A revamp long overdue
The recent decision of President Rodrigo Duterte not to renew the appointment of Social Security System chief Jose Gabriel La Viña appears to be a step in the right direction—a massive revamp in the social benefits agency that has been mired in controversy for the longest time.
During the administration of President Benigno Aquino III, many of his supporters in the overbearing Liberal Party were appointed to the governing boards of administrative agencies reputed to pay large sums of money to the members of their governing boards. The SSS was one of them.
A known staunch supporter of President Aquino appointed to the SSS board wallowed in luxurious living, thanks to the generous financial remuneration the members of the board of directors of the SSS granted to themselves. That member was seen as an “untouchable” on account of close ties to Aquino.
Suffice it to say that it is anomalous for the members of the SSS board of directors to grant themselves large financial benefits. If members of Congress are not allowed to increase their own salaries and benefits during their incumbency, that prohibition should likewise apply to board directors of mere administrative agencies like the SSS.
That anomaly notwithstanding, the SSS board during the Aquino regime planned to increase the required social security contributions of its members. In turn, that means additional funds for top SSS officials to spend, and less take-home pay for SSS members.
During his incumbency in the SSS, La Viña exposed a purported anomaly involving top officials of the agency. More specifically, it was alleged that a number of SSS officers who had access to confidential investment information available exclusively to the SSS, used that information for their own private benefit. If that is true, then La Viña should be commended, and those SSS officers concerned should be made to account for the anomaly, and for breaching the trust reposed in them by all SSS members.
It appears, however, that La Viña may have his share of explaining to do. According to presidential spokesman Harry Roque, President Duterte did not renew the appointment of La Viña because of a multi-million peso social media project and another multi-million peso media advertising program which La Viña was pushing for. The social media project, which included a television (TV) program with La Viña as the host, would have cost the government P26-million. On the other hand, the media advertising program would have cost P1.6 million monthly.
Incidentally, La Viña was the social media manager of President Duterte during the 2016 presidential campaign. It must have pained the president to let him go.
Anyway, this recent development in the SSS raises questions about how administrative agencies misuse public funds.
There is no plausible reason for an administrative agency like the SSS to put up a social media campaign project worth P26 million just to promote its image. An ordinary website would have served the purpose of making the SSS accessible to its members and the general public—and this would have cost far much less than the P26 million sought by La Viña.
In the same light, there is no plausible reason why the SSS would be needing a TV program, and one with the SSS chief as the host. Since the TV industry in the Philippines is oriented towards entertainment appeal, it is very unlikely for that TV program contemplated by La Viña to be a viable one (one with a continuing audience). Broadcasting a TV program which nobody will watch anyway (except perhaps for SSS employees required to monitor it) is a waste of money. Since public funds will be spent for the SSS TV program, that would have meant an unconscionable waste of public money.
It is rather unusual for La Viña himself to host the SSS TV program because the TV industry puts a premium on star appeal, and the SSS chief isn’t a star. Observers suspect that La Viña wants the TV exposure to prepare for a possible senatorial run in 2019. That’s campaigning for public office at the expense of the taxpayers.
The last time that publicity strategy was tried by an aspiring senatorial candidate was in December 2015 when then Metro Manila Development Authority chief Francis Tolentino had a film clip of himself exhibited before each and every film screening in the cinema houses during that year’s film festival. That strategy apparently didn’t work because Tolentino lost in the senatorial race, having placed 13th in a derby for 12 seats. Tolentino still hopes to become a senator because he is contesting the victory of Leila de Lima, who landed in twelfth place. A staunch supporter of the Liberal Party in the 2016 polls, Tolentino has shifted allegiance to become a “political adviser” of President Duterte.
Anyway, the media advertising program proposed by La Viña and which would have cost the government P1.6 million every month also invites suspicion. If the advertisements contemplated under that program were to promote the accomplishments of the SSS under La Viña, then that would be an indirect way of promoting La Viña in what may be his bid for the Senate in 2019.
Delicadeza demands that officials of government agencies should not spend public funds to promote themselves, or to herald to the public the accomplishments which they are expected to accomplish as public officials in the first place.
Under ideal circumstances, therefore, the advertisements contemplated in the La Viña plan ought to be confined to the dissemination of information about the SSS and its services, and not about how efficient its top official is.
A total revamp in the SSS is definitely in order. That revamp should be enough to convince heads of administrative agencies not to waste public funds.
This reminds us of the 2017 Christmas party expenses of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office which involved an expenditure of public funds involving several million pesos. That scandal, however, is a topic for another essay.