April 2007
Faces of change / Changeless places

Despite e-governance, transparency eludes Bulacan

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WHEN ONE speaks of e-governance, Bulacan always comes to mind. In fact, its “paperless bureaucracy” is so celebrated that even other countries have sought to replicate it.

It all began 10 years ago, with six computers, and 10 employees with computer skills. Now Bulacan has 12 servers, 299 computers, with 251 units connected to the local area network, and almost everyone has undergone computer training. It also has an entire department devoted to its system-wide, e-based information system.

A first-class province, Bulacan now has 19 information systems (see list). Among these is the real property tax information system, which provides an updated assessment of all real properties in Bulacan with a digital map to boot (even delinquent taxpayers can be spotted easily on a color-coded map). Tax collection has thus improved. Corruption has been reduced, especially since field appraisal assessments can now be generated in just five seconds.

The province also has a financial management information system (FMIS), used by the budget, treasury, and accounting offices in keeping track of all its financial transactions. One can see online the province’s procurements on supplies and medicines; biddings for roads, bridges, and other projects will soon be included.

Overall, these efforts have supposedly made transactions with the province more efficient, transparent, and accountable. But PCIJ learned that this isn’t necessarily true for some of its transactions.

Documents provided to the PCIJ show that last year, the province incurred a total of P19.92 million of budget overdraft for certain items. According to a veteran auditor, this means the province has “obligated more than its appropriation,” something which, the auditor says, could have been easily spotted with the capitol’s computerized operations.

Before any spending can happen, an obligation slip, which can be generated in a matter of three minutes through the FMIS, is issued. This obligation slip will show if there is an appropriation for a certain expenditure. If the budget for an expenditure — say travel — was exceeded, the local chief executive or the presiding officer of the sanggunian (council) must then request for a realignment so it could get the necessary funds from its other budgeted items.

It’s not clear whether anyone generated obligation slips for items such as seminars and trainings, office supplies, and transportation expenses, which were among those that led to overdrafts in the budget. The items in question were meant for the governor’s office and other offices under her, as well as for two legislative branch offices. A council member does say, though, that no requests were made for any realignment for such items. Instead, the provincial council passed a resolution authorizing the provincial accountant to close the book of accounts for 2006, automatically charging the overdraft to items with savings.

This not only defeats the purpose of having the much-vaunted FMIS as a monitoring system; according to the government auditor, incurring obligations for items without appropriation and without seeking the council’s approval to authorize any realignment is “not a good indicator of controls.” In other words, the council was reduced to a mere “rubber stamp.”

Then again, recent experience by the PCIJ also showed that the capitol’s claim that with computerization, “every citizen can be our COA,” is not exactly accurate. At the very least, accessing basic documents like the annual budget could be difficult, even though Governor Josie de la Cruz herself has said that anyone can go straight to their offices and review their books, and better yet, see it all online.

A Bulacan-based journalist says there was a time when budget documents were “simply everywhere.” But when his publication tried getting the 2005 budget, they were given an inch of a yellow paper with handwritten figures for only three items.

“That’s computerization and transparency right there,” comments the journalist.

When PCIJ tried getting a copy of the latest budget, the budget office could not show any document, not even a summary. The department head wasn’t around at that time and the staff said a request letter was needed before it could be released.

The provincial accountant was just as wary. When asked for its summary of income and expenses and other financial statements for the past years to present, the accountant said the data could not be easily generated. Only the summary for its 2005 expenses was given, and it took some prodding before it was shown. The PCIJ was not allowed to review the entire 2005 report.

It was only on the PCIJ’s second visit when the consolidated balance sheet and the consolidated statement of income and expenses dating back to 2003 (again records of previous years weren’t readily available) were given.

Actually, these documents can be seen in the annual reports of the Commission on Audit. The budget and the financial statements (the latest of which are still being uploaded) are also online at www.bulacan.gov.ph. Supposedly, these are accessible to everyone. In reality, one needs a user name and password to be able to see these pages. The information technology head, however, says they intend to make these public by August.

The governor explains that they recently had “to caution people about being careful” with allowing the public to access data because of the way information “is being twisted by our opponents.”

“It’s not that we’re hiding anything,” she says, “but it’s really just that I think they’re avoiding unnecessary problems.” Just before the 2004 elections, there were allegations that the capitol was suffering from debts.

“Maybe because you’re media (that’s why) they’re reluctant,” she offers.