Unintended Consequences

Deep within the depths of a cancer center, a medical physicist is knee-deep at work. In front of her is a treatment planning computer. Malignant tumors are identified. It is the job of the medical physicist to calculate the right dosage, and the right shape of the beam to target malignant tumors— Cancer— and kill it like a Smart Bomb with its precision. This is how it is with Medicine. One patient may need radiotherapy, a process, roughly described here. It can be a combination of techniques. One to weaken the target for another set of treatment to kill. Sometimes, when lucky, there is a precise treatment possible.

The notion that cancer is eating our society is nothing new. Our nation celebrates the heroism and genius of Jose Rizal, who viewed society to suffer from cancer. The question now is: are we competent enough to recognize the difference between Cancer, and the symptom of the disease? Are we intelligent enough to design precision solutions?

Thanks to the Internet, we now live in an age where as Bill Clinton once put it, “People of modest means” can “band together”, and do some good. We’ve seen this happen in the Philippines. Whether it was Ondoy, or habagat; whether it was the cybercrime law, or the Magna Carta for Philippine Internet Freedom. All translated to some form of action. All through some form of online and offline activity. All of modest means.

Now we are met with the Million People March. Organized like many success stories before it: through Facebook and on Twitter. All of modest means, formed from the feverish anger at the lavish lifestyle that Janet Lim Napoles displayed, coupled by the eye-brow raising way— that these people supposedly stole our taxed monies? So forged with the fire of anger and rage, the Million People March came along, branded as an organization that was leaderless. Perhaps to copy other such grassroots indignation, failing to realize that the whole idea of a leaderless “organization” is a nice romantic notion. As we’ve seen with Occupy Wall Street, and its right-wing counterpart, the Tea Party, both lead to disastrous result. The former, scattershot, ran out of steam. The latter, co-opted by the extreme right that the whole idea has been perverted. So the Million People March came with such a diversity of beliefs, desires and end goals— not in itself wrong, in fact, a strength, but the weakness of such a romantic notion is inherently dangerous to pursue change.

Many of my friends came to the Million People March to express their own anger at being robbed blind. This is understandable that they, like most of society needed to vent their rage. It is representative of what the sane, and quiet majority express behind the comfort of their living room and their watering hole talk.

Now, we’re here. Nearly a month after, slowly, the wheels of justice are turning. Napoles is in custody. Charges have begun. Familiar names like Revila, Enrile and Estrada are in the news, and some unfamiliar like their staff, and heads of government agencies are being charged. Stories made out, like Kit Tatad’s are debunked. The call for more heads on the chopping block are there. Understandable, and not without merit, but one wonders if our motivation is simply bordering on a witch hunt or if our cynicism that nothing else will happen shines here. Amidst this crusade, few, if at all have stopped and thought. The lessons of the PDAF scam are… what exactly?

The people’s wish and marching order is simple. It is summed up as, “We want our monies accounted for, and spent properly. We want our monies going to the right projects, and not in the pocket of a few”.

Abolish PDAF?

Getting there of course isn’t as simplistic as “abolishing PDAF”. There are unintended consequences with its outright removal. It sure as hell going to upset a whole lot of people. Imagine if you were one on the take, and you’ve already advanced payment? That would be just about right for the rest of us taxpayers, correct?

There are two other unintended consequence of this. First, it would simply realign the burden towards the Department of Budget and Management (DBM), and the various line agencies. While the President has said that the “new” way is far stricter, and that lawmakers will be able to choose only from a smaller menu of options, how certain are we that the other weakness in the chain has been patched?

The PDAF scam happened because of a conspiracy. The President himself have said so. From the suppliers to Members of Congress and their staff to the Department of Budget and Management, the implementing agencies, and the Commission on Audit. The agencies in theory are the controls set in place to prevent fraud. The problem, as per the COA report was simple: the lawmakers controlled everything from the ability to dictate where the money goes and who to implement. So the implementing agencies wasn’t the government, but the non-government organizations handpicked by the lawmaker. The President’s solution is simple: cut off a lawmaker’s ability to dictate where the monies go, and ensure that a bidding process is executed.

The President’s solution solves some of the problem. What is this? Getting authentic non-government organizations to participate in the bid. Well, not just non-government organizations, but specifically legitimate organizations. Bid documents will help filter fraudulent, and fly-by-night organizations. At the very least a bid process allows for the verification of the organization bidding for a project.

The President’s solution of bringing what the lawmakers want as line items in the General Appropriation Act does improve transparency. It makes everything clear where the monies are spent. Again, this solves part of the problem.

So again: it solves two key element in the problem: ensuring a project goes into a bid prevents a fly-by-night, or fraudulent organization like Napoles’ from participating because documents need to be verified. Second, transparency– the line item is in the budget makes it possible for ordinary groups to keep track and point out anomalies.

This ties down the lawmaker part of the process.

What about weakness in the executive department? What is to stop these legislators or another Napoles to connive with DBM to have their specific projects inserted in return for monies? With the lawmakers interfacing with DBM more to get what they want?

Let’s start with the Commission on Audit. COA is part of the chain to ensure that transactions are above board. They, after all do the audit. We asked Commission on Audit Chair Tan, “What other reforms need to take place within the COA itself so that we can be assured of transparency, accuracy, and integrity beyond PNoy’s administration? How can the public be reassured that COA is acting independently?”

“Beefing up our manpower complement with the best, brightest and most upright; continuously improving their capabilities thru targeted training and workshops; properly rewarding them for their hard work and protecting them from harassment; computerizing our processes so reports are more informative and timely.”

So there is some movement in that region and we simply need to wait for it to pan out. That leaves the Department of Budget and Management and Implementing agencies.

Another step, which we haven’t heard enough of— is Secretary Abad working on cleaning his own house? Is there a sweep from the ground, in the various regional offices of the DBM? A conspiracy like this doesn’t happen if there isn’t some connivance. The COA itself alluded to this when DBM records they sourced out were hard to find, and misleading.

Charges haven’t been filed with regard to DBM or the COA. Was there institutional failure? Was there a missing link? We do see some charges filed against implementing agencies, and hopefully investigators will come around to figuring these questions out.

Open Government

On the DBM side at the very least is this. They are publishing information on tracking PDAF disbursements. The information is bare, of course. There isn’t much color. Numbers. Location. Lawmaker. And when the money was disbursed. This initiative is particularly stunning. Open Government, and improve transparency. That’s one good step.

To put it simply, it is raw data. In itself doesn’t prove fraud. It is simply the beginning, and building on the promise of Open Government. This is fantastic. This is important in a democracy. This is important so Media— both mainstream and the blogosphere can comb through, and mine.

What to do with the monies?

The target of PDAF seem to be a mixed of a whole slew of things. Fertilizers and seedlings for Farmers. It also targeted scholarship or educational programs, health care, and peace and order. An example of the latter is the deployment of a vehicle used for patrolling a village. Health Care is mostly paying for health care cost for indigent victims asking for financial assistance.

It seems the way to solve the problem is to do it holistically. Understanding the complex needs, and designing specific solutions around it.

Peace and Order

An example is how we approach the problem. It can be argued that every Barangay (village) in the nation would need some form of transportation. Not only to patrol, but for emergency services. Mobility is essential. Communication is likewise, essential. Communication between the Barangay Hall and the mobile units like the “Barangay Tanod” (neighborhood patrol), and the Barangay (village) vehicle. If you’re trying to catch a crook for example they will need it. If they’re transporting a victim that needs medical attention, they need the vehicle, and comms. In some villages they may need a boat as well as a land based vehicle. So radios, and vehicles are essential for every village in the nation. Gasoline too.

Is there an inventory of how many of our villages have this system in place? Is there a computation on how much capital expenditure is needed to implement, operational expenditure needed to maintain this? Down the road these vehicles and devices will need to be maintained or replaced when something gets broken.

So surely, this is a question best addressed at the grassroots level— the villages, local governments, regional governments and ultimately brought to the Department of the Interior and the Department of National Defense to include as part of their planning, civil defense initiative and all that.

This is a discussion best addressed by putting our collective heads together so the bean counters can properly funnel projects towards the people in the ground.

So why isn’t this happening?


One Sunday afternoon a Barangay Health Worker approached my uncle, a Roman Catholic priest after he celebrated mass. The health worker requested him to visit a sick man in a far flung village. They drove fro 25 minutes through rough road. The sick man’s home was at top a small hill, inaccessible by vehicle. So they took the remain trip on foot, hiking up to a small bahay kubo (hut).

My uncle was greeted by a widow. She was the mother of the patient. What my uncle saw was extreme poverty in the flesh. Think and pale, Larry at the time was 32. Sick for several years, he could neither sit nor stand. He could use his arms to lift his torso several inches above the bamboo floor to answer when nature called.  He cleaned himself on the same spot where he eat and slept. Neither Larry nor his mother had any money. Government was able to help, but it was only enough to pay for pain relievers.

So my uncle with the help of a few people took him to the local district hospital, which was something difficult to do because the man required a gurney to bring down. There was none. Using a plastic bench they carried him downhill to their car. The journey was too much for Larry, and he was in terrible pain.

Larry was diagnosed with stage four penile cancer. Doctors tried to give him every possible means to ease his pain and to give comfort. In the end, Larry opted not to take further treatment. So after a brief time at the hospital, Larry passed away.

There are many more such sob stories around the country. Perhaps, much worst. In many household, healthcare can drain the family coffers really fast. People ask for financial assistance from the government, and from politicians and PCSO and everyone.

So, we make life a priority. No matter the burden.

Ask any office, particularly any legislative office and you will find some mechanism to address this. So PDAF is used to provide the indigent monies for healthcare. Many, like Larry do fall through the cracks. Many like Larry, people can’t help enough.

The poor get sick, and the poor wouldn’t get the opportunity to be treated because they can’t afford it. There are indeed long lines, not just at government hospitals, but in the offices of legislators, local governments, churches of people asking for monies to pay for family members who are sick.

I can tell you sob story out of sob story after another. Many for some of you reading this, you probably have had healthcare issues in your family.

Healthcare is expensive. And many fall through the cracks.

There is nothing free in the world. Healthcare being one. Why? Someone needs to pay for medicine. Someone needs to pay for treatment. Sutures are not free. Radiotherapy isn’t cheap. Someone needs to pay the electricity to keep the hospital lights running. Capital expenditure and operating expenditure need to be paid out. Doctors need to get paid, and many of them like the rest of us simply need to put food on their table. This is true of government and private hospitals.

So an indigent patient who needs to get treatment needs to pay. Sometimes this is shouldered by a charity. Some are shouldered by PhilHealth.

On one hand, the process with the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes is a long line of people requesting for assistance. Lines are long. The process is documented with a video camera and names and numbers to identify. It is entirely demeaning, and humiliating, but for people who virtually beg, is there an alternative? The end result is the same: a whole lot of people need assistance.

How can we build a system beyond PDAF that help reduce, if not entirely wipe out the need for PDAF and indigent patients? Are we using the monies allocated for healthcare to its maximum effect?

How do we help address these little human tragedies?

Attacking the problem

What’s clear so far is this: the solution that the government intends to implement solves part of the problem. Without reforms in the implementing agencies and the DBM, in fifteen years, we will have another scandal on how monies were not properly disbursed. And without institutionalizing reform in the Commission on Audit the problem won’t go as well, because they are needed to solve the problem.

The other problem is how do we attack the fundamental weaknesses in allocating monies for development? I cited an example of peace and order as one of many problems supposedly being addressed by PDAF. Perhaps, we need a more active grassroots to solve that particular problem.

The problem of Oriental Mindoro maybe different from the problem of Batac, Ilocos Norte, or for that matter, Zamboanga City, but the nation needs to attack all of this holistically. We need villages, local governments and regional governments to provide data and information so the nation can attack problems holistically. We need to get them to start thinking about solving problems and with both national and regional governments coming together for solutions. So we need a clear picture from every village, and very local government.

The same can be said of flood control projects, which legislators seem to be fond of funding. So we need serious people solving serious problems.

That being said, to simply cry “abolish pdaf” without institutional changes to the DBM, to local governments and to the COA will only pass the buck and create new opportunities for failure.

The Fourth and Fifth Estate

We have, up to now only discussed what government is doing, what it needs to do, and what it ought to do. An important pillar is citizen participation.

What we’re seeing is an increase in Open Government solutions. The fact that DBM is releasing data is fantastic in itself but the question is: would both the Media and Civil Society be able to take advantage of it?

We can put whatever system in place to replace PDAF. We can put whatever reform in government there is, but without a healthy, vibrant Fourth and Fifth Estate, the whole thing doesn’t work.

Is the Media up to the challenge?

That’s a question for the media to ponder. In terms of the Fifth Estate it is a question that pops in my mind. Especially of late with regard to the PDAFscam and its state, and long term goals.

At the beginning of this piece, I quoted Bill Clinton that “people of modest means,” can do so much more today. And they do. And they are.

Apologies if this may sound self-congratulatory, but I can only refer to the work PHNetDems have done, and to the work of ProPinoy has done over the years. The work in either case is just beginning, and whether both or one of them is successful, well, that’s a story for another time.

Bits and pieces— at least my small contribution to PHNetDems’ Magna Carta for Philippine Internet Freedom can trace its seed to things we’ve written on ProPinoy like the broadband cap story from awhile back.

There’s one interesting lesson with regard to PHNetDems: passion. Passion for Internet Freedom. There is also a focus on solving the problem from a holistic point of view. Rights alone isn’t enough if network neutrality isn’t in play, or building the necessary infrastructure to make the Internet an economic engine successful, then what good is having rights? The same can be said of Cybercrime provisions that would be abusive if it was written without people’s rights into consideration. So it is attacking the problem from a strategic as much as a tactical point of view. It is looking at the forest, but not mistaking the importance of trees.

This I think is lacking with the current initiative against PDAF and pork. It is an indictment of what’s sorely lacking from the Fifth Estate perspective. We don’t’ know what we want, and we’re letting just government solve it for us.

Don’t get it wrong. I think President Aquino is solving it the best way he think it is. Scrapping PDAF, and inserting the reform through DBM and line budgeting are good first steps, as I’ve written, but as I keep mentioning, I think just part of the puzzle.

The government has provided information from the DBM. The data is raw. And yet, there is little move from the Fifth Estate in terms of mining the problem. I think too few people are passionate enough for it or have not reached critical mass for it to be achieved. I think this is something that the Fifth Estate can evolve to. It seems such a waste for all this information to go not mined.

PHNetDems and many others across the country are actively working on Internet Freedom. That’s a clear focus. There is a clear path for a solution. With PDAF scam, the Fifth Estate doesn’t seem to be a clear path for a solution.

What solutions?

That being said, we assume that the PDAF is the disease. It is not. PDAF is a symptom of the underlying disease. To simply cry, “abolish PDAF” is simplistic and prone to unintended consequences. In fact, it would not solve the problem. It may appear to solve the problem, but not really.

Bill Clinton rightly put it when he said, “I think incapacity is a far bigger problem in poor countries than corruption, and feeds corruption.”

I think we’re starting to change things. The opportunity of Open Government for instance and its greater push for transparency is clear step towards the right direction, if both the Fourth and Fifth Estate can take advantage of it.

Both Doy Santos and Nik de Ynchausti have written about what to do with Pork Barrel Reform. Doy looks at it from a political reform perspective. Nik thinks about it from Solving the development conundrum perspective. Just like the President’s solution to the problem, both perspectives are equally, important in my humble opinion in solving the the underlying disease. Reformatting how we think— how we solve problems of small or national scale is likewise important. We need to look at the problem from a design perspective. What are we building a nation of?

If there is also anything to be learned from how President Aquino is handling the Zamboanga crisis is this. He is letting his lieutenants work. So we got to do this for every community. We have to energize them. It is about activating passion and getting passionate people the means to succeed.

I think the solution to the problem of PDAF is to bring development to the grassroots level, which is a focus on Healthcare; a focus on peace and order; a push for real solutions for real problems; a clear focus on different problems. Fixing the political parties too is an important part of the reform process. If you really want to get your taxes to work then we have to focus on issues on the ground. What are you most passionate about? How can you turn that idea into transformative action?

Rizal was right that our nation’s problem is a cancer. If there is anything medicine and science has taught us to fight cancer: we need precision as well as a big picture look at it. To simply “abolish PDAF” without looking at its unintended consequences or the deeper underlying problem is a mistake. In a nutshell, to “solve the problem” is to fight against incapacity. There isn’t one magic key to solve the symptom of PDAF because it is simply that: a symptom of the underlying decease of incapacity, which is fed in turn by corruption. So it is this incapacity that we must fight against.

Cocoy Dayao

Cocoy is the Chief Technology Officer of Lab Rats Technica, a Digital Consulting company that specialises in DevOps, iOS, and Web Apps, E-Commerce sites, Cybersecurity and Social Media consulting. He is a technology enthusiast, political junkie and social observer who enjoys a good cup of coffee, comic books, and tweets as @cocoy on twitter.

Cocoy is also the Managing Director and Editor-in-Chief of the ProPinoy Project.

Cocoy considers himself to be Liberal.

  • Angelita Coronel ,

    You are so right, I couldn’t agree more!!! Everything we need is all in place, all we need to do is use them!! We have enough laws so we don’t need more lawmakers, the ones we have are so bored, they grew old on the job and forgot about their responsibilities and duties. We can live without them. We give back to the people the responsibility to take care of themselves; every barangay has a health Center complete with a Doctor, a Dentist, Nurses, Midwives, Health Educators, Sanitation Workers, Epidemiologists, and their district, Provincial, Regional, National counterparts, Health Volunteers, etc. who are being paid by the Govt., we just have to use them; There are Agriculturists, Police Force, Information/ media workers, Teachers, Engineers, Lawyers and Court Workers, and their district, provincial, region, national counterparts, you name it, we have them, we just have to use them. There is no reason for any person in the Barangay not to be counted in the census, for every person has to have a birth certificate when he is born and a death certificate when he dies. All these workers should have met each of these persons anytime in their life. All we have to do is use them!!If they can’t go to the Health Centers, the health personnel should go out to them, they do Health Education, Preventive Medicine, Maternal and Child Health Care, Dental, Family Planning, Well and Sick Baby care, Environmental Sanitation, you name it, everything is there; and because “an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure”, they are there 8 hours a day, five days a week, so there should be no reason for people to be left unattended before they get sick; We just have to use them!!!