Friday, October 19, 2007

Restoring faith in government service

Address of Sen. Richard J. Gordon

29th Annual National Convention

Government Association of Certified Public Accountants
Waterfront Hotel, Cebu City
11 October 2007

You honor me by inviting me to keynote this 29th Annual National Convention of the Government Association of Certified Public Accountants. And I welcome the fringe benefit that this provides me to visit Cebu City once again.

When I address your association, I am aware not only of your numbers – 10,000 members and 25 chapters nationwide – but of your great importance to the machinery of government in our country.

What is not well-known is the work that GACPA is doing to enhance the professional well-being and improve accounting and auditing practices for the ultimate benefit of our country and our people. Even less known is the fact that some in your ranks have fallen in the line of duty – the victim of violence.

No work truly is more critical to the reputation of our government today than yours. And none, I daresay, will prove more vital in the years ahead to successfully fulfilling our aspirations to progress.

A Time of Opportunity and Challenge

You convene at a pivotal time of both opportunity and challenge in our country. Opportunity because our economy is performing well for a change and there is a sense of hope abroad in the land. But challenge also because there is disunity today in our society and political lines are hardening instead of closing.

As you all know, just over a month ago, we saw the unprecedented conviction of a former president on charges of plunder and corruption by our Sandiganbayan. While it saddened me to see a popular president disgraced in this way, I was lifted also by the fact that our graft court courageously meted out justice after a prolonged and exhausting trial.

The Sandigabayan verdict was huge and far-reaching in declaring that all our public officials, however high their position, are accountable for their acts in office. Many of us long ago despaired that a big fish would ever be caught and convicted in our country. And our country has long enjoyed internationally a reputation for world-class graft and corruption.

No one expects, of course, this one act of justice to whitewash the long history of corruption in our government. But I said at the time that this verdict could usher in a tsunami of investigations and convictions in corruption cases in our country.

I think the tsunami is already here – if you have been following the Senate hearings in the Senate and the many charges being hurled in the media and being investigated by the Ombudsman. And if we can keep an eye on the ball, we have a decent chance of turning a corner in our fight against corruption.

I mention this now in your convention because our successfully coping with corruption is critically wedded to your convention theme of “Harnessing GACPA potentials for Productivity, Value and Quality Service.” And you, as trained accountants, know better than most what really goes on in the underbelly of our government, and you too long to see accounts in order in agencies and units of the government.

Understanding the Problem

Aa a Filipino and as a public official, I do not relish being told whenever I go abroad about our huge corruption headache. Whenever they rank the competitiveness of nations, we are cited for corruption. Whenever the World Bank issues its Doing Business index, we are at the bottom of the list for the corruption problem we face.

But what really are the facts? Are things really as bad as they are saying?

Is it a case of one or a few rotten apples in the barrel? Or is the barrel itself hopelessly rotten?

During the budget hearing for the Office of the Ombudsman just last week, I asked its representatives how many of the 15,000 cases or complaints they receive _________ are just cases of harassment, and how many are really cases of corruption.

They answered that 70 percent are just cases designed to harass certain officials in government. 30 percent are the real thing.

Further, under my questioning, they said that the Ombudsman’s office has a 63 percent success rate in convicting grafters they hale to court.

The percentage of success is impressive. But then comes the downer. The great majority of the cases have to do with the small fry. Most of the really big grafters never have to answer for their misdeeds in office.

The other thing that is revealing about the phenomenon of corruption in our country is that most cases don’t really have to do with the malversation of public funds. The really prevalent kind – and the costly ones – are those that have to do with bribery, cornering government contracts, and misusing the discretionary power of public office. They relate to the difficulties of doing business in our country.

Here lack of transparency and accountability runs roughshod over the public good. Project costs become inflated. Transaction costs are high. Public services become derailed. And the spectacle of graft breeds our horrible international reputation for corruption because it is usually people doing business who are asked to pay the price.

Ultimately, of course, it is the economy and our people who pay the price – in terms of lost opportunity, lost job, and lost growth.

Solving the Problem

Lamenting the problem is never good enough, however. Solving the problem is what counts.

I know that there is a lot of cynicism about the public service in our country. Whenever we advocate ambitious change – such as reforming government service in our country -- there are always be those who are ready with the arguments to discourage us.

Some preach “the perversity thesis” -- that any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social or economic order only serves to exacerbate the conditions you wish to remedy.

Others offer “the futility thesis” – which says that any attempt at government transformation will be unavailing, that it will simply fail to make a dent.

And still there are others who will give you “the jeopardy thesis” -- which argues that the cost of the proposed change or reform is too high as it will endangers some previous, precious accomplishment.

This is the rhetoric of cynicism and reaction.

I do not concede this, however. You and I both know there is a way forward.

Whenever we talk about improving transparency and accountability in government, we don’t have to look for lessons abroad. We only have to look as far as our Commission on Audit.

I have much admiration for what COA and its government accountants have been doing in recent years to enforce processes and procedures in the expenditure of public money. I know this because I have been a Cabinet secretary and a local government official.

Indeed, COA auditors are sometimes so strict that they risk choking the life out of public service.

Given this tradition for scruples, COA I believe can have a pivotal role to play in effecting transparency and accountability in the government service. I would even venture that you can help in building more efficiency and effectiveness in government.

Beyond your focus on your role as watchdog, you could also perform a signal service in helping our public officials and public servants to do things right and better. You could assist in making them more transparent and effective.

As things stand today, our public and the world community only know only about the shenanigans in government. Little is known about the daily work that goes on that has to do with keeping agencies in check and accounts in order. We hear and read about the scandals. We know nothing about the graft that is daily being averted. Little do our people and the world know about the professionalism that goes into being a Filipino government public accountant.

It is on this tradition of professionalism that we can build the redoubt for honesty and probity in government. As long there is no moral inertia within your ranks, we can make a start toward change in our government bureaucracy

Public Advocacy of Accountability

Let us remember that all the advanced countries of the world went through their own dark nights of corruption before they were finally able to set to right their civil service.

Let us remember also that in recent years -- from Brazil to Japan, from Italy to Venezuela -- heads of state no less have been subject to charges of corruption. Corruption at all levels seems to be the hallmark not only of developing countries but also of a number of industrialized countries.

Yet at the end of the day, after all is said and done, governments are able to set things aright. Grafters are haled to court and sent to jail. And yes, even Presidents and prime ministers, are held to account. The business of the nation is able to move forward.

This is how it should be. This is what we must aspire for in our civil service.

We can’t do it all in a day. But the work must begin somewhere. And I would suggest to anyone who doubts that we can bring honesty and probity to government in this country, that they look at what our Commission on Audit and its auditor-accountants are doing. Here in your ranks can begin the transformation we all hope for.

Thank and may you have a most fruitful convention.


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