BOO CHANCO:  TOMMY  O  TRIES  TO  REINVENT  CITY  HALL

MANILA, NOVEMBER 23, 2007
(STAR) DEMAND AND SUPPLY By Boo Chanco - Tommy Osmeńa is not the type of person who falls into the stereotype of a run-of-the-mill politician. You either admire him for his unconventional way of looking at and doing things as well as for his guts. Or you hate him for exactly the same reasons. Tommy is passionate where most politicians are lukewarm… he is real where others are plastic. In the case of Tommy O, you know exactly where he is in an issue and what he thinks of you. He is very transparent… too transparent for his own good.

Tommy is unconventional in the way he views the problems of his city and of the country. He is the type of leader people will appreciate a whole lot more many years after he has faded from the scene. But while he is in action, he will always raffle feathers, take big risks and be a persistent pain in the ass for people he works with.

Tommy Osmeńa came to mind as I was reading a new compilation of case studies on leadership, strategy and ethics published by the Ateneo Graduate School of Business. Tommy was one of the case studies featured in the book entitled “Blue Way”. I imagine that Tommy landed as a case study because of his unorthodox leadership style. Academicians must be wondering if such a disruptive approach will work to break the hold of bad habits in our bureaucracy.

Tommy’s success as a public official is for many people, likely to still be debatable at this point. But he definitely gets an A for trying new ways of doing things. One of these new ways that this Ateneo case study featured is his program to attract the best and the brightest of our young college graduates to stay in the country and work for local government.

The idea’s conventional absurdity didn’t deter Tommy from launching his “cum laude” program. He strongly believed he can teach bright young minds to apply their academic competence in the real world. He put out ads that challenged cum laudes to summa cum laudes to join the “Mayor’s Management Team” and help him improve the delivery of services by Cebu City’s government.

Tommy felt it would be in the city’s best interest to be served by young, bright, idealistic, energetic and academically outstanding individuals… the type of achievement oriented people who would ordinarily shun government service today. ”These people have already been proven to excel in academics, but being in government service is another thing, and I can be in charge of that.”

Tommy’s program reminds me of a similar attempt of Dick Gordon to harness the services of bright young Pinoys when he headed the Subic Bay Metro Authority (SBMA) shortly after the Americans left the naval base in haste. Dick convinced a number of American Ivy League business graduate school degree holders to forego making a lot of money in the private sector and join him in trying to transform Subic. The program was good for so long as Dick was in Subic. The group disbanded when Dick was ousted from his position by then President Erap.

Anyway, Mayor Tommy’s program was rooted in his well known desire to change the culture at city hall and getting these bright young graduates was his way of fast tracking that goal. The mayor explains that he believes there is always a better way to do things. “There is corruption here, but it’s not at the top,” he has said. “There is corruption in city hall, I admit it, but every time I catch it, I whack it. Stupidity does not necessary mean termination, but dishonesty to me means termination, even if it’s just thirty pesos.”

Tommy’s resolve was tested when he fired the son of a political supporter for fixing a traffic ticket. When the father complained, Tommy explained to the father that he is put in a predicament because everyone knows what has happened and how he handles this case is an indicator of how serious he is about what he says.

“If I don’t fire your son, you will be happy but I will be unhappy because it will make it harder for me to manage city hall. If I fire your son, you will be unhappy but I’ll be happy. Don’t ask me to make a choice to be happy or unhappy because I’ll choose to be happy. Your son is fired. That’s how simply my mind works,” the mayor explained.

Tommy’s young cum laude program or the Mayor’s Management Team (MMT) started in April 2005. Because Tommy wouldn’t admit anyone in the program unless he or she graduated with a minimum of cum laude honors, all of them could have landed better paying jobs in the private sector. The first batch numbered 51 and the second batch had 30. I am told that close to 70 percent of them are still with Tommy at city hall today.

MMT’s are allowed to choose the area they will work on. They are then assigned special projects. They work with the department heads and staff before they submit a written report with their recommendations. Once approved, the MMT and the department head responsible for the area are responsible for implementation.

The Ateneo case study noted that some MMTs have found it a little difficult to adjust to the reality that they are no longer the smartest person they were in school where they were listened to and their ideas followed. Now they are just one of many smart people at work, and when they float an idea, it can be picked apart by others.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing with the bureaucracy. There were those, the case study noted, who displayed an attitude that says, “Who are these guys? Fresh graduates telling us how to do our work?” But when department heads show resistance, someone from the mayor’s office send out the word that the mayor is supporting the MMT. Once in a while the MMTs find themselves the target of office intrigue.

But the MMTs, divided into clusters of six, have been able to take a fresh look at City Hall procedures and immerse themselves in the actual work. They implemented reforms to smoothen operations and cut down opportunities for corruption.

Some of the assignments are as sensitive as assisting the Bids and Awards Committee, auditing tax declarations of machineries and buildings or they could be routine tasks at the general services office and accounting. Some other projects can be as exciting as institutionalizing and running the Cebu City Tourism Commission or working on the concerns of Mayor Tommy’s flagship project, the South Reclamation Project.

The fact that close to 70 percent of the MMTs are still with Tommy today proves that brain drain happens largely because our best and brightest haven’t been inspired and given the right challenge by a leader they can respect. Young people today are not enticed by financial considerations alone when they choose a job offer. They are also looking for meaning in the work they agree to do.

Mayor Tommy saw that and because he sounded idealistic and excitingly crazy enough to try unorthodox things, he was able to inspire bright young people to work with him in trying to reform the system. I don’t know if the MMTs will survive after Tommy leaves office, if the experience with the similar effort of Dick Gordon is any indicator. But even in Gordon’s case, some of those bright young graduates ended up in important positions in government and industry.

The way I see it, Mayor Tommy’s MMTs will go on with their careers in or out of government with their feet planted in the ground of reality. The difference is, they know that the environment may be difficult and corrupt but all is not lost unless those who are in a position to make a difference says so.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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