Monday, August 14, 2006

Wanted: A disclosure policy for government

WHY don’t we adopt a clear disclosure policy for the government? After all, we have strict policy on that vis-à-vis companies listed in the stock market and it all seems to be working out well?

The reason for the disclosure policy that government imposed on listed companies is fairly simple: to make the market transparent. Behind this are several assumptions. One is that a well-informed citizenry is likely to make wise investment decisions. Two, well-informed investors are likely to improve corporate governance by penalizing nonperformers and supporting those that are doing better. Of course, the least of the reasons is to ensure continuing confidence of investors on the market. Otherwise, they wouldn’t invest. Regularly, listed companies release updates of their financial performance, change in leadership, and major decisions by their stockholders and managers.

Maybe the Philippine government could do the same if only to restore confidence in the country’s bureaucracy and political institutions.

Recently, Pulse Asia released its latest survey and the findings simply confirmed widespread cynicism of the government. About 21 percent of the people feel that the “country is hopeless”; and 30 percent would rather migrate to other countries if they had the chance. Certainly, among the primary reasons for this is the continuing perception of graft in high places, a major factor for which is the utter lack of transparency in government transactions and activities.

Why did the fertilizer scam happen? Why all the brouhaha about Comelec officials playing fairy godmothers to politicians during election season? Why the bungled computerization of the electoral process? Because nobody really knows what’s going on inside those opaque and rotten institutions. That’s because, despite all our pretensions to democracy and open society, we don’t have a reliable, legally-mandated system of accessing information.

How do people react every time the government announces a good gross domestic product growth rate? “We don’t feel it,” they say.

For every investment figure from the Board and Investments and the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (Peza), the people say “these are just promises for them to get fiscal perks but no one knows if these investments would push through and when. The figures are probably bloated.”

For every “moderate inflation rate,” people will say “moderate prices are only in the papers; not in the market stalls.”

For every promise of a major economic infrastructure, people will say, “it’s just another source of graft.”

And for every news story about graft and corruption hitting the headlines, people will say “just as I suspected.”

The main point here is that people are wary of the government’s information system. The prevailing perception seems to be that whatever information the government dishes out to the public through media releases is likely to the selective. Besides, government spin doctors may have massaged and masticated all of them to paint a rosy picture of reality. One cannot help but suspect the same because of the lack of a system by which people could verify most of these information or statistics independently.

The solution to this conundrum is simple: a disclosure policy that ensures that the country’s institutions, bureaucracies, organizations, and units of government provide adequate and truthful information to the public on a regular basis.

Somehow, this lack of transparency in government operations partly explains the country’s inability to grow and prosper. It’s not for lack of good ideas. In fact, Philippine policy makers in this country are among the most creative. For instance, the Philippines is among the first ones to have a build-operate-transfer law that creatively harnesses private sector resources and energy for infrastructure development. But right now, our build-operate-transfer system is totally discredited, thanks to bureaucrats and politicians who creatively used the same law for personal enrichment. Why? Because of the lack of transparency in all those BOT transactions and projects. That we are stuck with a multibillion useless “international airport” that we can’t operate is a testimony to how serious this problem of lack of transparency is. Remember the PEA-Amari scam? That’s another shameless example. Had citizens of this country gotten effective access to information, these scams may not have happened.

All transactions of the government, staff meetings, and technical working groups concern the public interest and therefore all these things need to be disclosed by the government. A lot of graft and corrupt activities, shady deals and horse-trading happen during these government meetings, “technical working groups,” and lobbying activities by cronies and friends. People therefore should have ready access to minutes of meetings of tax-funded projects, technical working group meetings, memoranda, statistics, and documents related to all government activities, especially biddings and purchases.

People in the government, the bureaucrats, are probably reluctant to disclose information. But maybe Congress could do something about it. Congress could enact a “public disclosure law” requiring all instrumentalities of the government to disclose all information to the public regularly through the Web or through regular reports in a prescribed format. This is very important in view of super infrastructure projects that the government is cooking up in the runup to the 2007 mid-term elections. These projects costing several hundreds of billions pesos would simply go down the drain without adequate safeguards. And the first safeguard would be information.

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