Pinagbuklod na mga Pananaw sa Pananagutan

By Anna Bueno*

May ‘pananagutan’ ba tayo sa sarili nating gobyerno?
Can Filipinos still take their government to account?
Do Filipinos still know how to make their gov’t officials accountable?
For Filipinos, what does accountability in government look like?

Try to translate the word ‘accountability’ in Filipino. The most direct translation would be ‘pananagutan,’ a term directly associated, if you’re Catholic, to the Church hymn about living not just for oneself, but for others.  Accountability, in fact, is the core of good governance, a robust citizenry, and a democracy that works – even though it is a term not directly associated with these concepts. Moreso, how an administration values the trio of transparency, participation, and accountability (TPA), as seen in its openness to put itself under scrutiny, reflects its capacity to listen to and empower its people.

G-Watch, formerly a university-based social accountability program, has been working on the TPA agenda for years. In 2000, the group was formed to respond to corruption scandals.  Now rebooting as an independent action research organization, G-Watch has embedded itself in citizen movements for accountability to deepen democracy all over the Philippines. 

Organizations from various sites of G-Watch held simultaneous awareness events on February 14, in line with G-Watch’s program “Ako, Ikaw, Tayo May Pananagutan.” The events used accountability “as the overarching approach and platform to hold the government to account on their key promises,” says G-Watch convenor-director Joy Aceron, “organizing constituencies around critical evidence and information with concrete next steps and overarching direction.” All over the Philippines, local officials, civil society groups, students, program beneficiaries, and other citizens shared and discussed how accountability comes alive in their own communities in Cebu City, Maasin (Southern Leyte), Dumaguete (Negros Oriental), Puerto Princesa (Palawan), Tacloban (Leyte), The Island City of Samal (Davao), San Miguel (Bohol), Naga (Camarines Sur) and in the nation’s capital, Manila.

In the quiet, agricultural municipality of San Miguel, Bohol, there was a community forum of around 480 citizens, comprised of students, Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) beneficiaries, and local officials. The municipality’s main source of livelihood is farming, and have previously engaged in efforts (in partnership with G-Watch) to monitor agricultural services. This time, the municipality desires to focus on monitoring educational services and the conditional cash transfers to the poor, say Analyn Lumactod, a local government official who organizes G-Watch initiatives in San Miguel.

The students discussed the proper allocation of the Special Education Fund (SEF), which arises from the one percent tax on real property, allotted to the local school boards (LSB) for the construction, operation, maintenance, and repair of public schools, their facilities and equipment, educational research, the acquisition of books, and other purposes decided by the LSB.

The SEF is especially relevant to the students, who stand to benefit from the program. In the context of the student-audience in San Miguel, taking part in the accountability campaign means examining how local services can be maximized by engaging in the exercise of monitoring.

“Masaya akong narining sa kanila na marami ang gustong mag-G-Watch monitor, mag-engage sa activity,” says Lumactod. “Para daw as young as they can make their government accountable sa anong ginagawa at mangyari sa gobyerno … [lalo na patungkol sa] tulong ng government sa school nila galing SEF.” (I am happy to hear that many of them want to become G-Watch monitors. So that young as they are, they can already make government account for the assistance that they give to the achools from the SEF.)  4Ps beneficiaries in San Miguel, who discussed the program’s benefits and use of the Grievance Redress Mechanism (GRM), also saw accountability in this context: as a way to actively participate in the implementation of a program that benefits them.

In Dumaguete, Negros Oriental, the discussion also turned into an opportunity to inform 4Ps beneficiaries that they are more than just beneficiaries: they are stakeholders in government services, and must take an active part in their implementation. 4Ps beneficiaries (as local officials discovered), instead of listening intently to family development sessions, would merely attend to sign the attendance sheet.

G-Watch members in Dumaguete previously monitored the procurement of medicine for health projects in the municipality, but now also plans to focus on 4Ps services and how beneficiaries make the most out of the program. “The awareness-raising activity informed them of their rights, privileges and responsibilities as beneficiaries,” says Cindy Uy, a former local government official and an NGO worker who coordinates G-Watch in Dumaguete. In the community assembly comprised of 300 participants, “…it was impressed upon them that the principle [of] accountability is embodied in various laws and government regulations,” says Uy.

In Cebu, women’s groups questioned the uneven grant of benefits by the local government. “Pinangakuan sila ng barangay City Social Welfare and Development (CSWD) pero up until now wala pa rin silang natatanggap,” says Jum Ouano, community organizer and activist, who led a health center and school hopping event in the area. “If mag-follow up sila, walang malinaw na explanation at ipapasa-pasa lang sila.” (The barangay City Social Welfare Development officer made a promise but they haven’t received any of the benefits up to now. If they conduct follow-ups, they  are given no clear explanation and are made to go from one office to the next.)

Barangay officials there also see a discrepancy in how city officials perform their duties, vis-à-vis their own performance. “Sa barangay workers nakita nila na dapat walang political partisanship ang pagbibigay ng serbisyo (referring to city level officials), ginagawa nila ang kanilang trabaho sa pag-serbisyo sa mga taga barangay, kahit hindi kaalyado,” adds Ouano. “Pero ‘pag dating mo sa city level nag-fo-foster sila ng political patronage which is unfair para sa kanila at sa kabarangay nila.” (There should no political partisanship in the provision of services, and local officials should only perform their duty to barangay residents, even those who are not allies. But when you go to the city level, they foster political patronage which is unfair to them and the people in the barangay.)

In the local government units where G-Watch has partners, accountability is a concept that constantly needs to be revisited and put in context. Economic improvements or downturns are felt in this level, and beyond social media, the most meaningful exchanges and discourse occur in these assemblies where officials and citizens can make each other more deeply understand the workings of their government, based on experiences of people who work on the ground.

For localities such as San Miguel, Cebu, and Dumaguete, where former and current local officials themselves are part of the assemblies, accountability is understood through the lens of the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of citizens in the context of local programs and funds provided by the local government. The perspective zooms on local, everyday instances where accountability is demanded and required to give citizens what is due them.

Other localities expand the concept in terms of keeping public officials true to their oath of public service, and according consequences and punishment to those who would break the trust imbued in them by the people. To talk about accountability, transparency, and participation necessarily means tackling the whole government infrastructure – including law, politics, and policy – that makes abuses possible.

In Maasin, Southern Leyte, accountability “was understood as a concept that would prepare [people] for the consequences of their actions,” says Amelia Mancera, an entrepreneur who coordinates G-Watch in the area. The audience in Maasin were mostly college students, while Mancera was a former educator. “This means that even before they graduate or practice their profession, they are already made aware of the importance of public service. It also instilled in the students the need to be watchful and vigilant.”

Four hours by land from Maasin, civil society organizations from Tacloban desire to be government partners in enforcing and implementing measures for transparency and accountability, especially in light of the still ongoing rehabilitation brought by typhoon Yolanda. “Noong dati kaming nag-roundtable dicussion, lumabas din ‘yung corruption as an issue, lalo na in the context of Yolanda rehabilitation,” says Vincent Acosta, a barangay government official and civil society and social movement leader who coordinates G-Watch in Tacloban. “May perspektibo na legal front of fighting corruption … mag-file ng kaso sa mga contractors at sa gobyerno,” says Acosta. “Meron din, maki-work sa government para mahuli ang mga corrupt na contractor or maiwasan ang corruption.” (When he had our previous roundtable discussion, corruption emerged as an issue, especially in the context of Yolanda. There is a perspective to use the legal front in fighting corruption…to file cases against contractors and the government. There is also the view that we should work with government in order to arrest corrupt contractors and prevent corruption.)

“G-Watch Tacloban wants to be accredited in the City of Tacloban as partner for transparency and accountability because it is identified as a vital obligation in fighting corruption,” adds Acosta. “Volunteering as part of watchdog will address issues and problems of the country such us political dynasty, approval of FOI [Freedom of Information] Bill.”

The perspectives from Maasin and Tacloban emphasize that while accountability is demanded from local officials, it is all the more significant to address the whole gamut of political and social issues, such as poverty, education, urban housing, agricultural reform, migration, labor and employment here and abroad, among many others. Now more than ever, it is necessary to institutionalize participatory accountability measures – as seen in Tacloban’s desire to partner with the city government, for example – as a means to monitor the trustworthiness and performance of local and national governments.

In a statement released the same day on Feb. 14, G-Watch recalled how President Duterte in 2016 promised in his “A Platform for Genuine Change” to implement several measures for accountability, including the passage of the Freedom of Information Law, the lifting of the rule on public officials’ secrecy, institutionalizing government partnership with civil society, and instituting a government based on transparency, participation, accountability, and predictability.

More than a year on his term, however, it seems “Duterte is already singing a different tune ... [he and his allies] have undertaken actions to threaten to undermine the system of accountability we have in place,” says the statement. The actions, says G-Watch, include the following:

  • Apparent attacks on press freedom, which has targeted media organizations critical of the administration;
  • The instruction from the Philippine National Police (PNP) to withhold from the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) any information regarding alleged cases of extra-judicial killings;
  • The decision to redact, or shade with blank ink, the Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN) of Cabinet officials to ensure their “right to privacy”;
  • The signing of Executive Order No. 34, which stated that government procurement worth P500M and above will no longer need the approval of the Government Procurement and Policy Board (GPPB), which approval was intended to limit corruption and personal discretion;
  • The move to replace competitive bidding with the “Swiss challenge,” which does not require a bidding process or prior public consultations;
  • The move to change the Constitution via Constituent Assembly, including the proposals to remove accountability provisions such as abolition of the Office of the Ombudsman.

“There is a recognition that what we are seeing is the counter-pushback of anti-democracy, anti-accountability forces; it is the reemergence of Right-wing/reactionary agenda,” says Aceron, who facilitated the discussion in Manila. The intention, she adds, is to “counter-push back the progressive movements and maintain inequality and injustice, through impunity and monopolistic control of the economy and politics with the facade of populism.”

“Such pro-status quo counter-pushback is backed up by a well-oiled propaganda machinery that has a coherent and simple narrative,” adds Aceron, “which feeds into the valid frustration and disappointments over the system, yet is perpetuated and enabled by those who have actually benefited from the system.”

The importance of accountability mechanisms is how they put issues like these into light, in a forum where stakeholders are present and can take action. Utilized well, accountability measures ultimately point to the individual’s own responsibility in ensuring that leaders and governments should work as they should – thus imbibing accountability as the ‘pananagutan’ contemplated not only in the Church hymn, but as the most concrete manifestation of public service, or ‘pag-go-gobyerno.’

In Puerto Princesa, Palawan, and Naga, Camarines Sur, ‘pag-go-gobyerno’ – or to take part in the whole exercise of democracy and governance by way of active participation, is accountability in action: where citizens, hand-in-hand with government, jointly ensure that services are rendered properly, correct information is shared with the public, challenges in governance are addressed, and lackluster officials are held under intense scrutiny by a watchful citizenry.

In Puerto Princesa, community organizer and environmental advocate Mike Ollave led an awareness campaign through Palawan’s “Love Affair with Nature” event, followed by a radio guesting for a local station. “Nabigyan diin ‘yung mahalagang tungkulin ng kabataan sa isang aktibong pakikilahok tungo sa mabuting pag-go-gobyerno … Napag-usapan ‘yung mga isyung direktang apektado ang mga kabataan lalo higit pagdating sa pag-aalam kung ano ang totoong balita sa hindi (fake news) pagpapahalaga at pangangalaga ng kalikasan,” he adds. (The youth’s important role to actively participate in good governance was emphasized. Issues directly impacting the youth were discussed, especially discerning real news from fake news and the protecting the environment.)

Accountability is needed in Puerto Princesa in the context of various environmental violations against protected areas. “Nabuksan ‘yung usapin na bakit hinahayaan daw o napapayagan ang pagputol ng mangrove, samantalang ipinagbabawal ito ng batas at isang deklaradong mangrove sanctuary/reserve ang buong Palawan,” he says. “Mawawalan din daw ng saysay ‘yung taun-taong ‘Love Affair with Nature’ na pagtatanim ng mangrove kung puputilin lang din naman.” (The discussion focused on why we allow the cutting of mangroves eventhough it is prohibited by the law and that the whole of Palawan has been declared a mangrove sanctuary/reserve. Our yearly ‘Love affair with Nature’ and mangrove planting will lose sense if we will just allow them to be cut.)

The Naga City People’s Council (NCPC), for their part, seeks to strengthen inclusive public financial management in their respective barangays, through a draft ordinance, policy, or even a joint memorandum, says Dada dela Rosa, head of NCPC. But there are roadblocks to implementation in some barangays. “Our context is to find solutions to the issues … we want to have a better environment in the barangay so that the policy will be implemented in all, [and] not upon the character or the officials, and also make it a policy platform in the upcoming barangay election.”

The NCPC was born out of a group of accredited NGOs in Naga, institutionalized through a resolution recognizing it as an official partner for local governance – thus becoming a mechanism that concretizes people’s participation.

As exemplified above, different but necessarily interrelated perspectives of accountability exist. On one hand, some point to accountability as a way to facilitate and prevent abuse in the implementation of basic services; on the other, it is a way to make public servants answer various instances of wrongdoing in public service, such as corruption. In all instances, accountability is seen as a check-and-balance between citizens and their government, by way of the simple act of participating in governance.

Clearly, even in a political environment threatened by moves against accountability, participation and transparency, there is, at the very least, still a widespread awareness of why accountability mechanisms are important, and in what instances they are most visible to the people. In this way, the G-Watch and its various citizen advocacy groups have re-thought a new kind of “people power,” says Jonathan Fox, professor-director of Accountability Research Center.  “G-Watch picks up the pace as action strategists put accountability research at the service of autonomous local and regional civic movements in the Philippines,” he adds.

The step forward is to recognize these diverse but interrelated discussions on accountability, and to sustain and build on pockets of collective action all over the Philippines. “The direction remains deepening of democracy and the empowerment of citizens through strengthened accountability and people's collective action,” says Aceron. “In enabling collective action, there is a recognition of the need to go back to the basics and to our roots: language, shared understanding, shared alternatives/ vision, movement building and the radical need for nuance.”

“A proactive and systematic alternative pro-democracy propaganda movement is called for,” she adds. “The democracy project is not yet over, and we need to continue and be better while responding to threats and rebuilding the basics slowly but surely."

*Anna Bueno is a lawyer and writes for CNN Philippines. She is an alumna of G-Watch/ PODER and continues to volunteer for G-Watch.
** Thank you to all the G-Watch sites and partners for their contribution to this article.