From Protest to Participation: Accountability Reform and Civil Society in the Philippines - Part 3

Performance of Public Institutions: Providing Oversight and Voice
At the initial level, global best practices on curbing corruption suggest that a fundamental aspect of accountability reform is the appointment of the appropriate personnel that have a reputation for probity, independence, honesty and integrity (Diamond 2002). Given that civil society organizations are well aware of this fact, they have always been at the forefront in campaigning for the increased transparency and inclusion of any process of appointment to accountability institutions, even if existing regulations fell silent on this matter.

Such has been the initiative of the Transparency and Accountability Network (TAN). Being well aware of the importance of the OMB as the lead institution in the country’s accountability regime and the corresponding problems it confronts, TAN launched a transparency campaign in the selection process of the Philippine Ombudsman in 2002. While both the country’s Constitution and the enabling law that created the OMB did not have any provision for a transparent nomination process, the coalition sought to propose an amendment to the rules that govern the JBC to make all of its deliberations open to the public. TAN found a likely ally among the members of the JBC to sponsor their proposal such that it was able to successfully find its way into its amended rules stating that all of its interviews for prospective nominees to all positions within its jurisdiction shall be announced in the media and the public is invited to listen.

More than trying to create an impact to the public institution concerned, TAN’s crusade for transparency also strived for greater public awareness about the OMB and its crucial role in promoting accountable governance through a series of public forums and media campaigns. While the coalition intentionally did not opt to endorse a specific candidate, it actively “lobbied to make sure that only persons of integrity, incorruptibility, irreproachable conduct and fidelity to sound moral and ethical standards will be recommended for appointment (TAN 2002). Whether it was only coincidental or a product of the TAN’s campaign for the transparent selection of the OMB, the appointed ombudsman had both a sense of the institutional problems and inadequacies the institution were facing, as well as the humble appreciation of the importance of collaborating with civil society (Marcelo 2005).

This was validated by TAN member organizations as they openly admit that a partnership with the ombudsman has been meaningful, fruitful, and genuine as he sought to embark on the reform of the OMB that would surely required the participation of civil society organizations. Given that TAN is considered as the “anti-corruption hub”, an umbrella coalition of various organizations from all social sectors to coordinate all initiatives and activities geared towards accountability, it was able to develop a strategic partnership with the OMB in various reform thrusts. One of them is the conduct of several workshops in 31 national government offices in 2002-2003 whose objective is to help these agencies in crafting their own “anti-corruption plans by identifying corruption vulnerabilities and formulating strategic measures to address these vulnerabilities” (Marcelo 2005). An initiative that also included PAGC, these workshops culminated in the generation of Corruption Prevention Reform Program (CPRP) for ten (10) critical agencies. Following the model of an “integrity pact”, it is an exercise in self-reflexivity as the agencies themselves assess their transparency and accountability conditions and problems and the corresponding solutions to help fight graft and corruption. It overcomes the usual approach of government in “policing itself” by allowing the agencies concerned to design the reform program themselves given that they in a more effective position to have an informed assessment. However, TAN regularly monitors the status of the CPRP and scrutinizes whether the concerned agencies of government are fulfilling their promises to themselves.

One of the innovative government-led programs to address graft and corruption is the so-called Lifestyle Check program launched in 2002. It is based on the belief that “one’s quality of life, level of affluence and lifestyle, reveals greatly one’s financial capacity or standing (Marcelo 2005). Following that a government official is not relatively given high financial compensation (vis-à-vis those working in the profit sector), the indication of any incongruity in terms of the corresponding lifestyle of that particular public servant and/or his/her family deserves government scrutiny and attention from accountability institutions. This may require the particular official to be made answerable either to explain or justify his/her manner of living.

Specifically, the lifestyle check is conducted by probing into the assets declarations of government officials and explores indications of extravagant living that might be inconsistent with their financial net worth or remuneration as government officials. Asides from scrutinizing their asset value or net worth, other probe areas take into account behavioral aspects such as leisure habits, kin checks – looking at relatives who could have gained employment through the official’s influence, and conflicts of interest (Quimson 2004: 238). President Macapagal-Arroyo mandated the PAGC to be the lead implementer of this program with the OMB as the enforcer of findings and recommendations.

Cognizant of the vital function of civil society in any anti-corruption program, PAGC sought its inclusion in the Lifestyle Check Coalition, an aggrupation of state agencies and societal organizations such as TAN and the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP). A memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed on March 2003 that formally launched the partnership. The coalition has organized various capability-building seminars and workshops for both government personnel and the civil society actors. Several task forces were formed to divide the labor with civil society groups mainly performing the role of providing information on possible candidates for a lifestyle check.

The conduct of lifestyle check was done with reactive ease given the existing requirements for all government officials to declare their annual net worth in a public document known as the Statement of Assets and Liabilities (SAL). This requisite of full disclosure has implications for any undeclared wealth or astounding increases in one’s assets. Any public servant that violates this mandatory duty is liable to existing laws such as the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.

Government was very eager to declare the success of the program despite being barely 4 years old. No less than the Chief Executive proclaimed that the lifestyle check is a “lethal weapon” in her 2004 State of the Nation Address. A total of 159 lifestyle checks have been conducted (de Guzman 2004). These resulted in the filing of over a one hundred (100) cases by PAGC and the OMB. For example, the OMB concentrated its attention towards the three most corrupt agencies based on public perception – Internal Revenue Bureau, of Customs Bureau, and the Public Works and Highways Department. This “strategic agency targeting” had a modicum of success, as it was able to effectively and frequently uncover illegally acquired wealth of several officials. This led to their immediate prosecution and dismissal from office. It has already been noticed by the World Bank (WB) when it stated “[w]hen carefully researched and documented, such independent asset checks can help enhance integrity” (Marcelo 2004; 2005: 13).

But some would rather reserve their accolades to this program as soon as government is able to exact accountability from some of the “big fishes”. As Quimson astutely observed,
Firstly, there is a risk that lifestyle checks may develop into witch-hunts by department heads against their personnel, possibly as foils to throw investigators off their own scents, or by lower-ranking personnel as weapons against their superiors. Rivalries may become motives for accusations, with the risk of harassment. Secondly, lifestyle checks sometimes conflict with confidentiality and privacy concerns, and civil rights problems may arise over the ‘entrapment procedures’ recently proposed by the ombudsman’s Special Prosecutor’s Office. Thirdly, though lifestyle checks are certainly useful against small-time offenders, they may intensify capital flight and money laundering abroad, making the exposure of high-ranking officials more difficult (2004: 238-239).

It is in this context that civil society might enter to possibly ameliorate the existing limitations of the lifestyle check. According to TAN, they are gearing towards a more proactive role in this program and not simply becoming information providers. This implies being involved in the prosecution stages such as case build-up efforts. While they are in close coordination with the agencies authorized to conduct these checks, they would remain their critical distance and maintain to be the “guardians of the guardians”.

Diagnostics: Measuring Corruption and Tracking Reform Initiatives
Business groups, and civil society groups through the assistance provided by international funding agencies have long ventured into coming up with diagnostic assessments on accountability-related issues such as the public perception on graft and corruption, the sincerity and capacity of government agencies to curb wrongdoing, and the other opinion-related concerns. This paper has already made use of the results of the SWS Survey of Enterprises from 2001-2005 which would not have been possible without the help of the Makati Business Club (MBC) and the Asia Foundation. But there are other initiatives as well.

One such example has been the input provided by academic institutions like the Development Academy of the Philippines (DAP). It is currently the proponent of the Integrity Development Review (IDR) program, a diagnostic tool to assess graft and corruption as well as to evaluate reform efforts. It is considered a unique exercise, as it is “an in-depth and comprehensive management systems audit that aims to provide diagnostic tools that will assist government agencies in assessing their systems integrity and in mapping out their corruption vulnerabilities”. This objective diagnostic tool has been pilot-tested to the OMB itself at the early part of this year as the outcomes have been very encouraging. According to Marcelo, the IDR program in the OMB generated a list of reforms that included its own specialized and stricter Code of Conduct; stricter internal policies, prohibitions, procedures and requirements of disclosures as to receipt of gifts and benefits by its officials and employees; and policies, rules and procedures on whistle-blowing, internal reporting and investigation (2005: 11). It is the hope of OMB that this list would be successfully implemented effectively in the future that in turn will generate more IDRs that would be conducted in other government agencies.

Policy Advocacy
In an arena where Philippine civil society has shown tremendous influence, policy advocacy for more accountability in governance have yet to be fully embraced by most civil society groups in general. Asides from the vital role of PWI in the enactment of law on procurement reform, most of the legislative measures that societal actors have remained dormant in the country’s legislative mill. For example, TAN has formulated various bills that would seek to comprehensively restructure and overhaul the country’s internal revenue collection agency for they believe that it is futile to continue to reform an institution whose corruption has “metastasized”. In addition, they have also been at the forefront to lobby for a law that specifically provides for freedom of access to information in order to encourage greater transparency and eliminate possible obstacles to the disclosure of government actions and decisions.

However, Quimson (2004) discerned that the country presently has a crucial gap in its accountability regime. There are no laws that protect whistleblowers which have far reaching repercussions for societal watchdogs. If there is no protection afforded by the state to brave individuals or groups that are willing to divulge and expose official misconduct, it would compromise a mechanism of accountability given the absence or lack of reliable and genuine information backed by concrete evidence.


This paper has demonstrated that the power of contention and protest as a mode of civil society engagement could be transformed into a direct mode of influencing and even implementing accountability reform. The Philippine experience showed that any success in addressing its accountability deficit would entail a strategic partnership between government and civil society actors.

The various cases of civil society participation have imparted a set of lessons and best practices. First, the presence of reform-minded leaders in anti-graft government institutions is imperative for accountability reform to be plausible. While the appointment of these progressive individuals is mostly a prerogative of the Chief Executive, this paper has shown that the civil society was able to influence the process of selection by campaigning for greater inclusion and transparency. The political leadership must be made aware that the chosen “guardians” must have the necessary qualifications – competence, integrity, and independence – in order to infuse that there is sincerity on the part of the government to impose restraint upon itself. If government is able to provide willing and able officials, it would not be difficult for civil society to actively involve itself and forge partnerships.

However, there is one caveat must be pointed out. The chose leaders that will implement accountability reform must be “institution builders” that will institutionalize mechanism and good practices in curbing corruption. They must ensure that best practices and mechanisms routinized as accepted as policy. These leaders must make it very difficult for predecessors to jeopardize, overturn, and dismiss existing rules, procedure, and programs that enforce accountable governance in the country.

Second, while most of these cases have been anecdotal, there is the challenge of “scaling-up” meaning both the vertical and horizontal diffusion of these efforts across the country. The remarkable achievements of CCAGG, the Textbook Count, and the Ehem! Program, albeit inspiring, must be replicated across the country in order to genuinely reap the benefits of improved accountability. These examples have only shown the range of possibilities with regard to curbing corruption that hopefully could be utilized by other civil society actors in cooperation with their relevant government agencies may it be their local governments, regional offices of state departments, etc. While this paper has limited itself to one face of corruption, it is likewise urgent to turn attention to its other manifestations. The allegations of fraud against the incumbent administration only showed that the country’s electoral process is in dire need of reform. Any positive changes in the enforcement horizontal accountability will be futile unless a country’s electoral exercises are not considered free, fair, clean, and honest given that it remains as the quintessential source of democratic accountability. Moreover, the civil society also would need to look at corporate corruption. Again, the country’s dismal fiscal situation only points to the inability of the state to properly generate revenues. There is a consensus that the one of the main causes of the low tax effort of the Philippines is the rampant and endemic corruption that exists between government officials and the business sector.

Third, any civil society initiative would not be successful without sufficient and sustainable pool of resources – whether human, financial, and technical. This paper has revealed that most, if not all, of the programs have received tremendous assistance from international and multilateral funding agencies. Civil society leaders foresee the needed for such funding and support to be sustainable. Thus, it becomes a survival issue for civil society initiatives to diversify the origin of their resources. It was a positive sign that most business entrepreneurs are willing to personally participate and even to give a small percentage of their profit to help anti-corruption efforts (SWS 2005). Another related point is the lack of organizations willing to involve themselves in accountability reform. But this may not be easy given that other NGOs or civil society groups would have to balance this with their other advocacies or issues. Moreover, there is the potential of resources being offered by what is known as “diaspora philanthropy” – given the substantial number of overseas Filipino citizens. This pool of resources – whether financial or technical – is a great reservoir that the government and civil society organization could tap.

Fourth, the media could immensely contribute to accountability reform by helping disseminate the successful initiatives of the civil society and help expose official misconduct and government wrongdoing. However, it is it is not just media per se that is needed but a critical type more known as “watchdog” journalism – one that scrutinizes the activities and behavior of public officials guided by the protection and promotion of the public interest and the pursuit of transparency and accountability in governance.

Last, any attempt to forge state-civil society relationships should be treated with sensitivity and caution. There should be mutual respect on the independence of the two spheres and an agreement on the roles that civil society would play in such partnerships. Furthermore, the government must have the sensitivity to determine whom among civil society actors to engage with regard to governance and policy processes. It must ensure that such entities have sufficient credibility and enjoy the support and confidence of the public sphere.

Earlier versions of this article were presented by Aries A. Arugay at the 4th International Society for Third-Sector Research (ISTR) Asia Pacific Regional Conference held in Bangalore, India from 16-18 November 2005 and the World Ethics Forum held in Oxford University, United Kingdom from 9-12 April 2006.


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