The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) is striving to change the face of public service.
From short tempers and forgers to migrant workers with the tightest deadlines, challenges are a daily fare for the staff and officials of the DFA’s passport center at SM Megamall, the largest mall-based consular office in the country.
But cool heads prevail at the office known as the DFA National Capital Region (NCR) East, one of the DFA’s frontline offices, which is sleek, clean, airy and well lighted.
“We tell the public that the government is trying its best to improve the service, so that we can be world-class. That’s why you have to give us a chance,” Merly Puruganan, DFA NCR East officer-in-charge, told the Inquirer.
“We just remain patient in dealing with them because we understand where they are coming from… My staff here, they are young people. Give them the chance. We cannot improve if we’re not given the chance,” she said.
30 mall centers in two years
In hopes of giving the public better access to government service, the DFA has embarked on a two-year program to open up to 30 mall-based passport centers across the country by 2014 through partnerships with major mall chains.
Since opening on separate dates in recent months, the DFA’s mall passport centers have already attracted a large clientele of applicants, decongesting the crammed main office in Pasay City.
The three Metro Manila passport centers alone absorb half of the regular daily volume of 5,000 passport applications at the main DFA Consular Office at Aseana Business Park, Ledda said.
The Aseana center caters to 2,500 applications a day, half its usual load, as the mall centers at SM Megamall and Robinsons Galleria in Ortigas, and SM City Manila already receive an average of 2,500 appointments a day, Ledda said.
Total Metro Manila applications account for roughly 40 percent of the daily passport application volume of 11,000 from across the country and in foreign posts.
Another 40 percent of the total are applications in provinces while appointments in Philippine embassies and consulates around the world account for 20 percent.
Roughly the same number of electronic passports are released every day, Ledda said, and there is no backlog even as passport printing remains centralized at the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP).
Mall centers are open during business hours—from Monday to Saturday (10 a.m. to 8 p.m.)—and also release passports for half the day on Sundays.
“The idea is to bring services closer to the people… By also moving to the malls, we want uniformity of service in that the kind of service we provide in Metro Manila is also the same service we provide in Davao, for instance,” said DFA Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs Jaime Victor Ledda.
Ten mall-based consular office have opened this year: In Baguio; San Fernando and Angeles City in Pampanga; Lipa City in Batangas; Cebu City; General Santos; Davao, and three in Metro Manila.
Ledda said the DFA is also planning to move its existing regional consular offices in the cities of Legazpi and Puerto Princesa into malls and open new mall branches in Dumaguete City, Ilocos Norte and a second one in Batangas.
Partner companies include SM Malls, Robinsons Malls, the Ayala and Gaisano groups, each with their own public-private partnership (PPP) terms, Ledda said.
“This PPP is a cooperation, hosting arrangement where they provide the space, we have a consultation on the layout, we inform them of the procedures we need and we share expenses. The uniformity we want is in the ease in the flow of people,” the official said.
“Generally, it results in savings on the maintenance and operating costs. It’s more cost-effective for the DFA,” said Ledda.
The system is not perfect though, officials admit, as there would be delays during times the machines at the BSP need maintenance or upgrading (passport applicant data from all DFA consular centers in the Philippines and around the world are electronically sent to the BSP).
“Now, people have a choice where to go. They will feel that public service is all within reach. They’re (mall centers) light, spacious, evokes a smooth flow of process and people,” Ledda said.
“That adds to the credibility and integrity to that standard of service we want to give the people,” he said.
At the 1,300-sq. m. Megamall branch alone, almost 1,000 people from around Metro Manila and even provinces like Tarlac, Pangasinan and Laguna show up every day to file applications.
Envisioned to be a one-stop shop, the Megamall passport center offers notarial and courier services for applicants and also operates a separate authentication center for documents required overseas.
“When you say Megamall, everybody knows where it is. But when you say Aseana, people would still need directions,” said Chester Omaga-Diaz, DFA NCR East administrative officer.
“We’d ask people from Tarlac and Pangasinan why they decide to come here instead of applying in our centers in Pampanga. They would say it’s more convenient for them in terms of the commute,” he said.
Manned by a staff of 58, including officials, encoders, processors, security and utility personnel, the Megamall center serves up to 80 appointments every 30 minutes, with a separate line for senior citizens, minors and children.
Saturday’s family affair
The volume of applicants peaks on Saturdays, when entire families take time out from strolling in the mall to apply for passports.
“On Saturdays, it’s like a family affair because the kids, they don’t have to skip school just to apply. So they bring their families. It’s like family bonding also,” Puruganan said.
“And they are inside the mall so it’s a more relaxed atmosphere and there are many amenities. If they go hungry because of waiting, they can always refresh. They can eat, shop; they can go to the movies,” added the official.
For working student Gretchen Sy, renewing her passport at the mall center was an experience far improved from her previous encounter at the old consular center at the DFA main office, where applicants had to line up in a basketball court.
“It’s better and more convenient now. It’s faster. I already finished in less than an hour,” said Sy.
But just like in any other public office, not a day passes when hot heads do not flare up. The staff faces such instances with “maximum tolerance”—lots of smiles and patience.
“One time, I told one applicant, ‘I give you my word, if they don’t deliver your passport tomorrow, I’ll resign from this post.’ I tell them we have to be extra careful about their documents, but still, they keep on saying things. It’s so hard to please the public, that’s what I’m saying,” said Puruganan.
“Just yesterday, I felt like one applicant was going to shoot me. He told me, ‘You give me back my money…’ Then there was an applicant who kept on cursing me, complaining about our service… But I tell them that this office is trying its best to change that,” said the diplomat of 30 years, who had just returned from a six-year posting at the Philippine Consulate in New York.
Processor Rey Bron, a DFA employee for five years, said he starts his day with deep breathing, an exercise he swears calms his nerves and gives him the patience to deal with the quick-tempered.
“I have to prepare before I start to work. I inhale, exhale… Because if I start my day upset, I will be like that the whole day,” said Bron, who serves the walk-in window for senior, minor and child applicants.
For Omaga-Diaz, the gift of extra patience always comes in handy.
“We just explain to them why, what happened, what’s the process. And eventually, we become their friends. Some people can be rude. But then, you cannot solve the problem if you’re also rude,” he said.