On May 13, President Noynoy Aquino issued Executive Order No. 43, “Pursuing Our Social Contract with the Filipino People Through the Reorganization of the Cabinet Clusters.” The Cabinet needs to be organized thematically into smaller groups, or clusters, to achieve “efficiency, effectiveness and focus,” the EO says.
There are five clusters: Good Governance and Anti-Corruption, chaired by the President; Human Development and Poverty Reduction, chaired by the Department of Social Welfare and Development Secretary; Economic Development, chaired by the Finance Secretary; Security, Justice and Peace, chaired by the Executive Secretary; and Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation, chaired by the Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources.
The idea is laudable. Clustering will allow Departments with the same or closely related concerns to work closely together in-between Cabinet meetings, which should take place regularly once a week, as in most governments. There is the danger, though, that the clusters could try to replace the Cabinet itself, and do away with the regular Cabinet meetings. This should not happen. The Cabinet should always function in full, under the control of the President.
Making the President chair one cluster, no matter how important that cluster may be, effectively downgrades the President to the position of a mere Cabinet member. It effectively reduces the Cabinet to that one cluster chaired by the President or raises that particular cluster to the level of the entire Cabinet, at the expense of the other clusters. That can and should be avoided.
Each cluster should be chaired by the Cabinet member with immediate jurisdiction over the cluster’s primary area of responsibility. Its members should be ranked according to their respective jurisdictions and the Order of Precedence followed when listing Cabinet members. This seemingly unimportant detail is not trivial at all.
For instance, the Secretary of Justice and the Secretary of Finance should have precedence over the Budget Secretary in the listing of members of the Good Governance and Anti-Corruption Cluster. Likewise, the Secretaries of Agriculture, Energy, Science and Technology and Tourism, given their inherent responsibilities, should have due precedence in the Economic Development Cluster.
The DSWD Secretary may have a broader responsibility than the Chair of Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC) for Human Development and Poverty Reduction, given her control of, among other things, the P21.9 billion conditional cash transfer, which is supposed to be an anti-poverty fund.
But since the HUDCC Chair happens to be the Vice President --- the second highest ranking official of the country and the only nationally elected official sitting in the Cabinet---he cannot be made to sit under the DSWD Chair without doing offense to the dignity of the State. The DSWD Secretary could co-chair the cluster of the Vice President.
The Security, Justice and Peace Cluster has, as its primary responsibility, “the protection of our national territory and boundaries.” This should be chaired by the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, possibly with the Secretary of National Defense as co-chair.
The Executive Secretary performs a highly critical function for the President. He should be represented in all clusters so that he could monitor, coordinate and digest all developments for the President, without having to wait for the regular Cabinet meeting, which should never be dispensed with at all.
A particular Department or Cluster may take the lead in proposing or implementing a particular course of action on any given question. But a Cabinet decision is always made by the Cabinet in formal Cabinet meetings. A government can repeal or rewrite this process only at its own peril.