Citizen participation in pursuit of government accountability

Photo by Arnaud Jaegers on Unsplash

One of the more recent solutions introduced in the Philippine government to curb corruption is the Commission on Audit’s Citizen Participatory Audit project. It capitalizes on participatory citizenship to help monitor government projects. This article tackles the present gains and issues about the program.

The Philippines has been plagued by corruption issues for many years: from the colonial period to present time, this issue has persisted. During the past years, the Philippines has maintained a relatively similar score in world corruption rankings and research, (the scale being 0 to 100, the latter figure being very clean), but still low: 36 in 2013, 38 in 2014, 35 in 2015, 35 again in 2016, and most recently, 34 in 2017 (Transparency International). From last year’s 101th ranking, it slipped down into 111th this year (out of 180 countries).

One of the answers that has been brought to the table in order to combat corruption is the involvement of people and their need to report abuses, suggest constructive government mechanisms, take part in government processes, among many others. Simply put, it is encapsulated in the theme called citizen participation.

The most supreme audit institution in the country, the Commission on Audit (COA), takes the issue on corruption to heart, since it was formally established through the 1973 Constitution (although COA has its roots way back in 1899 with the existence of its predecessor, the Office of the Auditor for the Philippine Islands). It continues to be at the helm of guarding public funds – ensuring that public money is spent where it should be and that it is spent appropriately; in other words, there is value for money. This mission is reflected explicitly in their mandate. COA “upholds the people’s primordial right to a clean government and the prudent utilization of public resources, founded on the premise that public accountability can prosper only with a vigilant and involved citizenry, for the promotion of transparency and effectiveness (COA Operational Guidelines, 2015)”.

In line with the new approach of citizen participation in conducting better governance, the COA has introduced the Citizen Participatory Audit (CPA) project to make room for greater transparency and accountability in the government since its formal launching on 26 November 2012. It is a partnership between COA and Affiliated Network for Social Accountability in East Asia and the Pacific (ANSA-EAP), through the funding of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Sometime after its official launch, the Philippines’ Department of Budget and Management (DBM) included the program as a reform in the country’s commitment to the Open Government Partnership.

The goal of the program is to allow a safe space for ordinary citizens to get involved in auditing government projects and programs. The citizen-auditors usually come from the ranks of the accredited Civil Service Organizations (CSOs) which collaborate with COA in the auditing process. There is a Memorandum of Agreement that is signed between COA and accredited CSOs that will signify the specific audits that will be undertaken by the latter (COA-UNDP, 2002). Through this program, the COA was able to launch a strategic partnership to incorporate the civic sector in auditing processes. It is to give the citizens, to whom the government is accountable, the capacity to monitor the utilization of public funds.

Concrete examples of citizen participation in government audits include: trialing new methods of data gathering, such as when citizen enumerators were able to get information for a Solid Waste program (because they were more familiar with the place), improving methods to gather service user feedback (through community scorecards, evaluated by the patients of Marikina Barangay Health Center), promoting collaboration among involved stakeholders (such as introducing community-based meetings in evaluating a project called CAMANAVA). Other ways involve participation in capacity-building workshops, identification of scope and methodology during audit planning, design of survey tools, and crafting of the audit report (Aquino, K., 2014; ANSAP-EAP, 2014).

Findings from initial projects reveal interesting data. For instance, there was an audit conducted on the Tourism Road Infrastructure Project (TRIP) in Surigao del Norte, in particular the construction/improvement of access roads. Conclusions of the study indicate that the project complied with the procurement process of the government, and that the project truly existed and was implemented based on the approved plan. However, there were noted deficiencies in the project site as manifest in road cracks, surface irregularity, and lack of core test for thickness determination. Another audit report (on the Solid Waste Management Program of Quezon City) shows that the majority of the respondents gave an overall mark of their community as “clean”. However, it was observed that there were “instances of non-compliance in regard to the review and updating of the Plan and the composition and operation of the City Solid Waste Management Board”.

The CPA project, given its promising performance, has to be well maintained, if the COA likes to create a truly lasting social impact in the purview of citizen participation vis-à-vis government accountability. The notion of “citizen participation” is to be continuously formed, implemented, and sustained. Further developments could include third party monitoring and evaluations of the completed citizen participatory audit projects.

The CPA project has been a refreshing project to see in the Philippines, a country that has suffered from severe and interminable corruption. Having a history of well-entrenched corruption, it is a consolation for the citizens that the COA has bagged the Bright Spot Award in a forum of the Open Government Partnership in London last 2012. The CPA project has been discussed in various international platforms, and the experiences have been shared with other countries as well. Initial feedback obtained from the citizen-auditors were also on the positive side.

Sherry R. Arnstein (1969), in her framework called the Ladder of Participation, classified the degree of citizen participation in various types, depending on the intensity of the participation. In total, she came up with eight rungs: manipulation (lowest level), therapy, and informing are part of the sub-group called Non-Participation; informing, consulting, and placation form part of the sub-group called Tokenism; partnership, delegation, and citizen control (highest tier) make the Citizen Control group. The lowest sub-group is characterized as a mere caricature of citizen participation – the project is being called as citizen-centered, but in reality, there is no genuine citizen engagement. The second sub-group manifests a participation that can be called as tokenism, that is, the citizens are heard but there is no assurance that their feedback and inputs would be carried out. Lastly, the highest sub-group displays an authentic kind of citizen participation whereby citizens are not only heard but have decision-making and managerial capacities.

Interviews conducted by the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability in East Asia and the Pacific (ANSA-EAP) with some volunteers point out to positive results about CPA, owing to the fact that there were various manifestations of citizen participation in the project. Concrete participatory contributions of citizen-auditors involve crafting of the citizen survey, designing of FGD tools and surveys, carrying out public consultations, and suggesting ways how to do public audits even in more controversial issues (The Journey of CPA, 2014). Hinging upon these kinds of participation, the level of participation could be marked at levels four to six. In the process, COA learns new ways of methodology and obtains new data emanating from the grassroots. Given all these, it is recognized that the Citizen Participatory Audit project of the Commission on Audit has already attained some positive gains vis-à-vis its goals of upholding government accountability in the Philippine government.

However, zeroing in on the citizen participation aspect of governance, the level of Citizen Control that is found at the highest rung of Arnstein’s ladder comes out to be a daunting task for those in the government because it does not follow the usual top-down approach of the government officials (Reyes, undated). There are some inevitable questions to ponder: “Given all the inputs culled from all stakeholders specially that of the citizens, who now decides ultimately at the end of the entire process?”; “Are the citizens to have the last say?”; “What are the implications of these?”; “Are the citizens equipped enough to handle with competency government functions given the fact that they have their own professions to practice?”; “What is now the role of the government?” These are only natural queries, as the highest form of citizen participation connotes overthrowing the role of the government and instead being replaced by the citizens. These are to be taken into consideration in the continuous implementation of the Citizen Participatory Audit project.

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Maria Pilar M. Lorenzo has recently finished her coursework in the Master of Public Administration from the University of the Philippines. She works as a Director for the Center for Leadership, Communication and Governance Research and Consultancy Institute (CLCGI) and a Researcher for the Philippine Society for Public Administration (PSPA), where she serves as well as the Managing Editor of their publication entitled Philippine Governance Digest. Her researches deal about citizen participation, youth unemployment, ethics, and governance. She is also a registered teacher and a licensed trainer.