Civil society and responsive governance

Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute

The COVID-19 pandemic has dampened the traditional holiday season in the Philippines. This year, the celebration will not be as festive due to the ban on mass gatherings and reunions. Despite the decline in the number of daily confirmed infection cases over the past weeks, the Philippines still ranks 27th among countries with the highest cases in the world and seventh in Asia, with more than 434,000 cases as of Dec. 2.

As government continuously fine-tunes its COVID-19 response and increases its funding, alongside cushioning the devastating impact of successive supertyphoons, the current level of transparency and accountability in governance leaves much to be desired. The pandemic has given many governments around the world the opportunity to skip accountability measures and democratic procedures under the guise of “emergency powers.” In the Philippines, in particular, it has highlighted weak institutional bureaucratic mechanisms.

The presence of a crisis has always been used as an excuse to commit democratic shortcuts, especially relating to the urgent allocation and release of public funds. In the process, governments throw out oversight mechanisms altogether in the guise of alleviating the socioeconomic impact of the crisis. Such undemocratic practices erode the foundations of good and responsive governance.

Anti-corruption advocacy platforms galvanized by both government and civil society actors play an important part in this situation. In the recent Pilipinas Conference organized by the Stratbase ADR Institute, speakers from both local and foreign institutions strongly supported strengthening civic engagements to promote democratic values and good governance.

In his discussion titled “Ensuring Accountability through Public Participation and Innovative Audit Initiatives,” lawyer Michael G. Aguinaldo, chair of the Commission on Audit (COA), articulated the expectation of full and proper accounting with regard to the “receipt and utilization of COVID-19 funds and other resources, in cash and in-kind.” The underlying goal, he said, is “to ensure that the funds are readily available and information on their use are reliable and transparent to enhance accountability.”

Aguinaldo added that the use of artificial intelligence will make examination and auditing processes more efficient, citing the agency’s Project “MIKA-EL” or “Machine Intelligence, Knowledge-based Audit, and Experience Learning.” He also discussed how the emergence of “new pandemic opportunities to tap into the power of the people as the ultimate stakeholders in public accountability [can] bring closer to them a better understanding of what the COA does.”

Through the Citizen Participatory Audit or CPA, Aguinaldo pointed out, auditing work becomes a mechanism for the sharing of aspirations, goals, and objectives between the COA and civil society. “[It is also] a technique in conducting public audits with COA auditors, citizens, and members of civil society organizations in one audit team, and for performing other tasks with civil society and the COA as partners… [CPA is] a strategy for reform built on the premise that public accountability can prosper only with a vigilant and involved citizenry,” he said.

We need responsive governance founded on the principles of transparency and accountability to surmount the economic and health challenges the country faces in the wake of COVID-19. It is with such core principles, matched by institutional reforms, that governments are able to move in cooperation with the various sectors of civil society, creating a culture of responsive public service and a mature democratic system. A rules-based and responsive system of governance will ensure that the country’s very limited resources are deployed responsibly and responsively, and for this, we must work as a whole society.

This article was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

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