From Protest to Participation: Accountability Reform and Civil Society in the Philippines - Part 2

The Philippine Accountability Regime: Deficits and Shortcomings
As far as legal provisions and formal institutions are concerned, the country possesses one of the most comprehensive, complex, and sophisticated “national integrity system” (Pope 1996) in the world. The accountability of public officials is well enshrined in Article XI of the 1987 Constitution, which describes in detail their obligations and the available mechanisms that will check the exercise of their authority. In particular, it provides in detail an impeachment procedure and the creation of an independent ombudsman and a special anti-graft court. This is notwithstanding the offices especially created by the government such as the Presidential Anti-Graft Commission (PAGC) for presidential appointees and the Office of Ethical Standards and Public Accountability (OESPA) for the military.

While the ombudsman enjoys a broad range of powers enough to make a significant mark in the fight against corruption and abuse of public office, assessments concluded that there leaves much to be desired in terms of its performance. Just like other institutions, it also faces credibility and capacity deficits. The latter is palpable if the Philippine ombudsman is compared to Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), which has an annual budget that is ten times more than the ombudsman. Moreover, its manpower is also insufficient, since the ratio between a field investigator and a public servant is absurdly at 1:17,000. Despite these difficulties, it is fair to mention that there were some achievements of the ombudsman from 2001-2005. Not only did he lead the reform of the institution, he also was key in increasing the conviction rate of corrupt officials from a deplorable 6% to 20% within his tenure.

The inability of the government to police its own ranks has fed into public opinion and created a widespread perception that corruption is endemic. Indicators coming from both domestic and foreign surveys on the ability of the government to impose accountability have not been that desirable. Existing studies have concluded that the country is poorly ranked on its ability to impose the rule of law and curb corruption. For example, while the general trend of its scores with regard to the Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), has been improving, Gonzales and Mendoza stated that they have “remained well below the average grade of 5” (2003: 93). The more alarming fact is that the CPI score of the country has been declining for the past three years (2002-2004) placing it as the third most corrupt democracy in Asia (after Bangladesh and Indonesia). Moreover, it is noteworthy that the same international anti-corruption NGO placed former presidents Marcos (2nd) and Estrada (10th) as among the Top 10 Global Corrupt Leaders of all time, the most any country could have. Both former presidents are alleged to have embezzled a combined amount of up to US$10.8 worth of government funds (TI 2004).

Public opinion also revealed that the inability of the government to run after corrupt officials is creating a culture of impunity. In the 1998 and 1999 SWS surveys revealed that as much as 21% of the respondents have been asked for bribes in government transactions. A majority (51%) believed that it was futile to complain while as much as a quarter (25%) either did not know where to report or feared there could retaliation. This perception is also evident in the viewpoint of the country’s business community. Since 2000, SWS has embarked on an annual poll called the Survey of Enterprises on Corruption that seeks to have a sense on the opinions and perceptions of the profit sector. Its fifth survey in 2005 depicted that 66% of the respondents perceived a very high and non-diminishing degree of corruption in the public sector, an almost similar estimate in previous polls. This prevailing belief is substantiated with almost 54% of the enterprise managers asserting that they have knowledge of corrupt business transactions with government. A more startling statistic is that 7 out of 10 of the respondents had a direct experience with corruption (SWS 2005).

To some extent, the country’s weak accountability regime could be linked to its failure to realize its development goals among others. There is an estimate that up to US$48 billion has been lost to corruption over the last two decades, a figure that is nearly equal to the country’s foreign debt. The Commission on Audit (COA), the country’s financial oversight body, has calculated that the annual cost of corruption is around PhP2 billion (US$44.5 million) or up to 20% of the yearly national budget. One could just imagine the how many Filipinos would have benefited from government’s infrastructure projects or social services if that amount of money did not see its way into the pockets of government officials.

Participation in Accountability Reform: Civil Society Initiatives
Just like the 1986 People Power Revolt, civil society came to the fore and undeniably was one of the major forces that led to the ouster of an unaccountable and corrupt leader in 2001. As a stakeholder, civil society was to a great extent responsible for determining the composition of the new political dispensation. Considerably, some leaders of civil society were appointed to significant positions in the new administration. Some formations within the anti-Estrada movement even transformed themselves into parties that successfully won congressional elections. However, much of the mainstream members of the Philippine civil society chose to maintain their distance, remain outside of the formal ambit of the state, and went back to their normal work and respective advocacies.

If there was one crucial lesson that civil society learned from the experience, it is the undeniable fact that the country’s accountability regime could be easily subjected to manipulation and abuse. Thus, a pursuit of its reform became one of the most important components of the post-Estrada governance agenda. Of course, this realization also found its way in the reform package promised by the successor government of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. The consensus formed by both the state and civil society became a strong impetus for mutual collaboration as both realized that a partnership is needed if the goal of eradicating corruption and increasing transparency and accountability in governance is to be achieved.

This discussion of civil society initiatives will be done by identifying the main civil society actors and their involvement in accountability reform through the following main advocacy themes: (1) awareness raising, (2) government procurement; (3) performance of public institutions; (4) diagnostics; and (5) policy advocacy. This thematic discussion does not preclude the possibility that certain civil society organizations would fulfill more than one of them. However, the objective is to highlight which aggrupations best capture the essence of a particular advocacy.

Awareness Raising: Overcoming Public Apathy and Disaffection
Cognizant that substantial and valid information is the first step in the crusade against corruption, there are civil society initiatives that were focused in providing citizens with education and knowledge on how to demand accountability from government. Doing what they do best – organizing communities – civil society actors were able to equip people with the necessary tools and handles to confront the problem of corruption. It is their hope that the campaign for awareness raising will create “small constituencies for accountability” in their respective localities.

The Concerned Citizens of Abra for Good Government (CCAGG) is an exemplar case of an organized grassroots effort empowered to combat corruption at the local level. Composed of a myriad of vigilant citizens – students, professionals, housewives, priests, church workers and government employees – who did not have a common denominator except a sense of outrage and discontent on how government infrastructure projects in their province were fraudulently implemented. CCAGG members used the local media (the diocesan radio, newspapers) and organized community meetings to inform residents about public infrastructure projects. The milestones of this whistleblower included the suspension of government officials who were found guilty of dishonesty and misconduct. Furthermore, their assessment reports were taken seriously so much so that the release of government funds for public projects in Abra required their clearance. As a force for accountability, CCAGG’s efforts were not only known and imitated locally but it has received national and international acclaim as well. It was one the recipients of the first Integrity Awards given by Transparency International. An excerpt of the citation reads:
The pioneering efforts of this organization in fighting corruption at the local level are commendable and clearly demonstrate the capacity of citizens acting collectively to be a powerful force in making governments accountable (TI 2000).

Having technical knowledge and broad experience on this matter, CCAGG embarked on a participatory audit of the local government of Abra in 2002. With support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and COA, it aimed to assess “the impact of the audited government program/project to determine whether the program/project achieved its desired results”. This experimental exercise was declared a success by the government and the lessons “were later incorporated into a manual on the Conduct of Participatory Audit published by COA” (Ramkumar and Krafchik 2005: 17).

More than the above-mentioned achievements, the CCAGG model demonstrated the awesome potential of community organization and local popular empowerment for accountability. In particular, people that participated in this organization believed that effective collective action could promote transparency and uncover the “impenetrable secrecy” about government projects (Sumangil 2004).

Another initiative that is related to the objective of overcoming public apathy towards corruption and eschewing impunity for officials who have mastered escaping or “surviving accountability” is the Ehem! Program launched by the Philippine Province of the Society of Jesus (more known as the Jesuit religious order). This church-led effort seeks to “sensitize” the public for them to be vigilant and mindful of one’s moral responsibility in order to combat corruption. A manual was intentionally produced for dissemination through public information seminars and workshops nationwide. It “offers a series of exercises to make people more intensely experience, analyze, and reflect on the gravity of corruption in Philippine society, leading to a deep commitment in combating corruption at the individual, group, and institutional levels” (Alejo et al. 2003).

This particular endeavor is an example of civil society’s advocacy to educate citizens regarding their civic duties, and how they could be a vital component of the solution to corruption. It seeks to enlighten basic citizens and social groups – schools, government offices, parishes, religious organizations, professional associations, business chambers, social development agencies, cause-oriented and political groups, nongovernmental organizations, cooperatives, people’s organizations, and sectoral and community-based movements – regarding the severity of corruption in government and the implications if they are not reported and if perpetrators are not sanctioned. Also, the program aims to link the prevalence of corruption to the degradation of morality and a transgression against the poor. The framework of this endeavor has deep roots in the country’s political culture wherein Filipinos to a great extent have a high threshold for pain and suffering thereby creating a culture of impunity. Added to this is the perception that most of the citizenry has a short memory thereby increasing their tolerance to governmental wrongdoing. The Ehem! Program seeks to painstakingly cause a cultural shift towards graft intolerance and a more vigilant, conscious, and insistent attitude towards corruption and the abuse of authority (Alejo et al. 2003).

The program has recently caught the attention by the government as the OMB and the Jesuits forged a partnership to implement countrywide Ehem! workshops and training seminars in 2003. Being the pilot-tested institution, the OMB has organized several workshops and trainors’ trainings in both its central and regional offices. In the future, the program aspires to conduct similar activities in other parts of the Philippine bureaucracy. In the future, the proponents would embark on the second phase of this initiative, known as the Aha! Program that builds on the gains from the sensitization process as it attempts to encourage ordinary citizens and collectivities to actively report governmental wrongdoing.

Procurement Reform: Curbing the Culture of Wheeling and Dealing
One of the main sources of corruption in the Philippines comprises anomalies dealing with the procurement of the various things needed for government projects. Huge sums of money were allegedly embezzled by government officials from the topmost tiers of the government bureaucracy until its lower levels. Scholars have analyzed this practice using the framework of “rent-seeking” (Mendoza 2003, Hutchcroft 1991, de Dios and Ferrer 2001). The problem was indeed grave such that the Macapagal-Arroyo administration prioritized the passage of Republic Act No. 9184, otherwise known as the Government Procurement Reform Act in the hope of instilling more transparency in the acquisition of government supplies and materials and in the employment of services. This law featured one major innovation: the requirement of two representatives from the private sector to sit as observers in the bids and awards committees of the government. Correspondingly, this was construed by civil society organizations as an opportunity to conduct informal oversight in government procurement activities.

One of the main advocates of that law is the main stalwart of the battle for a more open and public procurement process is Procurement Watch, Inc. (PWI). As stated in its goals and objectives:
PWI’s primary objective is to promote transparency and accountability, as well as to assist in the streamlining of procedures in government procurement of goods, supplies, materials, services and infrastructure projects. Through in-depth research, vigilant monitoring and uncompromising advocacy against graft and corruption, PWI sees its role as a prime mover in the battle for greater transparency and accountability in government procurement. (

The PWI was able to strategically link with government given that it was invited in the procurement reform process since its nascent stage. Indeed, PWI was an indispensable actor in both in the formulation as well as implementation and monitoring of procurement reforms. It heavily campaigned and advocated for the adoption of RA 9184 and lent its technical expertise in the crafting of the implementing rules and regulations (IRR) of the law. Moreover, it sought the help of other anti-corruption civil society organizations in order to build a coalition for the reform of the government procurement process. This includes tapping into powerful actors such as the Catholic Church and media to help build national awareness regarding the issue.

But PWI realizes that an NGO’s work is never done as that the adoption of the law is merely the starting phase of the procurement reform process. Taking full advantage of its technical competence and knowledge learned throughout the years, it has shifted its focus in training other NGOs, civic associations, people’s organizations, and other members of the voluntary sector regarding the procurement process. It main objective is more to transfer the skills and learning to other actors across the country in order to ensure transparency in government procurement. Likewise, it has a very tight working relationship with the OMB from the conduction of training sessions on the Government Procurement Reform Act for its officials to the institution of the “Feedback and Complaint-handling Mechanism” to process and respond to reports and other information provided by procurement observers. This independent and private whistle blowing mechanism ensures that complaints will be heard and filtered by the PWI and then referred to the OMB for appropriate action. As an intermediate link between citizens and the government, PWI could ensure the faithful handling of grievances and complaints regarding possible anomalies. Another joint venture between the PWI and the OMB is to tap college students to be volunteer observers and monitors of with contract bid and award activities of government as part of their community service requirement. Not only would this initiative assure the steady inflow of informed citizens regarding the public procurement process, it is also optimistic that this experience would instill a sense of volunteerism and graft intolerance to the Filipino youth (Marcelo 2005)

In addition, PWI maintains to embody the “social watchdog” role as it continues to monitor and assess how various government institutions – from the health and agriculture department to the national defense, public works, and education agencies – have faithfully complied with the improved procurement process. It remains observant on how these agencies conduct their biddings ready to sound off “alarms” if the need arises. It also stockpiles best practices among publish them as technical reports ready for public dissemination. Lastly, its attention is also directed at the implementation of new procurement reforms using the power of the Internet. As government incrementally adopts e-procurement procedures, PWI will continue seeking to be at the forefront of the proper development and implementation of e-procurement in the Philippines through clear and well-defined policies and guidelines.

PWI shares the limelight as far as government procurement is concerned with the GWatch (Government Watch) Program. Formed by the Ateneo School of Government (ASG) this is an independent monitoring project that undertakes research and advocacy on themes related to governance and public management, specifically the contract implementation side of government procurement. Among its initial endeavors is the so-called “Textbook Count” in 2003 that intended to keep an eye on the proper deliveries of textbooks purchased by the Department of Education (DepEd). The context for this action are the persistent reports that alleged irregularities have occurred such as the over-pricing, unqualified bidders, ghost-deliveries or long delays in the deliveries, and substandard quality of the textbooks (Luz 2004; Chua 1999). Faced with these problems, the DepEd also had the acknowledgment that it needed civil society intervention in the three main phases of the count: as monitors in the bidding process, quality control inspection, and actual deliveries (Leung 2005).

Given that it is a nationwide project, GWatch faced a difficulty of acquiring the necessary resources (human, financial, and technical) to actually implement the count in about 5,500 delivery points across the country. This was addressed in the aggressive coalition-building efforts of the GWatch inviting other civil society formations while maintaining to be its national coordinator. Among its eventual partners was the National Citizens Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) that suited the needs of the count given its vast experience in electoral monitoring and extensive spread of volunteers nationwide. It assisted in the actual deliveries of the textbooks at the district level (Luz 2004; Leung 2005: 3-4).

At the start of 2004, the second year of the project, GWatch sough the inclusion of more organizations. It cannot solicit the support of Namfrel anymore given that its attention was on the preparations for the upcoming elections during that time. However, it was able to discover a gold mine by tapping into the Boy Scouts of the Philippines (BSP) and the Girl Scouts of the Philippines (GSP) to take the lead in the volunteer mobilization of the actual deliveries for the count for a myriad of reasons (Marcelo 2005). One, there is virtually a BSP and GSP chapter in every school in the country thereby solving the manpower deficit of the program. Second, both possessed an impressive organizational and territorial structure that enabled the project to coordinate all activities and report successful deliveries or possible anomalies with relative ease. Third, there is a unique symbolic impact of having young children tasked to monitor the execution of government project whether it creates a deterrent effect or inculcates a sense of civic consciousness, and social responsibility among the children. Together with other civil society actors, each monitoring team must accomplish an Inspection and Acceptance Receipt that not only is proof of the delivery of textbooks in the proper time and in good condition, this mandatory document also related the various observations regarding the exercise.

In the end, the project was able to produce moderate but encouraging results. According to official DepEd reports, the average cost of a textbook was reduced as much as 39% because of more transparent procurement procedures. Besides this, the time spent for the entire process was significantly trimmed down by half from the original 24 month cycle. Aside from these specific advances, Leung perceptively observed that there were changed as far as the mindset of the actors is concerned as they were able to “clarify their roles, renew their commitments and respect their relationships with one another” (2005: 9). This is not to mention the general change of the public perception about the inspiring volunteerism of organized citizens, the accommodation of the government to the constructive involvement of civil society, and reform-orientation of the DepEd.

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