A crisis management structure

ONE HAS to be, or to have been, at the center of the Philippine state to realize how extremely unwieldy it is, how labyrinthine its structures are. It is like an old, huge, ocean-going ship, which requires much experience to know how to quickly maneuver, out of harm’s way especially.

The central government was not designed to deal with political crisis or security threats, such as mobs pretending to be a People Power movement, terrorists kidnapping scores of people in remote parts of the country—or a disgruntled policeman holding foreign tourists hostage.

After the frenzy of blame for the Aug. 23 hostage massacre, one of the most important tasks of President Aquino’s administration is to set up a structure that will deal with crisis situations. It doesn’t have to, so to speak, reinvent the wheel.

One of the most effective structures the previous administration had was the Cabinet Oversight Committee on Internal Security, ordered organized by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo through Executive Order No. 121 of June 2001. It was set up to institutionalize the ad hoc crisis system used to confront the May 1 “Edsa 3” rebellion, by far the most serious threat to the survival of the past administration.

It was Executive Secretary Alberto G. Romulo who conceptualized and quite methodically run— until his assignment to the Department of Foreign Affairs in 2004—this crisis committee, called then by its acronym’s letters, “COCIS.” With the President chairing the committee and Romulo (succeeded by Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita) heading its executive committee, the COCIS had a broad mandate to deal with any situation that threatened the state’s security or any problem it deemed to require the Palace’s attention and action.

The COCIS functioned as the President’s institutionalized command, control and communications center for nearly all of the many crises her administration confronted, among them the Abu Sayyaf raid on Dos Palmas and other acts of terrorism, the Oakwood and Manila Peninsula putsch attempts, the SARS pandemic.

The COCIS was a big committee, virtually a mini-Cabinet consisting of 18 Cabinet-level officials. Its executive committee though was a smaller group of eight, later expanded to 11. It included the secretaries of defense and the interior as well as the advisers for national security and “special concerns.” Other members of this core group were the justice secretary and the presidential legal counsel, to ensure that the full force of the law was applied and that responses to a crisis were legal, the press secretary and the presidential chief of staff. Significantly, President Arroyo ordered included in this critical core group what some called the “NGO reps,” the social welfare secretary and the Anti-Poverty Commission convenor.

The COCIS had a full-time secretariat, led then by a very amiable and efficient Navy officer, Commander Roy Antonio, which continuously monitored the national situation, documented the COCIS’s operations, and followed up the aftermath of a crisis to ensure its resolution. (We would later house the secretariat in a 24/7 “Presidential Situation Room,” which had an array of huge TV screens for monitoring the situation on one wall, located right under, and accessible from, the President’s private quarters at the Palace.)
As soon as a crisis erupted, or was expected to erupt, and under Arroyo’s or Romulo’s orders, Antonio would call each member, even in the wee hours of the morning, to assemble at the COCIS’s regular venue for its meetings, the main dining room of the Executive House. Depending on the gravity of the situation, it would either be the President or the executive secretary who would chair the meeting.

The COCIS meetings almost always started with a comprehensive PowerPoint briefing on the particular crisis faced, often by officials assigned by the articulate National Security Adviser (now Rep.) Roilo Golez or by the soft-spoken National Intelligence Coordinating Agency chief Cesar Garcia (who is now President Aquino’s national security adviser).
In certain cases, other ranking officials and political figures would be invited to the meetings. There were several instances when Senate President Franklin Drilon, Speaker Jose de Venecia and once, Fr. Archie Intengan, gave quite brilliant inputs that enriched the COCIS’ appreciation of a situation.

The COCIS was thus a venue in which proposals on how to deal with a crisis were put on the table for discussion by top officials. Thus the President had a mechanism by which to tap the wisdom and experience of her top officials and even eminent people outside government. The accuracy of reports or the appropriateness of proposed responses made by one official would be subject to intense scrutiny. There were many times when what could have been disastrous responses to a crisis were aborted after intensive, even heated, discussions in the COCIS.

The COCIS meeting itself often acted as the real-time command center. Right at the meeting, the President, the executive secretary or another official would call the ground commander on a cell phone, put it on speaker mode for everyone to hear, to get an up-to-date situation report, or to issue an order.

Technically, presidential executive orders are still in force unless rescinded. President Aquino can simply invoke EO 121 to set up a mechanism to deal not only with the continuing crisis triggered by the Luneta bloodbath, but also with future crises.

From the Philippine Daily Inquirer