would find her cursor moving in a shared document — she was scrutinizing our presentations for the week when most of us young staff were already asleep.
Her experience and expertise in the work showed in every conversation we had with her. Yet, she was down to earth. We could talk to her about our professional dreams and our personal lives. One minute, we would talk about tax reform, and in the next, we would be talking about who liked whom in the office.
She never got mad at us. I asked her once why she was never angry, even if we made mistakes. She said that she believed she just had to remind us of the expectations and maybe guide us more in our work. There was no need to get angry. We were all adults. She trusted us to do the right thing, she said. Nevertheless, we were afraid of disappointing her and letting her down. Such was her integrity. It inspired us to be the best civil servants we could be.
Looking back to that meeting with the Office of the President, I now think that maybe she did what was right. Government agencies need people like her who, despite political pressure, will speak the truth and aim for the best policies for the Filipino people. Often, the job of a civil servant is to present hard truths to decision makers.
Before she passed away a few weeks ago due to complications from her decades-long battle with diabetes, I was able to write to her thanking her for her leadership, for her inspiration, and for three things that I learned from her. I am glad that I was able to do so. I now share with you these three lessons:
From her, I learned to see things simply. Our work in the DoF involved proposing changes in policies, sometimes requiring changes in legislation, with the goal of improving the lives of fellow Filipinos. Opponents or losers from reforms would muddle the picture, but the path to take — if supported by evidence — is often clear. The challenge for us civil servants is sticking to it.
From her, I learned to be brave. It is nerve-wracking to propose policies that may be unpopular, especially to powerful decision makers, but we must do so. I learned to draw courage from principles and evidence instead of fearing criticism.
From her, I learned to be kind and selfless. Ma’am Elsa’s leadership was one of honesty, transparency, and selflessness. Her giving instructions and her providing encouragement to us were not about her being the Undersecretary. She wanted us to do our work and do what was expected of us for the country. She reminded us that true leadership is not about us, but about serving the Filipino people.
Ma’am Elsa, you are an inspiration to all of us who have been a part of your DoF life. I am sorry that we did not have the chance to eat at the buffet place we often talked about going to. I am forever grateful for the time you took us under your wing and mentored us. Enjoy all the food and comforts of eternal life up there.
Lyonel Tanganco served as a director in the Department of Finance.