DILG UNDERSECRETARY MARGARITA “MARGE” GUTIERREZ
DILG UNDERSECRETARY ATTY. MARGE GUTIERREZ BRINGS PURPOSE AND VISION TOGETHER, NOT ONLY TO FULFILL A PERSONAL PROMISE BUT TO ADDRESS THE NATION’S NEED FOR IMPROVED PUBLIC SERVICE.
Thriving in the realm of politics demands a unique character, given the cutthroat nature of the arena and the relentless demands of a job that allows no room for rest or error. Atty. Margarita “Marge” Gutierrez is proving herself to be a dedicated public servant who stands out as a dependable and accountable leader. Her earnest commitment to serving constituents is evident to all who work with her and she is impressing a greater lot by finding more meaningful ways to deliver direct and impactful change.
Upon graduating from Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU) School of Law, following her Bachelor of Science Degree in Commerce and Applied Economics from De La Salle University (DLSU), Gutierrez found herself one step closer to realizing her dream of public service, a lifelong aspiration she couldn’t ignore. She felt a deep yearning to serve and a deeper sense of duty.
However, before jumping straight into the political arena, she first gathered the wisdom and experience working in the private sector alongside her mother, Ma. Merceditas Consunji Navarro Gutierrez, in NAME law office in 2011. It was only in 2021, a decade later, that the younger Gutierrez revisited her childhood dream.
Her determination to enter public governance was significantly influenced by her mother’s remarkable career, who not only served as a government lawyer but also held the position of Secretary of the Department of Justice (DOJ) twice. She also became the first woman in the history of the country to become an Ombudsman.
She recalls, “It was my mother’s path of public service that paved the way for mine. Her career and drive to help as many people as she could instilled a love for country and countrymen in me. As a child, I remember listening to her stories and seeing her work and thinking, ‘This is what I want to do when I grow up.’”
“However,” her mom reminded her, “public service is a thankless job.”
I ENTERED PUBLIC SERVICE WITH ONE GOAL—TO REACH AS MANY LIVES AND HELP AS MANY PEOPLE AS I POSSIBLY CAN.
The core of my role is not simply to lead, but to truly serve the nation.
In July 15 2022, months into the role as DILG Undersecretary for Plans, Public Information, and Communication, Guiterrez came to appreciate this more profoundly. Yes, it is a demanding job that requires selflessness, but it is also an unparalleled privilege that empowers her to drive effective and impactful change.
She acknowledges, “My mom warned me how draining it is to enter public service. I admit that what she said is true, but she also encouraged me that this path is noble and worth taking. She is very proud of me for being one of the DILG undersecretaries,” she nods.
In her capacity as the undersecretary, Guiterrez supports DILG Secretary Benhur Abalos in shaping the department’s strategic direction. One of her central roles involves developing and implementing strategic communication plans for the department and raising public awareness while forging partnerships for DILG’s major projects and programs.
“Serving also as the official spokesperson of the DILG means that, aside from Secretary Abalos, I am the media and the public’s primary source of information on the department’s efforts and stances on certain issues,” she explains. “As a credible source, it is my duty to make sure that the information I give is accurate and delivered in a way that can be properly understood and far from misinterpretations. A public figure is always under people’s scrutiny, and as the DILG’s spokesperson, I am fully aware that one mistake on my end can affect the image of the entire department.”
Fortunately, she is supported by a dedicated team and inspiring leadership, enabling her to fulfill her responsibilities well. Her relationship with Secretary Abalos and her co-undersecretaries she describes as being “great and worthwhile.”
“We have a certain synergy that makes our work flow smoothly. It helps that we all have the same heart and advocacy of improving the quality of lives of Filipinos through better government services and service delivery while ensuring peace and order.”
While her responsibilities and tasks are numerous, she remains focused on ensuring the success of several key projects that align with her values and vision for improved public service. These projects include the Hotline 888 Citizens’ Complaint Center, designed to expedite issue resolution; the DILG Central Office’s Gender and Development Focal Point System; SIM Card Registration; and the Buhay Ingatan, Droga’y Ayawan (BIDA) Program.
Of particular interest is the BIDA Program, a tangent of the highly controversial campaign of the Duterte administration. “We are building on the gains of the previous anti-illegal drugs campaign. However, the BIDA Program ensures that we put primacy on operating ‘within the framework of law, with respect for human rights, and with focus on rehabilitation and socio-economic development.’”
“Law enforcement during Oplan Tokhang may have made a few successes in reducing the danger that illegal drugs pose to our communities. However, unfortunately, the drug menace is still rampant in the country. Thus, we must acknowledge that law enforcement alone is not enough to ensure a drug-free Philippines,” shares Gutierrez. “We need community-based programs, education, and awareness campaigns, and other drug demand-reduction efforts.”
Leveraging lessons from previous campaigns and adopting a more holistic and humane approach, Gutierrez and the Department are targeting the drug problem at its roots, seeking more effective ways to curb drug demand within communities. “Currently, we are launching BIDA at the grassroots levels— barangays, schools, churches, families, etc. It’s all about drug education and awareness, and showing people that there are more productive and healthy activities to occupy their time.”
In addition to prevention, the BIDA Program places equal emphasis on rehabilitating Persons Who Use Drugs (PWUD) through community-based programs and initiatives. “We are committed to giving PWUDs a new lease on life and preventing others from going down the dangerous road of illegal drug use.” Addressing the concerns about police violence, the department has also initiated a reassessment of the training and selection process for police investigators. “Secretary Abalos wants to make sure that agents of law enforcement are fully and completely attuned to the provisions of criminal law. Secretary Abalos also cemented partnerships with other law enforcement agencies, especially the DOJ, as he believes this is necessary for ensuring that the fate of criminal syndicates and large-scale distributors of illicit and illegal substances are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
COMMITMENTS AND CHALLENGES
Gutierrez leads a diverse array of programs, all united by a common denominator—a commitment to compassionate service and tangible, impactful solutions. “Our biggest challenge would be that we have such a wide scope of work and are responsible for numerous efforts,” she reveals. “At present, we are dealing with a barrage of issues, from public safety and peace and order to LGU concerns. This means that the department is always on-the-go and working non-stop. At times, this can be quite overwhelming to deal with.”
Yet, it is in these challenging situations where Gutierrez’s talents and skills shine. She is a meticulous manager with the ability to see situations and solutions on both macro and micro levels. She is able to bring people together, direct them towards a goal, and motivate them to see projects through. “We are able to overcome any setback by uniting our efforts and asking for help from other agencies when necessary. We create interagency task forces that help us resolve issues through a whole-of-government approach. After all, we can achieve the most when we draw upon our collective strength and utilize various agencies’ specializations and skills,” she affirms.
For the current year, her priority programs are well underway, with teams operating at peak performance. “My immediate targets would be to nurture and strengthen our partnership and programs with the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF), and improve and further develop livelihood programs for our Muslim sisters, among others.”
This immense collaboration is a significant achievement for the department as it will provide crucial support to vulnerable sectors. The GCERF is a multi-sectoral intervention that reaches out to conflict-affected communities, assisting them in rebuilding their lives through sustainable livelihood and capacity development programs.
“What’s amazing about GCERF-funded initiatives is that every component of the grant is designed with longevity and sustainability in mind. We have to understand that violence in these communities has been going on for years, even decades, and it is important to implement programs that offer long-term benefits. GCERF’s goal is not to provide beneficiaries with a momentary reprieve from armed conflict and poverty, it aspires to help bring lasting peace and prosperity to the region,” emphasizes Guiterrez.
A BALANCED PERSPECTIVE
To maintain her mental and emotional agility, Gutierrez balances her tireless government work with philanthropic commitments—a practice she has maintained.
It’s important for her to continue to be involved in these passion projects—even if it’s to a lesser degree—because it is precisely her participation in these programs that has given her light and hope to move forward and serve. Her personal advocacies are the sustaining force that inspires her to do more. In addition, her diverse experiences in these various settings offer her valuable wisdom and perspectives, which she applies to her work at DILG.
At present, Guiterrez also serves as the Tacloban project manager and coordinator for Liter of Light (Isang Litrong Liwanag), a global grassroots movement dedicated to providing affordable and sustainable solar lighting to low-income communities and those with limited or no access to electricity. The project is being implemented in various cities across the Philippines.
Under the Ilaw ng Tahanan project, on the other hand, she plays a leadership role as one of the team representatives. In this capacity, she trains detainees at the Correctional Institution for Women in the production, use, and sale of low-cost solar lamps as additional means to support themselves after they are released. “This, in particular, is a cause very close to my heart since it deals with women PDLs (Persons Deprived of Liberty), one of my personal advocacies.”
A true women’s rights supporter, Guiterrez also volunteers as counsel for the Correctional Institute, assisting in the release of PDLs who have been held back due to procedural concerns.
Gutierrez is not driven by accolades, though she does appreciate the recognition of her hard work. From February 25-March 8, 2023, she ranked sixth in the Boses ng Bayan poll of government spokespersons with 10,000 respondents.
“This is an incredible honor. I feel both privileged and humbled to be selected by my fellow Filipinos as an outstanding spokesperson. To me, this poll indicates that I am on the right path, and it serves as a reminder as well to work ten times harder to live up to the trust and faith the people have placed in me.”
Upon reflection, she shares her sincere motivations: “The core of my role is not simply to lead, but to truly serve the nation. “I entered public service with one goal—to touch as many lives and help as many people as I possibly can. So, to my fellow Filipinos, I want to say this: I am always at your service. I want to spark genuine change across the country. But in doing so, I need your help. Let’s work hand-in-hand for the welfare of our countrymen and for the future generations of Filipinos, and combine governance and citizen participation to build the Philippines we have always dreamed of.”