Public service, public convenience

Thomas M Orbos

Recent news headlines were about local transport problems that arose because of policies that were primarily put in place to make things better for the public but instead made things worse—at least in the initial phase. One of these was the move to push for cashless transactions at the expressways, and another, though less pronounced, was the closure of Edsa U-turn slots. These policies, on paper, were well meaning and met with initial public acceptance. In the case of the cashless payments at the tollways, people knew it was for their safety and convenience, while the need to close the Edsa U-turns was for a better flow of traffic for the high passenger capacity buses of the Edsa carousel. However, the outcome was the opposite, eliciting much complaints from the public. This prompted the implementors to rethink their programs.

What could have been done to avoid such results? My simple take:

Prepare, prepare, prepare: There is no substitute for preparing thoroughly. While regulators and enforcers lament about the uncooperative and complaining public despite being given prior information, the onus of preparing will always be on the implementors. New programs or policies that would impact the lives of millions need much time to prepare, with every possible scenario covered. It is evident that the Nlex management was not ready with their RFID system when they went cashless at their tollways. Computer simulations would be a good way to predict all possible scenarios, including possible flaws so they can be met with corrective measures. More important is the need for continuing stakeholder consultations to include local governments and other affected sectors.

Inform, inform, inform: Never get tired of informing the public about the programs every step of the way. There is no such thing as enough information when it comes to announcements that adversely affect the public. Use all possible mediums of communication at your disposal—traditional, digital, mobile, outdoors especially since you own the public real estate. Always presume there will always be someone out there who has not heard of your program—and target that person.

Timing is everything: It’s Christmas—why implement now when we know we are at the peak of congestion? On the other hand, implementing these programs months ago when most people were still locked down would have made a big difference.

Always provide an option: Part of planning well would be to provide options and alternatives. Maintaining a cash lane is a simple solution. Another solution would be to provide a different route enough to meet the expected displaced volume such as prepping up the old McArthur highway. But it can also be time-bound solutions such as partial vehicle bans until the more permanent solution is achieved.

Listen, listen, listen: Keep your ears on the ground. Listen to the grumblings of your constituents. Get used to, and in fact look for, the threads of complaints. Get feedback on a regular basis—and adjust accordingly.

Proceed/not proceed in favor of the general public. And if it really does not work out, there’s no reason to persist for the sake of continuing. Step back and review. The public knows better and, despite the good intentions, we need to listen to them and heed their sentiment.

Failure or success—Own it. We will always have a forgiving public, so long as we admit the responsibility. The good thing in both cases is that we have agency heads owning the shortcomings of their agencies. But it would also be good if such apologetic attitude gets emulated on the ground.

Truth to tell, many government projects fall short because of the absence of these basic steps in their implementation. Policy-makers, implementors and regulators may have all the necessary studies and analyses but stakeholder buy-ins remain to be the most crucial aspect for such programs to succeed. After all, such programs are for the public, implemented by those in public service and those who do so for public convenience. Public service, public convenience—keeping in mind these two words will always spell the success of any program of government.

Thomas “Tim” Orbos is currently a transport policy advisor for an international organization and worked in government on transport and urban development matters. He is an alumnus of Georgetown University and the MIT Sloan School of Management. He can be reached via e-mail— /

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