Accessing information tough task in the metro

By The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism
Last of Two Parts

(First part is Access to info in Metro Manila

THE apparent inability of majority of Metro Manila local governments to respond quickly and fully to citizen requests for asset disclosure records of local officials, as well as documents on education, health, public safety and other essential services may well be a reflection of the Aquino administration’s own dithering over a Freedom of Information (FOI) law.

Yet while even President Benigno Simeon ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III himself seems unsure just how much he wants his government to be transparent, the World Bank, a solicitous donor of the Aquino administration, recently released a document that explicitly proposed that the government “put forward a Freedom of Information Act for legislative approval.”

At the same time, the latest results of a transparency and accountability drive of the Department of the Interior and Local Governments (DILG) show local governments outside of Metro Manila outperforming those in the National Capital Region.
Not one of the dozens of local governments that has so far been cited by the DILG as being “ehemplo” or good examples in planning, sound fiscal management, transparency and accountability, and valuing performance information came from Metro Manila.

A recent audit conducted by PCIJ revealed poor performance by Metro Manila local governments – more than half of which are headed by Aquino’s partymates and political allies – in fulfilling citizen requests for specific documents on the most basic services.

Most made accessing documents imbued with public interest a serious test of patience, stamina, resources, and will, with many ignoring deadlines for action imposed on them by law.

DILG honor roll

Not surprisingly, not one Metro Manila local government unit (LGU) has made it to the DILG’s latest “Good Housekeeping” honor roll that lists those from Anilao, Iloilo; Balete, Aklan; Balilihan and Catigbian in Bohol; Damulog, Bukidnon; Datu Paglas, Maguindanao; Leon B. Postigo and Tampilisan in Zamboanga del Norte; Pitogo, Quezon; Mobo, Masbate; Naawan, Misamis Oriental; San Agustin, Surigao del Sur; Santol, La Union; and Sto. Domingo, Albay.

Just last March, the DILG also cited 15 high-performing LGUs, mostly from Mindanao, “good housekeeping” such as those in Alilem in Ilocos Sur; Quezon, Isabela and Saguday in Quirino; Mataas na Kahoy in Batangas; Camaligan in Camarines Sur; Banaue and Lagawe in Ifugao; Amlan in Negros Oriental; Maribojoc in Bohol; Kawayan in Biliran; Calamba in Misamis Occidental; Dujali in Davao del Norte; Cagwait and Carrascal in Surigao del Sur, and San Jose in Dinagat Islands.

These LGUs, according to DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo, have had “no adverse” report from the Commission on Audit.

The uneven observance of transparency and accountability across LGUs – and government agencies – lingers apparently because of the absence of uniformed and clear procedures on how public officials should respond to citizen requests for documents vested with public interest that a Freedom of Information Act should have offered.

In fact, just a few weeks before President Aquino delivered his second State of the Nation Address in which FOI was among the most striking omissions, the World Bank had weighed in on the issue that civil-society organizations and some of Aquino’s allies deem of utmost importance for good governance.

The Bank last month put forth in a 349-page “Philippines Discussion Notes: Challenges and Options for 2010 and Beyond” a vigorous recommendation for Aquino to see after the passage of the FOI Act if he so wishes to achieve “inclusive growth,” as well as stamp out corruption and poverty in the land.

Big challenges

The document produced by the Philippines Country Team, World Bank and The International Finance Corporation East Asia and Pacific Department, noted that the Aquino administration “faces significant opportunities as well as considerable challenges: an opportunity for new policy directions and new coalitions to push the development agenda forward with renewed vigor, but a need to overcome the inertial forces that slow down decision making and program implementation during a transition.”

The authors said the document aims “to support the creation of a shared focus among government, civil society, business groups, and development partners on the key elements of a long-term development strategy focused on inclusive growth.”

“Deliberately selective in their coverage, the Notes offer sectoral and thematic analyses to identify key challenges, and recommend a prioritized set of actions for consideration by the new government” yet also “draws on extensive international experience and worldwide best practices, as well as past experience with what works well in the Philippines and what does not,” the authors said.

They then pointed out that in the Philippines, “breaking down the hold that vested interests have over governance requires action on multiple fronts.”

Strong signal

The authors argued: “The Administration could contribute significantly to governance reform by putting up for legislative approval a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, as neighboring countries such as Thailand, Indonesia and India have done over the last decade. In addition to being an integral part of an open governance system, the Act would also send a strong signal that the government is committed to transparency.”

Nonetheless, even before the law is passed, the World Bank document said, “the President could immediately ensure the highest standards of public disclosure in the Executive branch of government through an Executive Order.”

Aside from stressing the need for the FOI Act to be passed, the Bank also exhorted Aquino to “select a strategic agency widely perceived to be corrupt and launch a comprehensive reform plan” to provide “a credible, though not necessarily easy, starting point for a government’s anti-corruption campaign.”
Obama project

Interestingly, despite its reticence to state clearly its position on the FOI bill, Malacañang has unfurled its efforts to promote greater transparency on the world stage.
Since mid-2010, the Aquino administration, represented by Budget and Management Secretary Florencio “Butch” Abad, has signed on to and, in fact, now sits on the steering committee of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a multilateral, eight-country initiative launched by US President Barack Obama.

Obama’s project supposedly aims “to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.”

Under the OGP, the signatory states have committed to produce results along four benchmarks – disclosure of budget documents, disclosure of asset records of public officials, passage of an FOI Act, and engagement between government and civil-society groups.

By the admission of some Cabinet members themselves, the Aquino government may claim to have achieved some progress on the first two OGP benchmarks; on the last two, little or no progress at all.

This has prompted the Bantay FOI! Sulong FOI! network of 157 civil society groups and individuals to remark: “Malacañang must understand: Its desire to assume an honored place on the world stage as one of the leading lights of transparency in the world will not fly, unless it commits to the immediate passage of the FOI Act in the Philippines.”

Practical tips

In the meantime, the seven college student interns who helped conduct PCIJ’s audit of transparency regimes in Metro Manila have drawn up some practical tips for those who may want to access information from LGUs in the absence of an FOI law:

  • Put your request in writing. Most local governments require requests for information be put in writing. Many also want the request to contain the name of the person or agency making the request, as well as the purpose for the request. The City of Navotas, for instance, even has a memorandum that explicitly asks for these.
  • Verify beforehand which department would be handling your specific request. Otherwise, one may well be passed from office to another, and then from one personnel to another. To save time and spare one of fits of frustration, check the LGU’s website first to see which office or official would be best to handle the request, or call or visit the LGU’s information office before writing and submitting your request letter.
  • Note the name and position of the staff member who received the request. Misplaced letters and sudden attack of amnesia abound in LGUs when follow-ups are made regarding requests for information. To avoid being passed around from one staff member to another, one should record right away the name of the personnel who received the request and, if possible, that person’s contact number. It may also be wise to do this in his or her presence, with other staff members as witnesses.
  • Check beforehand for dress codes, as well as specific protocols and procedures. Such information is usually available on the LGU’s website. One can also call the LGU prior to submitting the letter of request. Some LGUs do have uniform procedures and processes. Parañaque, for example, requires that all letters of request be addressed to the mayor first for approval. In Marikina, guards bar those in shorts and/or slippers from entering its city hall.
  • Be aware of the time limit imposed by law on LGUs to comply with requests for information. Remind LGU personnel as well of such deadlines since they may not be aware of it themselves. Under the law, LGUs are given10 working days to act on requests for Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALNs) and 15 working days to act on requests for all other types of documents.
  • Do follow-up calls. This will not only alert LGU personnel of your continued interest in your request, but will also remind them constantly of the need for them to act on it. If there is some delay, ask the reason for it; it may well be that the next step requires another letter to another office. Always ask the name of the staff handling the call, so that there is a “personnel trail” established while you track the progress of your request.
  • Once the documents are provided, double check if these contain all the information requested. Just because an LGU hands over a hefty volume of paper does not mean those data sets have all that you asked for. Go over the documents before leaving the city or town offices. If there is any information lacking, ask why. It could well be that another office is responsible for a particular piece of data that had been part of your request.

  • An incomplete response calls for a follow-up letter. Should there be no response within the period set by law, submit a follow-up letter reminding the LGU of your request – as well as the LGU’s duty to act on it within the legal deadline. (After receiving such a follow-up letter from PCIJ interns, the Office of the Mayor of Muntinlupa called within the day to say that the information could be had from the City Planning and Development Office.)
  • Be nice and keep your cool. It may be the LGU’s duty to serve the public, but any transaction is easier to accomplish when the atmosphere is kept pleasant. For sure, a smiling citizen’s request is more likely to be processed quickly while a demand that comes with a snarl is bound to be treated with contempt and left unattended as a result.

– With additional research by Anne Jeanette O. Priela, Krystal Kay S. Jimena, David Faustino T. de Castro, Essen Mei M. Miguel, Henor G. Gotis, Eric H. Rivera, and Stephanie Directo, PCIJ, July 2011

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