The bright spot of constructive engagement

published Feb 9, 2014 MST
For the longest time, there has been mutual distrust between government on one hand, and citizen groups on the other.
Government officials appear uncomfortable with citizen groups. They feel that these groups are always out there to find something wrong with what they do—even though they may be performing their job in the best way they can. Civil society organizations go around town decrying this or that irregularity or abuse, sometimes without having all the facts with them.
Citizens, for their part, seem to believe that government officials always put their own interests before the country’s. Through neglect or intentional wrongdoing, these officials do not do their jobs well and thus must always be watched. It’s our money that pays their salaries, after all, and our money that funds the projects they handle. This is where the term “watchdog” become important. Watchdogs must stay alert and be sensitive to the movements of the thieves. When they sense them making their move, they must bark, awaken the entire household, and expose the thief.
This kind of interaction between those who govern and those who are governed has worked to some extent, but has resulted in an adversarial approach that has bred negativity, fueled distrust and minimized opportunities for working more closely together.
Now comes the Citizen Participatory Audit project, an undertaking between the Commission on Audit and the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability in East Asia and the Pacific. Funded by Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade—Australian Aid and launched in November 2012, the project has brought together government auditors and representatives of citizen groups as part of the same audit team looking into whether specific projects have achieved their objectives of delivering service to the people.
The first phase will conclude in March, and in that span of time, the participatory approach has been tested in three pilot areas: the flood control project in Kamanava, the solid waste management program of the Quezon City government, and the barangay health centers in Marikina.
Citizen representatives used other tools in conducting the audit—gathering data, conducting surveys and interviews, using community scorecards and citizen report cards, among others.
Of course, it was not easy. Citizen Anthony Septimo, part of the Kamanava team, compares the COA-CSO engagement to marriage. You have different backgrounds, different perspectives, and sometimes talk in different languages. But since you have a common objective to make the marriage work, you try very hard to iron out these differences.
The hard work has paid off, this early. The CPA project won the Bright Spots Award in the Open Government Summit held in London in November last year. There were more than 1,000 participants from 63 countries to the gathering, with projects from seven countries making it to the short list. Ultimately, the Philippines’ CPA was declared the winner. The collaborative approach between government and citizens set it apart from other equally transparency-fostering initiatives from other countries.
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In her speech during the National Shared Agenda Building Workshop—which brought together representatives from citizen groups all over the country who identified and prioritized audit areas they wish to engage in, moving forward—held last week at the COA compound, COA chairperson Maria Gracia Pulido Tan underscored her vision for the CPA.
The ultimate objective is empowerment, she said. Citizens need to feel that they can engage with government in a meaningful way, and it does not have to be under the ambit of the CPA. “It could be in their purok or barangay,” Pulido Tan said. She highlighted that before one is an auditor, he or she is first a citizen.
And when the clamor of citizens attains a certain critical mass, “the government has no choice but to listen to the people.”
Indeed, one does not have to be an accountant or an auditor or a lawyer to participate in ensuring transparency and accountability in government. Perhaps you like going to communities, talking to people and getting their feedback on the issues that concern them. Delivering lectures or facilitating workshops that encourage ordinary citizens to speak up. Drawing cartoons to illustrate a complicated concept. Bringing to the public’s attention a complex idea while telling them that they can make their voices heard.
The CPA as project has a definite beginning and end. Audits of identified projects will also be completed. The approach, however, and the entire thinking that citizens are there as guardians and partners, not necessarily combatants, is a constant source of encouragement and optimism.
Let me end with an excerpt of the individual pledge of commitment that participants signed during the workshop.
“With my core capabilities, background and interests, as well as my current affiliation, I express my willingness to contribute to future participatory audit activities.
“I pledge to actively participate in the CPA and in similar initiatives and to work in tandem with my counterparts from the government and citizen groups.
“I commit to do this for our shared stake in our nation’s well-being