Prudent crisis governance

Managing for Society

Manila Times

September 28 and October 5, 2010

Part 1

The expression "It's lonely at the top" is most true when a person in authority has to make difficult decisions -- decisions that affect the fates of people. And yet, the unenviable position the President finds himself in because of the Manila hostage crisis is the price of leadership. Meanwhile, the second-guessing around the President’s actions during and after the crisis continues. Sentiments range from the patient sympathy to critical and downright disgust.

It would appear to be the simplest thing for the President to cave in to the critical pressure and dismiss people or file cases indiscriminately. But this would be imprudent governance. It would also be bad management. It’s true that a major role of managers at any level of an organization is to make decisions and to act on them. But in most complex high-risk cases faced by managers, the temptation to follow the saying “Don't just sit there--do something!” is a formula for disaster. In fact, the opposite dictum is more applicable, that is: “Don't just do something—sit there!”

Of course, to “sit there” does not mean to run away from making a decision. It means thinking through the various ramifications of one’s decision options for key stakeholders, given one’s mandates and accountabilities. Prudence is key and the manager needs to ensure that he is using proper methods to achieve proper goals. His goals must be just in that they give people -- especially those whose interests he is sworn to uphold and protect -- their rightful due. The President must ensure that competent and transparent mechanisms of justice are activated for the benefit of the victims and their families. The creation of the IIRC was intended to initiate this mechanism.

But the pursuit of a just goal must be accompanied by just methods as well, that is, methods that not only achieve goals but also avoid unjust side-effects themselves. The temptation to act with undue haste must be tempered by this principle. For example, the possibility of holding media personalities liable must be done in a way that does not discourage the proper exercise of journalistic initiative in similar circumstances in the future. As far as democratic republics go, a cowed media is worse than an over-eager one. The encouragement given to media to define stronger self-regulation mechanisms is an important step in this direction; even as more specific sanctions are being considered for those who may have materially disrupted the negotiation process.

The demands of prudence in a crisis situation -- the achievement of just goals through just methods -- firstly require accountability. Unfortunately, there has been considerable confusion as to what accountability means. Some have used it to mean the need to explain how the crisis happened while others equate accountability with the admission of fault and the acceptance of accompanying sanctions. The latter interpretation is misleading and short-circuits the proper role of governance. This is seen in its most vulgar form in the demand to see “heads roll”; as if the ritual blood-letting through the dismissal of people will address a complex crisis situation. A mature and prudent governance process must separate the mandate of accountability from the process of assigning moral responsibility or finding fault when harm has been done. In the hostage crisis, both are badly needed.

What does accountability mean? Being accountable means accepting proper scrutiny by proper bodies for one’s decisions and actions, especially in relation to how these have impacted other people. It also means accepting the duty to respond to such scrutiny. Has the President been accountable?

Part 2

Last week, I explained that accountability for the August 23 Manila hostage crisis is not the same as moral responsibility for the harms caused during the incident, although both are urgently needed. Accountability means accepting proper scrutiny by proper bodies for one’s decisions and actions, especially in relation to how these have impacted other people. It also means accepting the duty to respond to such scrutiny. Accountability, therefore, does not imply being at fault. It does imply accepting sanctions if one is determined to be at fault.

Has President Aquino been accountable on the matter of the crisis? I believe so. He has held a press conference to address questions of the media. He formed the Incident Investigation and Review Committee (IIRC) to look more closely, and in a transparent manner, at the events leading to the crisis. The Committee’s reports He has supported the legislative branch in its own investigation into the matter by allowing his underlings to answer questions posed by the concerned committees in both houses of Congress. He has even responded to the expectations of the Chinese government and the families of its affected citizens for a transparent and just investigation of the incident. While many may not be satisfied by his answers or those of his subalterns, the President has accepted and duly responded to the scrutiny of various bodies. This meets the requirements of accountability.

Accountability is not enough, however. The interest of justice requires that moral responsibility be identified, especially for the harms suffered by the hostage victims. While the hostage taker, police officer Rolando Mendoza, apparently shares a major part of the blame, it is essential to look into the role of those who contact with Mendoza and those responsible for the resolution of the situation. The assignment of responsibility for harm requires careful investigation and due process. Such an investigation should look into whether individuals who had the obligation to act to prevent harm to the hostages and to the public did so and whether they did so properly.

The ethicist Manuel Velasquez explains that a person is morally responsible for a harm caused another person if (1) the person caused or helped cause it, or failed to prevent it when he could and should have; (2) the person did so freely and knowing what he or she was doing. From these criteria alone, we can see that pointing a finger at any individual involved in the incident other than Mendoza is a very complex affair and must be approached very carefully.

Criterion 1 requires the identification of the person or persons who pulled the trigger and directly caused the killing or injury of the victims. Criterion 2 requires the trigger person’s awareness of his actions. This leaves room for the possibility that the killer may have done so accidentally or in a state of insanity. Criterion 1 also asks who could have caused the trigger person to discharge the gun and whether such a person was aware of his action. This covers the possible role of media people and Mendoza’s brother in possibly inciting the ensuing killing spree. Answering these questions can initially identify person or persons who would be morally responsible for the harms to the victims.

It doesn’t end there. Criterion 1 also asks: “Who should and could have prevented the killings and injuries?“ This covers the role of the crisis management committee, the police hierarchy in charge, all the way to the negotiator and SWAT members. Did they apply proper procedures in controlling the situation? If they did not, they could well have been morally responsible.

The IIRC has conducted the investigation and has made recommendations to the President. The ball is now in the President’s court as to how he wishes to act on the recommendations. An announcement on his decision is expected to be out this week. The IIRC has recommended the filing of charges against a number of individuals involved in the incident. As concerned citizens, it is important for us to scrutinize these recommendations from the ethical perspective, even as we await the President’s own decision on pursuing the appropriate administrative or criminal charges against individuals named by the IIRC.