Transparency and accountability in the implementation of Bayanihan Act

By: Julie Mae Marie P. Cantos

EVEN with the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) and physical distancing measures in place, “bayanihan” — the Filipino concept of communal unity and cooperation — can be felt more than ever. While the traditional picture of bayanihan is that of Filipinos working physically close to each other, the one-meter distance or more is proving to be no obstacle among the people in lending a helping hand in this time of pandemic. But bayanihan alone will not defeat this formidable and contagious enemy. There is a need to formulate clear and effective measures, long-term concrete plans and lawful directives to overcome this pandemic, the duty of which rests upon the government and other public servants.

Bayanihan Act

A month ago, with the rising number of coronavirus disease of 2019 (Covid-19) cases in the Philippines, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte (PRRD) issued Proclamation 933 calling the Congress to a special session in order that it could pass a law authorizing him to exercise necessary powers to address the health crisis. On March 24, 2020, Republic Act 11469, or the “Bayanihan To Heal As One Act (Bayahinan Act)” was signed into law. It took effect on March 26, following its publication in a newspaper of general circulation.

Under Section 4 of the Bayanihan Act, the “authorized powers” granted to the President include, among others, the power to reprogram, reallocate and realign savings from the budget items of the executive branch in the General Appropriations Act (GAA); and the power to take over the operations of any privately owned hospitals, medical health facilities, passenger vessels and other establishments for the specific purposes as provided for in the said act.

Of these authorized powers, the most talked about is the delegation of the budgetary powers to the President, or the “power of the purse” in legal parlance. As early as the passage of the law, social media users were expressing their sentiments on Facebook and witter and reminded the government of its duty to inform the public of how the money would be and was actually being spent. Rightly so, as this involves P275 billion of taxpayers’ money — the figure that was initially reported as an estimate of available funds that could be used for Covid-19 relief measures.

Allocation and utilization

With additional power comes additional responsibility. As a safeguard to the exercise of this budgetary power, the Congress created a congressional oversight committee under Section 5 of the Bayanihan Act. In the same section, the Congress mandated the President to submit a weekly report of all the acts performed by him pursuant to the said Act during the immediately preceding week — or every Monday. Likewise, the report shall include the amount and the corresponding disbursement or utilization of the funds used, reallocated and realigned for Covid-19 relief.

For the money aspect, there are two requirements under Section 5 of the Bayanihan Act: the preparation of a budget report and its corresponding utilization report.

The first requirement is concerned with the identification of savings for realignment, determination of target beneficiaries, and budget allocation for Covid-19 support and response measures.

The second requirement is concerned with the utilization or actual spending of the government. This should show a detailed account of disbursements, the amount of money already spent, items distributed, as well as the list and total number of beneficiaries reached.

It is important to emphasize that allocation is different from utilization. The president may allocate billions of pesos for a certain program, but that data alone would not show if the money allocated is actually spent for the intended purpose. Allocation, after all, is just setting a budget for a particular item while utilization is the disbursement or actual spending of the money set aside. It is why the Congress specifically requires that the report must show the “corresponding utilization of the funds used, augmented, reprogrammed, reallocated and realigned” pursuant to the Bayanihan Act.

It has been a month since the passage of the Bayanihan Act, but what do we know about the budgetary measures undertaken by the government?

Transparency and accountability

Section 1, Article XI of the Constitution itself provides that public office is a public trust and that public officers and employees must, at all times, be accountable to the sovereign people. This calls for transparency and full public disclosure of the transactions of the government involving public interest. In fact, also enshrined in Section 7, Article III is the right of the people to information on matters of public concern.

Without a doubt, the budget allocation and spending of funds for Covid-19 support and response initiatives are matters of public concern.

In his first weekly report to the Congress dated March 30, 2020, President Rodrigo Duterte said the existing billions worth of appropriations already released to the respective departments must be used for Covid-19 relief. The President likewise provided for an initial list of unreleased appropriations under special purpose funds, which may be abandoned and be used instead for addressing the coronavirus pandemic at an estimated amount of P209.907 billion. Further, the President said in his report that there are no programs, activities or projects (P/A/P) of any agency of the executive department, including government- owned or -controled corporations that has been discontinued. If any of this P/A/P is discontinued, the funds will be considered savings for realignment. Thus, from the first report alone, it can be gleaned that there may be enough items under the General Appropriations Act (GAA) from which savings can be generated for use in battling against the coronavirus.

On April 6, 2020, however, the President may have caused confusion among the populace when he said in his address to the nation that the government does not have enough funds to address this crisis. This begs the following questions: 1) How much available funds does the government really have? 2) What is the budget allocation per specific program? 3) How are Covid-19 funds being spent?

Unfortunately, the answers to these questions, much like the total number of Filipinos infected with Covid-19, remain unknown to the public.

As of the time of writing, the Office of the President has not released a full and detailed list of the sources of financing and budget allocation for Covid-19 response. It may be well to keep in mind that apart from savings that can be realigned from the GAA, the government could use tax collections and avail of loans to fund Covid-19. In fact, as per the second report of President Duterte, another substantial source of funding is the bond repurchase agreement with the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas amounting to P300 billion. But as of this writing, neither the third and fourth reports of the President nor the central bank has made any mention if this is already with the Bureau of Treasury. As of the now, how much money do we really have in the Treasury? Without an idea of the current cash position of the government, the citizens are left in the dark. It would be ideal if the government could assure its constituents that the country has enough resources in this fight against the coronavirus.

Another concern is the allotment of the budget. In this regard, a factor that must be considered is an adequate estimate of target beneficiaries; otherwise there is a risk that the allocation would not be sufficient to fund the intended program, like what happened with the Covid-19 Adjustment Measures Program (CAMP).

It may be recalled that the Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE) launched CAMP, a one-time financial cash assistance worth P5,000 for workers in the formal sector who are displaced and under the “No work, no pay” scheme because of the ECQ — enhanced community quarantine — in place. In an official statement released in its website on April 16, 2020, the DoLE has announced the suspension of the acceptance of the application for CAMP, citing the depletion of funds. It likewise said “the requests simply ballooned beyond the capacity of DoLE’s resources.” Indeed, a more thorough assessment and reliable data could have prevented this from happening.

Meanwhile, the Department of Finance announced that it would implement the “Small Business Wage Subsidy,” a wage subsidy program aiming to provide P5,000 to P8,000 per employee of small businesses or those not belonging to the top 2,745 large taxpayers of the Bureau of Internal Revenue. Hopefully, the budget for the program is enough to support its intended beneficiaries.

With these uncertainties, the only thing that is indisputable right now is that the Department of Budget and Management has released a total amount of about P247 billion to various executive departments for Covid-19 support and response measures between April 1 to 18, 2020, based on its website. How much of this sum has been spent? Based on the available data from the President’s reports and the Department of Social Welfare and Developement’s (DSWD) Disaster Response Operations Monitoring and Information Center (Dromic), the total amount utilized for Covid-19 relief as of April 20, 2020 is about P36 billion. The breakdown is as follows on the table below.

Based on this data, it would seem that only a small amount of the budget has been utilized and only a small portion of the population has been given relief. For example, the estimated number of beneficiaries for the DSWD’s Social Amelioration Programs is 17,956,093 families. As of April 18, 2020, or one month into Bayanihan Act and five weeks since the ECQ, the number of beneficiaries served was only 4,054,360 families as shown in the President’s Fourth Report. For those who have not yet received the cash relief, this could mean hunger.

Addressing concerns

For the past weeks, the reports submitted by the President to Congress’ Oversight committee were heavily in paragraph form. Noticeably, it was only in the Fourth Report dated April 20,2020 that the President used tables for the breakdown of information regarding expenditures, adopting the recommendations made by the senators. Still, the fourth report did not address the concerns of the public regarding transparency. It would be well if the President could provide a more transparent reporting: a detailed account of sources of financing, target number of beneficiaries and actual number of beneficiaries reached per program, amount released to and distributed by the local government units (LGUs), as well as an account for all the donations received by the government and a list of its recipients.

Further, a centralized database or a website for all Covid-19 related information, news, updates and progress of the national government and the LGUs would be more in keeping with the policy of transparency. As of this writing, if one would try to check for updates on the budget, expenditures and plans of the government, one would find oneself looking at different websites and official social media accounts of the government — a compassless quest for truth.

It would be ideal if a centralized database would have separate tabs for each department under the executive branch, and also for the each LGU (by province, city and municipality) that could easily be viewed and accessed by the people so they could keep their local officials in check and keep track of the status of the delivery of assistance. With the aim for a more transparent distribution of relief, some LGUs uploaded the list of names of beneficiaries in their Facebook accounts — a commendable move. If there is a centralized database, the LGUs could use the platform for uploading of detailed accounts of its relief distribution. The Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT), which is the primary policy, planning, coordinating, implementing and administrative entity of the executive branch could spearhead this project.

In addition, a centralized database would not only be beneficial to the people, but it will also keep the public officials up to date. This could prevent conflicting announcements from the President and his alter egos in the executive department. Let technological advancement be a tool for a more effective and efficient information dissemination.

It is also high time that the President produces a timetable of concrete plans for addressing this pandemic. Reasons for the delayed distribution of cash assistance and food packs should also be identified and addressed accordingly.

Covid-19 is a contagious disease. While the ECQ helps in preventing the spread of the virus by limiting the movement of the people, this would simply be a band-aid solution if those who are infected will not be detected and treated accordingly. Persons with symptoms and communities with confirmed Covid-19 cases should be prioritized and made to undergo testing as risk of contamination is higher. To date, however, plans for mass testing remain unclear. May the government use its political will towards formulating aggressive plans to defeat the real enemy, the Covid-19, and ensure the health and the life of every Filipino.

Bayan ni Juan, Bayan in One

In these difficult times, the people need the best of their government officials the most. Let not observations, suggestions and criticisms cut the onion-skinned. Rather, may public officials use these to keep themselves in check, to realize what should be done and what could be done better.

To fellow Filipinos, may the strong spirit of bayanihan continue to be part of our everyday lives even after this pandemic is over. Poverty and hunger do not exist only in the time of a public health crisis. It is a reality, a day-to-day battle for our impoverished, underprivileged and unemployed brothers and sisters in the city, rural areas and indigenous cultural communities. Let us do us our share in the community and continue to lend them a helping hand now and in the future. May kindness and compassion reign in the hearts of everyone.

I cannot wait for the day when we can all step out of our homes, hold hands, greet and hug one another — because we have healed as one.