COA under Grace

SHE IS the first female head of the Commission on Audit, but that will not be the only distinction Maria Gracia Pulido-Tan will be remembered for after her term of office lapses tomorrow. Indeed, she will leave behind a trail of groundbreaking reforms in the government’s premier audit institution, even though she was its chief for only three years and nine months.

Pulido-Tan herself has told the media that she considers as her legacy the spearheading of the special audit report on the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) or “pork barrel” from 2007 to 2009, during the Arroyo administration. The report has in part caused three incumbent senators to be detained and haled to court.

Started even before Pulido-Tan came to COA, the special audit sought to determine the allocation and use of PDAF and Various Infrastructures including Local Projects (VILP). It included the project implementation by the concerned government agencies and several government-owned and -controlled corporations (GOCCs).

Of the P29.004 billion in PDAF appropriations and P50.874 billion in VILP appropriations from 2007 to 2009, only P8.374 billion in PDAF and P32.664 billion in VILP was covered by the audit due to the improper release of funds.

The COA report helped fuel a public clamor for the abolition of pork barrel. On Nov. 19, 2013, 13 justices of the high court voted to declare the pork barrel system as unconstitutional.

After being prodded to conduct an audit on PDAF allocations under President Benigno S. Aquino III’s term, the Commission is set to release another special audit report on PDAF. This time, the report will focus on PDAF allocations and utilization from 2010 to 2013 under Aquino’s watch.

The report will also include the highly criticized Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), a mechanism devised by the Aquino government to realign savings. According to the Budget Department, a total of P144.38 billion in DAP funds was disbursed for “high-impact, quick-disbursing, and socially-responsive projects.” On July 1, 2014, the Supreme Court, in a 13-0 vote with one abstention, declared part of DAP as unconstitutional.

Pulido-Tan, of course, has her share of critics. Unsurprisingly, among them is Senator Jose ‘Jinggoy’ Estrada, who managed to take a swat at the COA chief before he was put in detention for his alleged involvement in the pork-barrel scam. In a privilege speech at the Senate, Estrada scored Pulido-Tan for, among others, what he said were her far too frequent travels abroad, as well as the lack of any mention in the special audit report of disallowances by COA, or the minimal amounts of pork it found to have been misused by Aquino’s allies in Congress. “Very clearly,” said Estrada, “Chairman Pulido-Tan failed to obey the constitutional mandate reposed on COA, and that is compliance audit focused on public accountability that disallows irregular, unnecessary, excessive, and extravagant or unconscionable expenditures or uses of government funds.”

The COA head would remain mum on that point when the media questioned her later about Estrada’s speech. She would say, however, that at least Estrada “did not deny anything…(and) did not say we were wrong about our PDAF audit.”

In any case, Pulido-Tan has implemented other initiatives aside from the Commission’s critical audit reports. She was the first COA chairperson to release publicly — online and hard copy — the Report on Salaries and Allowances (ROSA) of public officials and employees. She also went full blast with the computerization of COA and distributed computers to auditors across the nation.

Moreover, she formed a Fraud Audits Office, which accepts complaints that concerned citizens have submitted personally or online through the COA “Citizens’ Desk” button on the COA’s website.

The “Citizens’ Desk” link directs the complainants to a Public Information System where e a ticket may be created for audit and non-audit related concerns. COA has investigated a number of complaints and included data inputs from the complainants in its audit scope.

Then there is the Citizen’s Participatory Audit (CPA), which Pulido-Tan pioneered to enhance citizen participation in the public audit process. Through CPA, non-government stakeholders – CSO, private sector, community members, and academic groups – can participate in the audit of public funds and ensure the effectiveness and efficiency of public services and state programs.

CPA was launched in 2012 with funding from Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) through the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability in East Asia and the Pacific (ANSA-EAP). Pulido-Tan had already initiated the Citizens’ Desk, the first component of CPA, shortly after she was appointed Chairperson in April 2011.

Under CPA, COA taps civil society organizations or CSOs as partners to form special audit teams and conduct value-for-money audits of selected government projects. The CSOs perform non-technical duties such as data gathering, assessing of data results, and assisting in the drafting of audit reports. The thinking is that such an arrangement will help educate citizens in the audit process of public funds and encourage them to participate.

Three pilot audit projects have been conducted under the CPA: the Caloocan-Malabon-Navotas-Valenzuela (CAMANAVA) flood control project under the Department of Public Works and Highways; Barangay Health Centers in Marikina City; and the Solid Waste Management Project of the local government of Quezon City. At the end of the audit process, the teams drafted reports, including recommendations for the improvement of the projects. The CPA results are incorporated in the audit reports of the agencies concerned.

A CPA project was also conducted in the disaster-relief activities for Typhoon Yolanda victims. A total of six audit teams were formed to audit the construction and awarding of bunkhouses and check the implementation of the cash-for-work (CFW) program. Each audit team had one CSO partner. The CSO partner helped in the inspection of bunkhouses, survey and interview of bunkhouse recipients, and survey of CFW recipients.

Before her exit from COA, Pulido-Tan had approved the rollout of the next phase of the CPAs to focus on farm-to-market roads in Palawan, tourism roads in Region XIII, public-private partnership program on construction of school buildings, and health programs in the education sector.

As of now, the CPA program is being implemented only in selected areas in the country. Hopefully, Pulido-Tan’s successor would be able to institutionalize the CPA and have it implemented in every cities and municipalities. One problem stands in the way, however. The P5-million budget that COA had proposed under the 2015 General Appropriations Act for the operation of a permanent CPA unit in COA had been slashed by the Department of Budget and Management. DBM has explained, COA sources said, that instead of a separate amount, the CPA budget has been tucked into COA’s budget for operations.

In November 2013, the CPA program won the “Bright Spots” Award at the London Open Government Partnership Summit.
That same year, Pulido-Tan was named one of five members of the United Nations’ International Audit Advisory Committee or UNIAAC.

The UN General Assembly appoints the five IAAC members “on the basis of equitable geographical representation, personal qualifications, and experience” to serve “in an expert advisory capacity and assist the Assembly in fulfilling its oversight responsibilities.” Pulido-Tan is the external auditor of both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). – PCIJ, February 2015

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