Strengthening public participation in pork barrel system

Conversing with some Congress employees about the ‘pork’ is a common thing. They somehow have an idea on how this P70 million and P200 million came into being, underwent to a bureaucratic flow in both chambers of Philippine Congress, and transferred in agencies and other implementing entities. Some, if not all, staffs of House Members and Senators have an overview of the process. And now that Congress is approaching another session of budget deliberation for 2014, for sure, interested parties and stakeholders would closely monitor the Special Allotment Release Order (SARO) and the Notice of Cash Allocation (NCA) – two vital documents not only for Congress members but also for those who really love the pork barrel system in the Philippines.

Recently, a P10 billion pork barrel scandal was brought to fore and attracted another debate on the existing pork barrel allocation in the national budget. The Makabayan bloc in the House of Representatives is pushing for the abolition of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), commonly known as pork barrel. Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago is proposing for a moderate solution, that is, scrapping the fund little by little until the year 2016. Other camps argue that ideally, Senators and Representatives or the Congress as the Legislative Branch must not have such kind of fund for their function should focus solely on legislation. Be that as it may, with the alleged pork barrel scam and the responses coming from the public, there is an apparent truth behind the pork that we cannot hide from the public discourse – that the pork barrel is full of myth that the people must directly be involved in the debate.

 More of reactive mechanisms

To get into all of these allegations, several measures have been proposed and, in fact, courses of actions have already taken place to address this issue. We are still in a setting where the “pork barrel politics” remains a part and parcel of the national budget.

There is now an ongoing investigation by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) under the Department of Justice on the criminal aspects of the P10 billion pork barrel scam. The Office of the Ombudsman is also conducting a parallel investigation by a special team composed of six graft investigators. The House minority led by House Minority Leader Ronaldo Zamora is pushing for a House investigation on the alleged misuse of the Priority Development Assistance Funds notwithstanding the House leadership position to wait first the NBI investigation.

Similar measures on a full-blown legislative investigation are pending in the Philippine Senate. As to the credibility and impartiality of these proposed “investigations in aid of legislation”, since some members of Congress are at stake, would be another consideration at the onset.

Apart from investigation by competent authorities such as the NBI and Ombudsman, and Congressional initiatives, recommendations on the creation of another instrumentality were also introduced in the midst of addressing the scam. For instance, Senator Santiago is proposing for the creation by the President of a panel of public prosecutors, preferably composed of retired members of the Supreme Court, to handle the prosecution of scams and scandals in government such as this pork barrel scam. Likewise, an independent and non-partisan fact finding body created by Congress that will investigate the scandal with impartiality and independence was underscored by Dean Tony La Viña of the Ateneo School of Government.

These proposals, however, must consider the following realities: 1) The President’s stand on the pork barrel and the Executive-Legislative agenda vis-à-vis Priority Development Assistance Fund; 2) Congress leadership’s stand on the pork barrel, political willingness to subject its own members to an investigation, and conflict-of-interest; and 3) Redundancy as far as current actions being undertaken by other agencies are concerned.

Albeit grand proposals and noble measures, the reality that a huge P10 billion was involved and allegedly went to a few hands from the pork barrel fund is now a storied past. The Philippine Government has nothing left but to investigate the matter and be held accountable those personalities involved in the scam. Such reactive practice has been a perennial occurrence in the government where public funds and the taxpayers’ money were discovered later to have been misallocated or amassed, like the fertilizer fund scam during the term of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. In essence, the public were mere passive participants or just “target” beneficiaries in the pork barrel system when in fact, they must be directly involved to ensure accountability and transparency in all stages of the pork allocation.

Safeguards on the pork

The debate is now shifting from the scrapping of the pork to the ‘safeguards’ and ‘measures’ to be undertaken in order to ensure that similar scam will not happen again. Such development gives rise to a presumption that the government cannot do away yet with the pork barrel allocation in the national budget; and that reality would speak well of the Congress’ holding that awesome “power of the purse.”

A shorter menu of projects to be funded by the Priority Development Assistance Fund is being advanced to tighten the pork barrel system. The project labeled as “hard projects” and “soft projects” will just undergo a shorter version of paper works in the appropriation committees of both houses of the Philippine Congress. Another safeguard available will eventually give the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) a powerful function of accrediting the non-government organizations (NGOs) being tapped to implement the projects to be funded by the PDAF. In short, a centralized accreditation by the DSWD when it comes to NGOs will take place instead of accreditation alone by the implementing agency where the pork barrel will be channeled from the national treasury.

These technical innovations to safeguard the ‘proper’ spending of the pork barrel are a few bureaucratic steps along the way. The procedural aspects to somehow remedy the flaw and defects are being addressed to lessen the chances of corruption and possible abuses. However, the flow of the pork from Congress to the implementing agencies, that is, the input to the output channels of this controversial public fund is not that easy to grasp by the common public with little or no idea at all of the entire process. Such lack of information leads the people to having lack of opportunities to participate in the process of spending their own money. Even the necessary feedback mechanisms are forgotten or disregarded, thus, the monitoring whether the proposed projects were truly funded and delivered to intended beneficiaries has not fully maximized and exhausted by the public.

When then the public should take an active role in the process? At what stage must the people become more vigilant? Are there steps towards engaging ‘public participation’ in the pork barrel in the current set up? These are just few queries that must be faced head-on more of the people, the civil society, and our policy makers.

Information given to the public by the DBM through its website on the PDAF releases is a good initial step in involving the public on the matter. But similar information would remain a documentary requirement unless the people themselves understand the whole process of pork barrel politics. A pro-active participation by the public in the implementation of their own money through this pork allocation must therefore be highlighted.

Public participation and accountability

If the cycle of scandal and corruption in the pork barrel politics persists, a foreseeable future might come where the national coffers cannot anymore sustain even the basic social services needed by more than 95 million Filipinos. The domino effects will prevail in the long run, manifested in the government’s relying on foreign aids and assistance, imposing new taxes, streamlining the bureaucracy, privatizing the remaining public services – at the biggest expense of the public majority of which belong to the poor and marginalized sectors of society.

With these controversies over the pork barrel allocation, the Philippine Government cannot credibly tell the public that it has no enough funds for infrastructure projects like roads, schools, hospitals and health centers, educational support, agriculture and fisheries modernization, among others. With the P70 million being allotted to a House Member and P200 million to a Senator every fiscal year, the excuses of ‘lack of funds and resources’ would be a blatant irony and purported lies to the minds of a reasonable public.

Thus, bringing this issue on pork barrel scam to the grassroots and the various public is of paramount importance. An educated, empowered and pro-active citizenry will be instrumental in combating corruption involving the pork pending its total abolition. An effective mechanism therefore is required tapping the academe, civil society groups, and other stakeholders in the communities to closely monitor the tangible outputs of these PDAF-funded projects. This may be an ideal yet a pro-active approach to the current condition.

Meanwhile, understanding the whole process of the pork barrel system is critical among the people in the communities. The secretive and technical aspects of this fund must be explained well to the public in order to strengthen accountability and transparency. The people must be an active agent in the pork implementation, and not just mere beneficiaries of development projects by the same funds which were sometimes pocketed or wasted to ‘useless’ projects.

The challenge now is how to strengthen public participation, and sustaining such participation to the level that the public will benefit most out of these public funds they fondly called ‘pork barrel.’