TRANSPARENCY is essential in the implementation of the Duterte administration’s P8-trillion “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program.
Expected higher tax collections because of the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) makes transparency and judicious spending even more imperative given that the bulk of the additional revenues from the increased tax rates s intended to fund the massive infrastructure program in the next five years.
By being open in all transactions from the planning to implementation stage of each of the thousands of projects involved in the Build, Build, Build program, the Duterte administration could prove that its anti-corruption campaign is not mere rhetoric.
Last Thursday, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) presented the results of its case study on the procurement of infrastructure projects by the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH).
The study, titled “Public Contracting in the Philippines: Breakthroughs and Barriers,” listed major improvements and challenges in accessing information on government contracts.
The DPWH is the lead agency in implementing Build, Build, Build which is touted to usher in the “golden age of infrastructure” with an estimated P8 trillion in public and private spending until 2022, when Duterte’s six-year term ends.
Duterte’s issuance of Executive Order No. 2 on July 23, 2016 was a much-lauded move and a step in the right direction in pursuit of his campaign promise of change in governance, specifically on curbing corruption in the bureaucracy. It laid down a policy of full public disclosure and transparency in public service to promote accountability, and set the guidelines for requesting and releasing information from offices under the executive branch.
However, subsequent issuances providing exceptions to transparency and administrative penalties for erring government officials have raised questions on the administration’s sincerity and commitment to ensure greater transparency.
In 2016, the Philippines ranked 101st with a rating of 35 out of 100 percent in the anti-corruption index of Transparency International, the global civil society organization monitoring 176 countries in the fight against corruption. The Philippines was lumped with lower-ranked countries in the index, countries that are plagued by untrustworthy and badly functioning public institutions like the police and judiciary.
TI’s report said these were countries “where anti-corruption laws are on the books, (but) in practice they’re often skirted or ignored” and where “people frequently face situations of bribery and extortion, rely on basic services that have been undermined by the misappropriation of funds, and confront official indifference when seeking redress from authorities that are on the take.”
On the other end, the higher-ranked countries “tend to have higher degrees of press freedom, access to information about public expenditure, stronger standards of integrity for public officials, and independent judicial systems,” the report said.
The country’s ranking in the TI corruption index implies that honesty and openness in government transactions is far from being accepted. Transparency and accountability are generally considered the two main pillars of good corporate governance.
In the PCIJ study, topping the list of barriers to open contracting in infrastructure projects of the government was that agencies do not publish all documents related to the procurement of infrastructure projects, making it difficult to track public-works contracts from planning to implementation.
Karol Ilagan, PCIJ’s lead researcher, noted significant breakthroughs though, such as the availability of some documents upon request, and the openness of officials to explain difficult to understand numbers and processes.
Across administrations over the years, laws and regulations on transparency in public transactions were put in place like Republic Act 9184, or the Government Procurement Reform Act, which created the Government Procurement Policy Board (GPPB) and required publication of bidding documents through the Philippine Government Electronic Procurement System (PhilGEPS).
While the PCIJ study noted improvements in the information-management systems of government agencies, its executive director Malou Mangahas said much remains to be done for the Philippines to improve its two-star rating (out of five), in the Open Contracting Data Standard (OCDS) created by the Open Contracting Partnerships, an international group of policy experts and advocates for transparency in contracting.
With an estimated P8-trillion Build, Build, Build infrastructure program in the next five years, every Juan de la Cruz has to be more vigilant and scrupulous in scrutinizing government spending and ensuring that erring officials are held accountable for any misdeeds.
With the increasing role of social media and other means of communication, it should be easier to bring into public awareness even actions intended to be secret, such as collusion and other anomalies in the bidding process, as well as bribery and intimidation in securing contracts and other deals.
We all have to do our part in ensuring accountability in government if we want to make sure that every peso of our tax money goes to where it should, redounding to our benefit.