Transactional Politics in the Public Sector

by Patricia Sto. Tomas

Former Chairperson
Philippine Civil Service Commission

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In 1896—or one hundred and one years ago to be exact — a certain politician by the name of Charles Hartman of Montana, USA said this of a rival political party:

" ...It is true that the Populist Party has a number of different remedies for the situation. I am advised that they are about to add three more planks to their platform. One of them is to make a cross between the firefly and the honeybee for the purpose of enabling the honeybee to work at night. Another, that of breeding the centipede with the pig for the purpose of having a hundred hams to each animal. I am also told they have a further visionary scheme of budding strawberries and cream from the same plant."

As Mr. Hartman ably demonstrates, most politicians make a living out of hyperbole. That is, when they are not dazzling us with prognostications of the future. For what was once an exercise in sarcasm for Mr. Hartman turned out to be prophetic. Today we have cows that have been cloned, orchids from the tissue culture and transplanted human organs. Not quite like lighted honeybees or hogs with a hundred legs but then, even politicians are not perfect.

Please do not mistake me. I am not about to trivialize politics and politicians for these two institutions often hold our collective futures in their hands. In many countries, politicians still dictate whether women can go to school, practice their profession or vote. But when we hold up for scrutiny the worst practices of politics and politicians over the years, we realize that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Those of us who are avid watchers of the political scene in our respective countries recognize that the unchanging nature of politics and politicians is largely a function of people like us. We mean well, we laugh—often out of despair—over the ridiculous practices but we stop short of making a personal commitment to help make things better. I would like to think that that is about to change. Those of us who are here despite husbands, careers, distance and other obligations know that the time has come for women to take the lead. Women of the world and women of Asia, today we celebrate the more equivalent of a pledging session. The Romans said: Carpe diem. Seize the day. Let us seize the day, the year, in fact the century so that our children, our families and our communities may profit from the dawning of Principled Politics. Let us struggle to rule. Let us work to win the stewardship of programs and policies that dominate our existence. And let us show the world that there is an alternative to the politics of transaction.

Transactional Politics

In the beginning, when the world was composed of contained communities, the only real science was politics. Perfection was attained through fair and honest governance and kings were philosophers as well. It was not as if reason completely ruled for there was, then as now, injustice, dishonesty and greed. But these transgressions were clearly recognized as such and the norms seemed encompassing and universal. In the identified original seats of civilization, whether in the East or in the West, rulers were judged by their ability to do right by their constituencies. To this day, the precepts of those enlightened if ancient leaders continue to be cited.

The increase in interstate trade and commerce, the expansion of boundaries through warfare and subjugation, the discovery of new technology that enabled people to travel — all these diffused the national focus and gave currency to international affairs. The state of the economy became a major concern and whatever would advance the cause towards bigger, better and wealthier economies gained primacy. The marketplace of ideas became the marketplace of all that can be bought or sold. The old standards were replaced by the law of supply and demand. Under these circumstances, transactional politics was born and evolved to its present pejorative status—roundly condemned by many but practiced by still many others who pass it off as "ground reality," " the practical (or convenient) thing to do" or "just another way of doing business more efficiently and effectively."

Let us, like most reasonable people, begin by trying to define transactional politics. I would just as soon call it QPQP or quid pro quo politics but this does not say very much either. To me, transactional politics is simply the use of official power or authority for undeserved gain. The word official is used here to denote those who are in elected or appointed government positions. This is not to say that transactional politics does not happen in the private section because it does. In fact, some of the best practitioners of transactional politics are outside government and usually show up their public counterparts with the sophistication and innovation with which they pursue the practice. But today, we limit ourselves to public politics.

This definition of transactional politics lends itself to a number of questions.

What if no official power or authority is exerted? As in, you meet an acquaintance during cocktails and he offers you shares in an initial Public Offering of his firm at a generous discount. He does not transact any kind of business with your office (let’s say you a senator); you did not solicit the information and in fact did not know about his firm’s IPO [Initial Public Offering]. If you accepted the offer, would this be transactional politics? Perhaps it is best that we answer this with another question. If you were not a senator, if you have met this acquaintance in your former capacity or after your term has ended, would he have made you that same offer? The power or authority in our definition does not have to be outwardly manifested. Quite often, holding the office itself is the power, the authority.

But what if the gain is deserved? Let us say that in your capacity as chairman of a certain legislative committee, you worked very hard to get certain amendments passed that incidentally favored the industry in which the offeror operates. Since you were doing this in your sincere belief that it was in the best public interest and not for any material gain, why shouldn’t you benefit from it? The gain from government work is supposed to be recognition and public appreciation for work well done, in addition of course to the official compensation that an elected official is supposed to receive. Everything else must be considered undeserved. Incidentally, any transaction between a government person and another is never just between the two of them. The third party to such a transaction is always the general public whose interests must always be protected. After all, if any damage accrues to government, it is the public taxpayer who eventually pays in terms of overpriced or undelivered services.

Is transactional politics then any different from graft or corruption?

In a very real sense, transactional politics is the mother of all official offenses. It refers after all both to legal offenses as well as those which the law does not expressly prohibit. It might be useful therefore to establish a decision tree of sorts to determine when an act falls under transactional politics.

The logical starting point always is: Is it legal? Over the years, various countries have acquired a rich and complicated overlay of laws and rules that lay out what is allowed and what isn’t. Some of these are impractical, tedious, even outdated and irrelevant. But they define the intentions of societies that have grown weary of trying to use informal pressure to keep their functionaries in line. These laws are called sunshine and moonbeams laws because they allow light where some others would prefer the safety of darkness and shadows. It is interesting to note what lengths bureaucrats will go to ensure safety in the implementation of these laws. After Republic Act 6713 was enacted in the Philippines, otherwise known as the Code of Conduct for Government Officials and Employees, we were charged with setting up the implementing rules. Implementing rules seek to clarify the nuances of the law. One provision of that law said that no government official may accept a gift except when it is of nominal value. We spent three days debating the definition of nominal value. One suggested that nominal value should correspond to no more than P100 or then roughly equivalent to $4 US. The question came back: Ok, but how often? I said, what do you mean how often?  I said, what do you mean how often? What if somebody gives a $4 gift every day for one whole year? It is a tricky world and even writing implementing rules and regulations can be fraught with danger.

A good second test is: Does this subject the cost of a public transaction to the law of supply and demand? If getting a driver’s license normally costs say ten dollars and getting a license after failing the driving test costs $50, would an act like this fall under transactional politics? It most certainly does. It is illegal; it distorts the legitimate price of a public transaction; it involves the use of official power and the gain is definitely undeserved. It is often said that the incremental gain is a function of the risk that the official or the employee takes in behalf of the client. Misdemeanours are usually encouraged by high-opportunity/low-risk situations. At the risk of citing the obvious, government people are not paid to take unnecessary risks; they are there to ensure, in the case of the license granting official, that the risk of being hit by a wayward or untrained driver is minimized for the rest of the citizenry.

A third criterion would be: does this transaction unduly favor one group over another? In many of our countries, for instance, bidding for the purchase of specific goods or services are usually undertaken to ensure that contracts do not go to favored suppliers. But this can be subverted in some other ways. For instance, bids can be so structured such that only one or two suppliers will meet the specifications and by that token, only they are allowed to go into the actual bidding round. But these are clear examples of TP [transactional politics]. Let us move into propositions that are less subject to clear and immediate interpretations. Assume for a moment that you have an elected official who has moved the country from Point A to Point B, a movement of significant improvement. There is consensus that he has done well and perhaps may do even better if given more time. The problem is his term is about to come to an end and the country’s constitution prohibits him from running for reelection. Should the Constitution then be amended to benefit a competent person? For that matter, the same Constitution was amended ten years before against the perceived opportunism of a deposed leader, the explicit reason for the non-reelection provision. Should Constitutions be changed to tailor fit specific persons, whether good or bad? Should other officials who are in the same boat (cannot stand for reelection but will profit from a term extension which cannot be sought for the President alone but for all other elected officials), but who may bring about the formation of a Constituent Assembly, be allowed to bring such an Assembly to fruition? Is this QPQP or simply the application of valid solutions to nagging ground realities?

Transactional politics refers not just to decisions between government and client. It can also refer to decisions between government offices. Consider this: A country benefits from tourism and is known world-wide for one particular excellent beach location. Investors from all over the country, both big and small, have put in their stakes in this one location because of the excellent returns it promised. One government agency found out that the beaches are polluted with a dreaded bacteria that arises from unsafe disposal of waste. Another government agency fears that disclosing the contamination will endanger the tourism program, not to mention the investments of some of the smaller investors in the area. Should this then be disclosed? Why? Why not? Another good test for determining whether transactional politics is at work is to equate long-term and short-term benefits. One of the most telling arguments against long-term projects is the observation that in the long run, we are all dead. Why then should we worry about the future when we may not even be around or when technology or science may provide more efficient and less costly solutions. The IMF or the World Bank would not be flourishing today if politicians thought beyond the grave or if we had to pay for all borrowings before the start of the next elections. QPQP politicians are notoriously short-sighted. A good question to ask, if I were living in that future when this decision’s effects would finally be manifest, would I be able to live in that future safely and securely? Or, more to the point, would I be willing to swim in this beach after I know what is floating in it?

Implicit in all these questions, in this decision-tree of sorts is the assumption that governance, whether elected or appointed should never be the subject of commerce or exchange other than what is legally permissible. This is either the height of naiveté or the beginning of wisdom. In a world when even possibilities are sold (you can trade in the futures of pork bellies), why shouldn’t we privatize government transactions and subject all things to the yardstick of which will bring in the greatest return? Theoretically, this is possible and the world seems headed in that direction. But this is precisely the point: Governments decide on matters that are not always subject to quantification. They must weigh competing interests and deal with a variety of groups, many of whom have valid claims to immediate government assistance. Transactions admit mainly of the ability to pay and if this were to be the basis of access to government goods and services, more citizens will be disenfranchised than would be able to participate fully in the determination of their present and their futures. Government was invented to equalize opportunities in an increasingly unfair world; to ensure order so that not only the fit, the rich or the intelligent survive. The marketplace is quirky and imperfect and is not set up to discern what is just and fair. This is the reason why votes are not weighted in favor of the good, the rich or the able, but are instead apportioned one to each person so that even the dull and the ignorant are entitled to make judgments. Transactional politicians subvert this view of governance and by that token, contribute to discontent and disaffection.

Criteria to Determine Whether an Impending Action or Decision falls under Transactional Politics

* Is it legal?
* Does it distort the legitimate price of a public transaction?
* Does it unduly favour one group over another?
* Are long-term considerations overlooked in favour of short-term gain?

Let me make a few more observations before I end this morning’s topic.

It is easy to feel depressed or unhappy, even frustrated when we consider the reach and magnitude of transactional politics. Those among us who are in developing or less-developed states may have even acquired a severe case of ethical inferiority, given repeated newspaper reports that corruption is ripe and flourishing mainly in the developing world. But anecdotal data suggest that we have no reason to feel shamed or embarrassed.

Is transactional politics a function of development level? This is not likely. Over the past year and a half, we have been witness to the spectacle of the richest and most powerful nation of the world getting embroiled in allegations of influence peddling. The media reports, for instance, that in return for having a picture taken with the President, foreign persons have been verified to have contributed significant amounts to the campaign fund of the ruling party. Similar events have been documented in some first world countries in another continent.

Is transactional politics more prevalent however in the less developed economies? This is likely the case. Because rules and systems are not in place, there are more opportunities for quid pro quo transactions. Institutions like media, citizens watchdog committees, anti-graft board are less developed and therefore do not encourage transparency or quick consequences for erring officials or employees. The possibility of perpetuating transactional politics is admittedly also more likely in weaker economies because misallocation of resources or resource leakage create greater dysfunc-tion within developing societies. Stronger so-cieties have a better capacity not for repelling graft but for withstanding it because alternative resources are available.

Does this mean that transactional politics will always be with us?

Again, this is likely. Over time however, this is likely to change in reach and magnitude as a country or society moves into better and more organized periods. However, a number of factors indicate that genuine change may be forthcoming if critical groups harness both talent and energy towards a reversal of the age-old drift in favor of transactional politics. With knowledge and information increasing exponentially and with technology making these better available even to the remotest communities, civic consciousness and social awareness seems to be at an all-time high. There also seems to be a genuine movement towards returning to the more basic and universal values as against the more individualistic, more self-centered norms that prevailed in earlier times. But precisely because the world is in flux, we need what many regard as negative capability, or the strength to keep going when so much is changing and uncertainty is the only certainty. Religion calls this negative capability faith—the capacity to believe what one does not know.

Earlier, I limited the definition of transactional politics to appropriate or relevant exchanges within and with government functionaries. Let me reiterate however that transactional politics is just as rampant in the private sector and in fact permeates all aspect of our lives. My context is the world I understand and moved in for the most part of my professional life. But wherever power is uneven or misaligned transactional politics may take place.

At home, between husbands and wives, this is often demonstrated. A wife catches the husband fooling around. She gives him the cold shoulder. He gives her a diamond ring. She relents. A small price to pay for peace in the family. You may expect however the value of this domestic political transaction to increase with the frequency of the offense.

Also at home, when we want to buy a little peace and quiet in the house, we force the children to go to take a nap in the afternoon on pain of getting a spanking if the directive is not headed, again, the uneven power situation is at work.

At work, transactional politics often rears its ugly head. I am sure you have heard of research assistants who labor long and hard only to have the primary researchers claim all the credit for the efforts of others. I am also sure you have heard of at least two celebrated cases in the United States — the one filed by Anita Hill against a judge who became a Supreme Court Justice and the more recent one of the female campaign worker who filed a suit against President Clinton.

All of these and many others constitute transactional politics — an unfair exchange because of the imbalance in the power relationship of the concerned parties.


Very few will disagree with the pernicious effects of transactional politics. Like situational ethics, a moving or variable interpretation of a standard can only be acceptable if one were personally favored. Still, the practice of transactional politics continues because, to paraphrase Socrates, it is not ignorance that causes transgressions of legal or moral rules. I think his exact question was : if you know that something is bad, will this prevent you from doing it? History gives us a disappointing answer.

Knowledge does not create righteousness; a sense of justice and fairness does. These are qualities which while they are not gender-based have been observed to be correlated with the nurturing nature of women. We should be grateful that this association exists because it shows us the possibilities for reversing the transactional nature of politics. Whether we call it principled politics, participative politics, transparent politics or transformative politics does not really matter. We are at a point in time when our collective consciousness and the demands for a moral and ethical environment provide for a confluence of purpose.

The laws of Physics and Economics, to name, just two of the most influential disciplines, tell us that the natural state of things is balance or equilibrium. Where there is imbalance, where uneven distribution exists, there is stress and dysfunction. Our role therefore should be fairly clear: to restore balance where disequilibrium exists, to ensure that power of authority is not in the hands of the few however enlightened, able and competent they might be. If information or knowledge is the cause of the imbalance, the logical intervention is to get an education. If resources are not available, start an enterprise or get a job. If ennui or a lack of fulfillment sets in, get a life. If you feel alone and helpless, get organized. And if you still think that transactional politics will never affect you, think again. Wake up and get moving.

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Updated: March 06, 2008