Build, build, build – trust!
AS EASY AS ABC - Atty. Alex B. Cabrera (The Philippine Star) - June 16, 2019 - 12:00am

It must be said, whether we admit it or not, that we should be thankful to our countrymen serving in government. Most of us are scared of this thankless job or are simply not up to it.

Yet, when one takes on the job of a public official, there is that uplifting honor behind the title, there are those connections useful even after one’s life as a public servant, and there are those invaluable opportunities (business or otherwise) created because of the rich relationships and wealth of information and experience acquired by someone who served well.

Government personnel may earn huge psychic income but the salary is forgettable. So when the public or taxpayers demand accountability, it’s not due to the salary that is paid to them (which should be increased, really), but due to the assets of the country entrusted to them. They handle and spend other people’s money – money coming from every Filipino citizen. That is accurate actually because even if one does not pay income tax, each one pays 12 percent VAT on anything he buys and on anything that even the youngest member of the family needs.

I am so happy each time news comes out that the President sacked someone in government because of corruption, especially those who we personally know deal that way. But I am so unhappy if the same sacked official is recirculated because unlike plastic straws, recycling non-trustworthy public officials is not the environmentally friendly thing to do.

This Sunday, I join advocates of transparency in public office and push for low-hanging initiatives where government can tell the public what exactly are they doing and what the public wants to know.

If I start with corruption by servants, I suggest a platform that shows all government people sacked, or charged, on what ground, status of their case, or where they are now. The Office of the President can run the platform and place that alongside the anti-corruption thrust of the presidency.

To put it in perspective, apply that for instance to heads or officials dismissed relatively recently, such as some officials from the National Food Authority or the former Dangerous Drugs Board chief, or Food and Drug Administration chief for corruption – we would like to know how their cases turn out, or if corruption charges have any consequence.

A major area where such disclosure platforms are required is related to the ‘Build Build Build’ initiative. In the recent United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) workshop I attended in Bangkok, I learned of Honduras’ success story in creating a transparent environment for infrastructure. Every project, every submission, and details of the technical and financial aspects of each bid are available online for the public to see. By going to the SISOCS portal (sisocs.org) and using Google Translate to convert Spanish language to English, one can test it. (SISOCS in Spanish stands for Information and Monitoring System for Works and Supervision Contracts.) The global organization supported by the World Bank, called CoST (Construction Sector Transparency Initiative), helps crunch information collected from the platform to help the public use the information better. I was informed that this platform is available for free to any country that wants to use it.

The above best practice, which they call Open Contracting, is what we need. The government now prefers the ODA (official development assistance) as the mode of financing infrastructure projects (through loans and government spending) vs the PPP (public-private partnership) where the private sector partner can recover their investment and profits before the constructed asset is turned over to government. The reason for the choice is mainly speed. But this is no excuse not to account to the public what went on in those contracts and bids. All of this can still be in the ‘Build Build Build’ platform for the public to know. It is also appropriate to include in the platform, even post-award, how the bids were evaluated for the government to show that all were based on merits. This will exponentially increase private sector confidence and foreign investments in infrastructure projects.

Another best practice (which I also learned from the workshop) worth seriously considering here is how Argentina cured corruption in its maritime sector. Shipping companies there hurdle daily inspections and when anything wrong is found, their shipments will be held hostage by government inspectors. Fines could amount to $50,000 per day and they have no choice but to accede to the “demands” for the release (does this sound a bit familiar?). Anyway, the government there allowed the Maritime Anti-Corruption Network (a coalition group) to conduct a constructive investigation on how to get to the root cause of the problem.

This resulted in a new system that limits the discretion of inspectors, establishes checks and balance, uses private surveyors and inspectors coming from the public, plus private inspectors can be called upon to supervise bulk shipments (the big-ticket items, which are to die for). Mind you, their data shows a decrease in corruption by more than 90 percent since the implementation of the new system in late 2017.

What the above and the rest of the global success stories will tell us is that even the worst of the lot can be improved. First off, for the government, we need to not just the freedom to request for information (that may never come), but compelled transparency – because it is a constitutional right, and not merely a privilege. The government has an anti-corruption thrust. We can believe and trust, but to paraphrase a song: “More than words is all you have to do to make it real, then you wouldn’t have to say that you (hate corruption), ’cause we’d already know”.

* * *

Alexander Cabrera is the chairman of Integrity Initiative, Inc., a non-profit organization that promotes common ethical and acceptable integrity standards. He is also the chairman and senior partner of Isla Lipana & Co./PwC Philippines. Email your comments and questions to aseasyasABC@ph.pwc.com. This content is for general information purposes only, and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional advisors.

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