That thing called….delicadeza

If you look it up in different dictionaries, you will get its literal meaning. Delicadeza, a Spanish word that has found its way to the Filipino dictionary, literally means the quality of being delicate or “the quality of being easy to break or harm, and refers especially to people or things that are attractive or graceful.”

However, its usage in the Filipino dictionary has taken on a specialized meaning and is actually quite far from its literal Spanish translation. When we say delicadeza, we actually refer more to a sense of knowing what is proper when one is in a position of power, authority, and trust.

I used to work for one of the big accounting firms in the Philippines and as auditors, we were held to high standards of delicadeza. We could not accept expensive gifts from clients. Simple Christmas gifts of ham and similar food fare were acceptable in the spirit of the holidays but anything beyond that was considered a no-no. We were expected to disclose conflicts of interest before being assigned to a client. The requirements for delicadeza were so stringent that even our time report (a semi-monthly summary of billable hours to clients) contained a statement of representation that we were free of any conflict of interest.

Source: Flickr – from Casa Thomas Jefferson


We know why this is important, right?

A judge should inhibit himself from a case if he has any connection, by friendship or consanguinity, to any of the parties. This way, there can be no question when the decision is handed down.

It is standard for contests to prohibit the auditors and employees of a company from joining. This is to avoid questions about the validity of contest results.

Businesses, owned or controlled by any family member of high-ranking executives in a company, are deemed ineligible to join its bidding process. This prevents questions of nepotism in bid awards.

Delicadeza seems pretty obvious to me. Unfortunately, in public service, the higher the stakes, the less delicadeza we see.

Why do we hear of public officials in high positions landing huge contracts for their family businesses?

When a scandal breaks out in a government agency, why is it that the head often refuses to step down out of delicadeza? In many other Asian countries, like South Korea or Japan, just a hint of corruption would be enough for the head to tender his resignation.

Why are there members of the judiciary who refuse to inhibit from participating in cases despite conflict of interest?

And just recently, Sec. Panelo denied endorsing the release of former Calauan mayor Antonio Sanchez, saying that he merely passed on (a referral) the family’s letter to the Board of Pardons and Parole. In interviews, he insisted his conscience was “clear”. Yes, he is entitled to the benefit of the doubt. But would it not have been better to have avoided doubts in the first place by adapting a total hands-off from any involvement with the Sanchez family, considering that he was one of the mayor’s lawyers during the rape-slay trial? What was the effect of his note since it was written on the official stationery of his office with the weight of the Office of the President behind it? He was also reported to have met the Sanchez family twice early this year.

Calling for delicadeza does not focus on whether the public official might do something irregular or not; neither is his ability to stay objective being questioned. Delicadeza simply calls for the public official to voluntarily step away from an awkward situation or dissociate himself from a process, decision, investigation, contractual arrangement, bidding, or purchase that may be seen to be influenced in whatever way by his presence, position, or relationship.

As I was writing this post, I ran a Google Search on the word delicadeza and was surprised to find that a top search result was an article by current Department of Education Secretary Leonor Briones, written in 2009 when she was likely still a teacher, and published by ABS-CBN News. Her article was titled “Redefining Delicadeza”.

Let me quote a part of her article:

Everyone knows about officials in high places who hire their wives and husbands as their chiefs of staff and secretaries to facilitate dealing with clients, suppliers and contractors.  

Many officials now take it for granted that what belongs to the public also belongs to them and their families, be it the official car, the official residence, office facilities and properties, and the office budget.

Perhaps one reason why graft and corruption proliferate openly and shamelessly in the country is because the meaning of delicadeza has profoundly changed. High officials have made their own definitions and claim that their actuations do not involve delicadeza.

Perhaps it is time to redefine delicadeza in terms of practices in present day governance. I have asked my students in one of my public administration classes to reflect seriously on what delicadeza means during these times of economic crisis, political instability, and potential social upheavals.

Has its centuries old meaning changed? Under what circumstances can specific actions be described as involving delicadeza? What can be considered as right and wrong actions, apart from legal indicators? Do we still need delicadeza for effective governance?”

Obviously, Sec. Briones knows her subject matter and I am curious to find out what her public administration classes came up with as modern-day examples of delicadeza. Has the definition of delicadeza really changed? Or has it been redefined by government officials to suit their purposes?

Now that Sec. Briones is part of the current administration, it might be an opportune time for her to revisit her 10-year old article and make it serve as a reminder to the rest of the Cabinet, Congress, the judiciary, and all other public servants that delicadeza as we know it will never lose its relevance or meaning. When you deal with public issues, there must never be any question whether personal vested interest came before public good. Delicadeza should always stand as a pillar of good governance, transparency, propriety, and accountability. We also need to be able to trust that our public servants know where the line is and when not to cross it.