Sunday, December 07, 2003

Problem Areas in the National Food Authority

As I bring to a close my one year stint as adviser to National Food Authority Administrator Arthur C. Yap, there are a few thoughts that need to be collected in writing for whatever its worth. After all, as NVM Gonzalez National Artist for Literature used to say, even a story about tittilating men's sexual fantasies has its own crazy social relevance.

I have to admit that the problems of the agency make it almost beyond redemption. I say almost because there is a final prescription to the problem -- abolition. But assuming this is not an acceptable solution, I have here a checklist of problems in the agency that I think represents, more or less, the problems of the entire bureauracy.

1. Balancing the budget and the expenses

Originally envisioned as a price equalizer in the grains market, the NFA's chief function is to ensure two things: 1) there is rice available for the public at any point in time 2) the price of rice is affordable to most Filipinos. The NFA is able to meet its objective, to put it in simple terms, by buying or importing rice and selling it at a loss -- i.e., rice imported at a landed cost of PHP 16 per kilo is sold at PHP 13. Why is this being done? It's because there is no other way of doing it. If NFA buys and sells rice at cost, then the existence of the agency is not necessary. If the NFA tries to make a profit on the trade, then it shouldn't be a government agency. What is the cost of this exercise? PHP 26 billion debts (and growing by the billions) guaranteed by the Government. Now don't be outraged yet. This fuzzy economics concepted in the martial law era is the primary reason why we have never gotten into a rice crisis in the last 30 years.

2. Dealing with procurement syndicates

Being a nationwide agency with about 9,000 employees, the agency naturally procures goods and services to achieve its mandate. The importation of rice, for example, is one of it's biggest ticket items. Rumors have it that past administrations who negotiated importation contracts got commissions from international rice suppliers -- something like 15 USD per ton of rice. That's BIG money. A late senator once financed a winning election campaign through this scheme. (During Arthur Yap's time in the NFA, all rice importations were bidded out on orders of the President to eliminate this commission racket.) Many service providers of the agency have been able to perpetuate themselves in the business by cornering contracts with the agency at scandalous prices. The agency's hands are often tied because the web of these syndicates includes Regional Trial Court judges who dish out injunctions against the agency to prevent it from terminating these scandalous contracts. One Regional Trial Court judge has in fact managed to land cases in his sala and issue two injunctions on separate contracts against the agency on the flimsiest most outrageous grounds.

3. Dealing with militant underpaid government workers

How does one pacify an underpaid work force when they start holding rallys and issuing out white papers?We recognize their grievance for more benefits and bigger pay but we also have have the Salary Standardization Law and the National Budget to deal with. Really, insisting on fiscal discipline when it comes to workers' salaries and benefits is like shooting yourself in the head.

4. Dealing with the noisy politicos in Congress

Try just once to deny a request from a congressman and you can be sure to spend your office hours in a congressional inquiry in aid of legislation and extortion. These congressmen are rabid. They stalk you for all sorts of favors. If you happen to find yourself in a situation where you can't deliver, you might as well go back to the private sector.

On top of the above problems, these is still the problem of managing the office work. An executive official in government signs hundreds of contracts and thousands of letters a year. He does this while juggling time for thousands of hours spent on meetings, trips and conferences and making and receiving thousands of phonecalls and probably millions of text messages. How do you make sure a wayward comma in a contract is proofread and corrected before it costs the government millions of pesos? How do you make sure a letter from a complaining citizen is acted upon before the lapse of the fifteen day period as mandated by law? How do you make sure you are just in time for that diplomatic meeting from the officials from Katmandu? What about the text message from the wife? Believe you me, it takes a superman to attend to all of these.

Now, assume for the moment that I was talking about the Presidency and not just the National Food Authority. I guess mathematically this can be done by putting an exponent to the 10th power in each of these problem areas.

I don't know why anybody will like to be in government. It's a thankless job. Most of all it is very, very, very, very, very, very, very T - O - U - G - H.

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