The strategic importance of sub-cabinet appointments (2023)

First word

RECENT events have unraveled two failings in the staffing of the Ferdinand Marcos Jr. administration.

First, the failure to appoint an officer to superintend the personnel system of the new administration — a voice who could explain to the media and the public the government's personnel recruitment process and appointments.

Second, the poor performance of sub-cabinet appointments in the various departments and commissions in the executive branch.

These shortcomings are striking because it was to produce a good personnel system that the government budgets for a presidential transition process designed to produce a systematic and effective personnel recruitment system and a high quality of appointees by the president.

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Because of these failings, there is today plenty of finger-pointing in the administration and much criticism in the media. Some point their fingers at the first lady, Liza Araneta-Marcos, because of her alleged interference and use of her influence in the President's decisions on appointments.

Management of personnel system

It is advisable for a new president to hire or designate someone from his staff or inner circle to run the personnel operation and recruitment system in staffing the new administration.

This is a must because the transition from one administration to a new one is a complex task. A staggering number of appointments have to be made. The president's cabinet, which will be vital in the process, will have to be formed from the best and brightest available talent.

While in England and France, with their parliamentary governments, a newly elected government may change 50 to 500 appointees, the United States and the Philippines have to fill some 4,000 positions to staff their governments. The volume of applicants for the positions will be even greater, and sorting them out will require skillful screening and review.

There are career positions whose occupants are protected by law. There are positions the new administration can fill.

In the US, the House committee on the civil service publishes a list of policy and supporting positions that is known as the "plum book" because it is plum-colored, and it lists political plums that are available to the incoming administration to fill. It lists by agency, each administration incumbent by name, position and salary. It identifies whose positions a new administration can fill, and the name of political appointees who must leave.

Without this plum system, the Philippine government must face political appointees who would resist leaving office.

Even more formidable than the sheer number of positions that must be filled is the volume of demands that pour into the administration after the election. There is no quality control on this flood of applicants, and presidents need to recruit their administrations from a much broader pool than this self-selected lot. No one person can handle this volume.

James Pfiffner, the author of The Strategic Presidency, the authoritative book on the presidential transition, has written:

"The importance of the timeliness of appointments to the success of a presidency should not be underestimated. In the transition of the presidency, a permanent bureaucracy takes over. Routine operations will go on without many problems, but new directions in policymaking will not be undertaken. Leadership is required but it can only be provided by the appointments of a new president. The longer the bureaucracy drifts, the longer it will be before the new president's priorities and policies can be implemented. But the necessity for speed must not stifle the need for quality of appointees, for the character of an administration and its success depend upon the quality of its officials."

Theodore Sorensen, the famous Kennedy speechwriter and adviser, underscored the personnel challenge: "Personnel is clearly the highest priority. You can't spend too much time on personnel. It is getting the right people in office. This will overcome many errors in organization and getting to know the Congress."

Different styles

Dan Fenn was hired to run President John F. Kennedy's personnel operation in 1961.

Under Fenn, the Kennedy administration setup of the White House personnel system was more systematic than it had been in the past. Fenn decided that "we were going to be in the recruitment business, not the screening business, we weren't going through the junk." Fenn's process tried to ensure that the White House would have the final authority for all major presidential appointments throughout the administration. He also tried to set up capacity for active outreach and recruiting of quality candidates who were not personal acquaintances of administration members.

Other presidents had their own personnel process for recruitment and screening. Lyndon Johnson's process was distinctive because of the overall involvement of the president in personnel operations.

In 1970, Frederic V. Malek tightened the personnel selection process by centralizing administration personnel operations in the White House. The process went beyond screening.

Under Malek, the White House personnel system developed recruitment capability and a systematic way to continue throughout the administration.

Sub-cabinet appointments

In The Strategic Presidency, Pfiffner devotes a section to the discussion of sub-cabinet appointments. He wrote:

"In every administration there will be tension between White House and departments and agencies over whose wishes will prevail in naming the subordinates of the secretary or agency head.

"While the appointments are clearly the prerogative of the president who has a legitimate claim on them, it is his administration and he has to live with the consequences of his appointments in the departments and agencies. On the other hand, if agency heads are to be held responsible for managing their own organizations, they ought to have some discretion in putting together their own management teams."

Many people with White House experience tend to believe that sub-cabinet appointees should owe their primary allegiance to the president and to the cabinet member for whom they directly work. They see a danger that appointees will become more responsive to their own bureaucracies, interest groups and Congress, than to the White House. Pfiffner's observations on sub-cabinet appointments are especially relevant to our present government because in my view, the principal headaches of the Marcos administration have been caused by weak sub-cabinet appointments.

The big row over the SRA sugar importation order was the principal outcome of poor appointments of one agriculture undersecretary and the sugar board members. These appointments created themes that placed the administration in hot water, but the executive secretary at the time fueled the mess by issuing these officials with the authority to issue the sugar import order.

The current controversy over a foolish order by a deputy executive secretary stems from a sub-cabinet appointee who exceeded her authority.

As fellow Times columnist Bobi Tiglao has written, the Palace issued two days before Christmas a very anomalous order that countermanded a directive of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources' Environmental Management Bureau for a Chinese firm Yinglong Steel Corp. to stop its nickel-mining and export operations in the hometown of Zambales Gov. Hermogenes Ebdane. The same deputy executive secretary for legal affairs, Anna Liza Logan, who issued the order recalled it. Tiglao notes that the environmental issues involving Yinglong were resolved in just one day from the date when he wrote about it in his column. He suspects that neither the president nor Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin were aware of Logan's December 23 order countermanding the EMB directive.

Logan is an unfortunate sub-cabinet appointment, and it is also doubly unfortunate that she happens to be a longtime close associate of the first lady whose name will be dragged into this controversy.

The point of course is that sub-cabinet appointments are very important, and the Marcos administration has been a little careless in the selection of appointees.

Pfiffner concluded his discussion with the observation that it is a mistake for presidents to delegate the authority for sub-cabinet appointments to the cabinet member or department head. As Edwin Meese, who served in the Reagan transition team, contended: "The president has to decide off the bat, there should be one central control point. But while you encourage department heads to develop names, the ultimate decision is that of the president."

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