A Grace-ful Exit

(published 16 March 2015, MST)

It was exactly one month and ten days sine she bowed out as chairperson of the Commission on Audit. On that Thursday afternoon, Maria Gracia Pulido Tan was upbeat and candid, talking about her stint in government at the Integrity Initiative forum organized by the Makati Business Club and the European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines.
 She denied that her legacy at the COA consisted solely of the special audit reports they produced on the Priority Development Assistance Funds. These reports called attention to certain practices in what is now known as the pork barrel scam and eventually helped send three senators and other lower level officials to prison.
No, Pulido Tan said. What she considers her legacy at the commission after a stint of three years and nine months are the empowering thoughts she hopes she has imparted to its men and women. “I came to do my job for a fixed period of time; I had no other agenda. I simply wanted to have a COA that our Constitution meant to be, with people who are not blinded nor intimidated by anyone.”
During her time, there were numerous administrative investigations initiated against COA’s own personnel.
She also sought to do away with the practice of relying on endorsements for appointments and promotions. “There were quite a number of lawmakers who were angry that we did not accommodate their requests.”
But Pulido Tan was firm: “We should not rely on endorsements; we should stand on our own merits. Who else would be aware of our capacities but we ourselves?”
These days, the former COA chair tends to her garden, dotes on her grandchild, and does all the things she has always wanted to do but did not have the time for, before.  These, and attending forums such as the one by Integrity Initiative, sharing her thoughts on what ail us as a nation and how we could do our part to help make it better. 
Among Pulido Tan’s thoughts, both on the commission and for the country in general, are:
On the residency system—and COA’ logistical limitations. One of the things Pulido Tan finds most objectionable in the commission is the residency system -- auditors staying in the premises of the agencies being audited and eventually developing relationships with people from that agency. It’s easy to say this practice must be stopped because it compromises the integrity of the auditors.
The reality on the ground however is that the commission does not have the logistical support for this. “Where will they hold office? Do we have funds to build separate offices?” Pulido Tan cites the time they requested for provincial satellite offices, only to be turned down by the Department of Budget and Management.
On the content of the audit reports. People also expect the COA to go to town with its findings of corruption. In reality, that is not the case. The most they can do is to identify red flags and then refer these to the Office of the Ombudsman for further action.  
There, too, are different kinds of audits performed by the COA, and most of these are financial or compliance audits which simply say whether the agency in question rendered a fair representation of the facts. According to Pulido Tan, there should be more special audits, meaning performance or value for money audits that would look into whether the funds are actually spent as intended.
On the private sector’s dealings with the government. Pulido Tan reminded private corporations to live out their integrity pledge when dealing with the government. “It takes two to tango,” she said.
Finally, on the culture of mediocrity and tolerance. We don’t expect much from our leaders nor hold them up to the highest standards. “We have to stop making excuses for failure!” she said.
We are also tolerant as a people -- for instance, while we observe so many irregularities, all of these do not get reported. We are afraid to tell on our boss or colleagues. We think we will just get frustrated with the judicial system. We end up being silent when in fact we should be speaking out.
Her time may have been up, but Pulido Tan’s words sure give us plenty to think about -- and, for some of us, act on.