Monday, 30 September 2013

Power and Danger of Discretion: PDAF in the Local Context

Image courtesy of Inquirer.
 http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/files/2013/07/cartoon_Jul19.jpg.

“One noticeable feature of modern legal systems is the extent to which power is conferred upon government officials and agencies to be exercised at their discretion, according to policy considerations, rather than according to precise legal standards.”  (Galligan, 1990)

The past month, after the Priority Development Assistance Fund scandal surfaced in Philippine political debate, considerable media space has been allotted to discuss the value, or conversely and more strongly, the evil of the PDAF.  A congressional inquiry is currently being conducted, purportedly in aid of legislation that oftentimes seemed like some person’s show.  A whistleblower seemed to enjoy the media attention with a kind of sinister smile, sounding like saying “come on; do not act as if you do not know this.” A senator accused of plunder chastised himself by saying nothing else is good in this government and that should be enough evidence to not point fingers at them. The PDAF events, occurring at different locations – in court, in the legislative chambers, in the streets, in the minds of people – seem like a Shakespearian comedy, that watching, or living within the plot of misfortune, one cannot help but burst into a dry laugh.

Several of our top academics and intellectuals lend very insightful comments to this spectacle. A scholar I came to know at one point in one of my out-of-country conference trips, and one of those I consider very politically astute but pragmatically optimist at the same time, Ronald Mendoza, argued that PDAF kills our democracy.  He said that “Pork fuels our democracy’s vicious cycle—of poor people who depend on it for help, and politicians who ingratiate themselves to less informed voters and strengthen their stranglehold on power by disbursing it with little accountability.”  Randy David, on the other hand, said that “pork is never good in a political system dominated by insatiable swines”.  Solita Monsod analysing the statements of P-noy’s statements argued that  “ P-Noy actually starts by affirming that “there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this policy,” and that enabling our representatives to identify projects for their communities that otherwise were not affordable was a “worthy goal.”

In the background of these arguments is a word that is highly objectionable, not only in politics, but in business as well - DISCRETION.  Giving one person with a large responsibility too much discretion is giving him so much power.  In the literature on internal control, it is argued that you have to segregate duties in the use and administration of funds. When I was teaching auditing at Holy Name University, I used the mnemonic word CARE, to emphasize how CARE of business funds should be exercised, and this applies more importantly to public funds as well. In an ideal scenario, no one person or entity should be given the power to be the Custodian of resources, to Authorise its use, to Record the transactions involving its utilisation, and to Execute the utilisation of resources all at the same time (though later on, they removed Execution in the standards, I still argue for its inclusion as part of the four incompatible functions).  In the case of PDAF, a merger of around two incompatible functions became deadly – legislators Authorise the budget, and later has the authority to how to Execute it. When not scrutinize, and when hidden behind names of bogus projects and self-commissioned non-government organizations, he can spend public funds on himself.

The PDAF case is not only about a violation of internal control policies (or an override of it). It is also a classic case of what Galligan highlighted as a government where leaders exercise power at their discretion.  It is also a case of breach of legislative powers on executive functions, though how nicely its political language is framed to avoid this description.  One cannot argue that PDAF is consequentially good, because it is inherently wrong.

So while activists are barking at national legislators to give up their pork, I was pre-occupied with the question whether the same kind of discretion is given to local legislators.

In the last couple of months, I reviewed, as part of my research work, the municipal and provincial budgets of around 20 local government units across the country.  There are a few budget account titles that caught my attention and these were normally labelled with fancy names like the ones I enumerate below:

  • Assistance to barangays
  • Assistance to non-government organizations
  • Assistance to municipalities
  • Assistance to cooperatives
  • Donations


I looked at the process of how these were used. Apparently, this general-sounding budget figure is ‘allocated’ to provincial or municipal legislators, who request the amount in the same way that senators and congressmen do.  It is like your PDAF, in its more down-scaled version, and in the context of the local, but nevertheless advances the same clientelistic political effect of the national pork, and can also be a subject of abuse.

So I would like to call local activists to look at the local budgets.  Look for terms (a) to (e) above. Ask government officials how this is disbursed.  If you are concerned of issues in the national level, you should also be asking questions on issues closer to home.