"Leaders should build trust by giving audit institutions the respect and the space to do their work, says former Commissioner Heidi Mendoza."
Events in the past few weeks have put the spotlight on the Commission on Audit again. Generally perceived as a staid, non-controversial constitutional institution, the COA recently earned the ire of President Rodrigo Duterte when its 2020 Annual Audit Report on the Department of Health revealed irregularities involving more than P67 billion worth of taxpayers’ money.
In the past, the President has joked about pushing a state auditor down the stairs, or kidnapping and torturing them. This time, Duterte took the COA to task for flagging the DOH and supposedly destroying the reputation of certain individuals. Meanwhile, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III pulled that “winawarak” performance during a congressional hearing.
Former COA commissioner Heidi Mendoza, who first gained national prominence because of her work exposing corruption in the military during the Arroyo administration, did not take this sitting down. She tried to explain the audit process in her social media posts. She even created a page, Makatang Makwenta (she also writes poems). She engaged with those who commented on her posts. It comes as no surprise she is now being criticized and trolled.
Mendoza started with the COA in 1984, was appointed commissioner by former President Benigno Aquino III, and resigned in 2015 to become undersecretary general for the Office of Internal Oversight Services of the United Nations. She returned to the Philippines in late 2019, publishing her book Audit is Life!—a compilation of her experiences of the human side of conducting audits across the country (disclosure: I edited this book).
“Before we are auditors, we are, first, citizens. [Knowing about the audit findings] is our right. We have to make sure our money is accounted for—it is our money, after all,” Mendoza says. She only wished audit reports were written in a way that more people would understand and appreciate it, and so that it would not be open to all sorts of interpretation.
According to Mendoza, the greatest lesson we can learn from this episode is that we have not learned how to balance flexibility and accountability. The COA could be stringent with its processes and generally discourages shortcuts. But it does recognize the need to be flexible—say, during an emergency when the need to procure certain goods and services is so urgent that one cannot afford to go the usual route.
“A lot of times we complain about the procedures, and we want to change or do away with the procurement law, we have to relax some rules just to get things done.”
In order to do this right, however, there must be a sense of accountability. “I think we have not matured enough,” Mendoza says. “Our internal controls are shallow. We relaxed the rules so we could respond to the crisis, but what happened was that it only created greater opportunity for questionable transactions, for people who take advantage of the lack of control.”
The honor system does not work here, sadly. “ The ‘kapal mukha’ system is what we have. We are not there yet.” She adds that honor should be embedded in us in such a way that when the call for flexibility arises, we can adjust without necessarily sacrificing the tenets of accountability.”
Mendoza suggests a new point of view—a culture audit. “At the center of the decision-making process is the individual. What are the things that influence his thoughts and behavior? What is the culture of an organization?”
Doing all these, Mendoza has been accused of nursing political ambitions. Her response: “Ang haba ng hair!” She has also been branded as “dilawan,” to which she says the only reason she can imagine is that she was appointed by the late President Aquino III, after proving her mettle and rising from the ranks over decades, starting from being an auditing aide in her 20s. She is riding on the campaign of 1Sambayan, others say— but she points out she has been defending the COA as early as 2018 when the pushing-down-the-stairs comment was reported.
Even so, she says, she is perfectly within her rights as a citizen to associate herself with an organization whose objectives she believes in. “Ito ang ambag ko (this is my contribution)!”
Truth to tell, the findings mentioned in last year’s audit reports of agencies are recurring —they are not new. They have been found in other agencies across many years and different administrations. Now, however, the operating environment is different. There is a pandemic, people are getting sick, people are afraid, people are not satisfied with the government’s response. “They are desperate. They cannot rely on the system when they are looking for somebody to trust.”
Both people in power and ordinary citizens must look at the COA, or any supreme audit institution, as a partner in development. “We should not quarrel or trade accusations,” she says. Leaders should know and respect the system and allow the institution the space where it could do its job. In doing so, trust is created between the governors and the governed.
“The surest way to build trust is to allow the audit institution to independently operate, and share their findings without threat or fear,” she adds.