Access to info in Metro Manila

Opaque LGUs the norm in NCR

First of Two Parts

POLITICS and government, business and finance, education and culture. In all these and more, the national capital region, Metro Manila, is supposed to lead the rest of the nation. Here, bureaucrats and politicians thrive, mostly schooled and steeled in the art of governance and advisedly, the liberal ramparts of transparency and accountability.

It seems fair for citizens to expect that in Metro Manila, more than anywhere else in the Philippines, the people’s right to know and to access official information and documents would be respected. But that could well be plain wishful thinking for now.

Indeed, while President Benigno ‘Noynoy’ C. Aquino III has once more failed to reiterate a commitment to freedom of information (FOI) in his latest State of the Nation Address, the results of a recent survey by the PCIJ of access to information practices in the 16 cities and sole town of Metro Manila show that majority of the local officials and employees in these Metro Manila local government units (LGUs) continue to linger in the dark ages of closed, opaque government.

Most of the LGUs, in fact, took their sweet time in responding to requests for specific documents, unmindful of deadlines for action set in law. And if they did act at all, they disclosed only some, not all, the documents requested. The city of Caloocan even recorded net zero action, failing to take full action on any of the requests up until the end of the audit. This was even though that city’s officials had approved, orally and in writing, at least a third of the PCIJ’s requests.

Documents for citizens

Beyond simply tracking the transparency regimes obtaining in NCR, the PCIJ audit purposely zeroed in on documents with great and grave impact on the welfare of the citizens. From April to June 2011, the Center deployed seven college student interns who filed requests for six major types of documents, including the asset disclosure records of the LGU officials, as well as the budget and development plans of the LGU. The audit also focused on documents pertaining to education, health, public safety, civil registry and property, and doing business.

Surprisingly, however, the most basic documents regularly produced by LGUs proved the most difficult to get. For instance, among the 17 Metro Manila LGUs, only Makati gave complete documents on education, while a mere four – Quezon City, Parañaque, Navotas, and the San Juan Health Department Unit 1 – provided complete documents on health.

On average, only a fourth of the 17 LGUs provided their development and investment plans, and copies of the proposed and enacted budgets. The rest took no action.

Still, of all the documents requested by the PCIJ, the statements of assets, liabilities, and net worth (SALNs) were easily the most tightly guarded and thus, the hardest to obtain. In the mold and manner of national politicians, the local politicians of Metro Manila apparently hold their asset disclosure records close to their chests.

Only two cities – Marikina and Makati – willingly shared the SALNs of all their local officials. Quezon City and Navotas, meanwhile, gave the SALNs of their respective mayor and vice mayor, but came up short when it came to those of their councilors. San Juan released its vice mayor’s SALN, but not its chief executive’s; it also gave incomplete asset records of its councilors. In the rest of the LGUs, the SALNs remain sub rosa or kept under lock and key by local officials who insist on their confidentiality, in apparent indifference to, or ignorance of, the law.

Most LGUs also required requestors to secure the mayor’s approval before all the requests could be granted. This caused bureaucratic delays and most probably is a major barrier to accessing documents in the NCR.

Least opaque

In the PCIJ audit, not one of the LGUs provided all the requested information. Even Quezon City, which came out as the friendliest to access to information requests, took full action (within the 15 working days’ deadline in law for all the documents requested) on only 75 percent of all requests filed by PCIJ.

Next came Marikina, which scored 57 percent, while Pasay, Parañaque, Navotas, and Makati all granted about half of all of PCIJ’s requests. Ten other LGUs (Las Piñas, Pasig, Mandaluyong, Muntinlupa, Taguig, Valenzuela, San Juan, Malabon, Manila, and Pateros) acted only on 12.5 to 37.5 percent of all requests filed.

On average, the LGU offices that gave documents took about 10 days to do so. But the Business Permits and Licensing Office (BPLO) of Las Piñas stood out by taking only a day to respond and provide complete documents related to doing business in the city.

To do the audit, the PCIJ interns personally filed simultaneous request letters for documents with the 17 LGUs, monitored all related follow-up activities (request letters sent, phone calls and field visits made to the LGU office), and logged all activity details (name and position of responding personnel and officials, speed and nature of action or referrals made; and the type or nature of documents given or withheld).

In addition, the enrolled deadlines set in law for government agencies to act on such requests – 10 working days to act on requests for SALNs and 15 working days to act on requests for all other types of documents – were used as reference for rating the performance of the various LGUs in this audit.

The audit stretched across a two-month period – one month for fieldwork and data gathering, and another for follow-up activities and data collation. In all, the PCIJ interns filed with the 17 LGUs a combined total of 135 request letters, made 437 phone calls, and received 266 referrals for many requests were tossed around two or more offices in the same LGUs.

The requests were filed with the LGU departments and units that are the custodians of the documents, including the Office of the Mayor, the Health Department, the Public Order and Safety Department, the Business Permit and Licensing Office, and the Civil Registry Department.

Public interest

The documents requested are clearly imbued with public interest because they enroll information and data that should benefit public weal and welfare:

  • For education, the PCIJ asked for two sets of data: statistics or the number of schools and teachers in each LGU, as well as on plans and projects to construct new school buildings, hire new teachers, and acquire new learning materials and copies of contracts.
  • For health, the PCIJ requested information on the actual expenses the LGUs spend on medicines and the volume of medicines distributed per barangay; number of hospitals and medical personnel; and projects undertaken by the health department.
  • For public safety, the PCIJ sought data on the number of police officers and other public order personnel, how the police coordinate with barangay officials, how the police or barangay respond to cases, protocols on public-order incidents, and the number and the amount LGUs spend to build and maintain lampposts.
  • For civil registry and property, the PCIJ asked about the types of civil registry and property documents, how to obtain these documents, fees and timetable involved in obtaining documents.
  • For doing business, the PCIJ requested details on the documentary requirements, request and application process, LGU departments in charge, number of processing days, and fees involved. In addition, the PCIJ sought information on how to locate records of a business establishment, which office tracks records of registered and non-registered businesses in the LGU, and the benefits of registering a business.
  • For other basic, premise data on the LGU and its officials, the PCIJ requested five documents: the SALN and personal data sheet (PDS) of the mayor, vice mayor and councilors; local development plan; local investment plan; proposed budget; and enacted budget.

How and why the citizens must be entitled to these documents, and could benefit from them, are matters affirmed in law and validated by the contents of the documents themselves.

The Local Government Code of 1991 mandates each LGU to prepare a local development plan and a public investment program, which would outline a city or a municipality’s development and budget priorities and serve as basis of its programs and projects for the year.

Useful details

These documents would significantly help citizens to understand the local government’s plans for the city and the barangays and how it intends to spend public resources. These documents would clearly enable citizen participation in policymaking and governance.

For instance, the 2011 Annual Investment Program (AIP) provided by Quezon City states that the city’s development priorities are disaster-risk mitigation, environment management, socio-economic services to empower the poor, tourism development, and effective city management.

To achieve these plans, Quezon City’s AIP outlines its budget allocation for each program, project, and activity, as well as the office or agency assigned to implement each sector.

For 2011, Quezon City has allocated P15.75 million for maternal health care for pregnant and post-partum mothers, and routine care for newborn infants. Residents, especially mothers and expectant mothers who do not have enough funds to avail themselves of private health care services, would find this information useful.

Quezon City has also allotted P2.49 million to provide services to physically, mentally, and socially disabled persons 0 to 60 years of age in order to enhance or develop their capabilities for self-reliance and productivity. Families with a disabled member may then inquire about this program and seek assistance from Quezon City’s Social Services Development Department.

In the meantime, citizens may find information pertaining to education useful so that they themselves can assess and audit education projects of their LGUs.

Makati, which was the only LGU that provided complete documents on education services, gave copies of the contracts that the city government signed with contractors to build new school buildings and to improve or maintain existing ones.

The contracts offered details on the amount of the project, project scope and timetable, and the duties and responsibilities of the contractor. With these data on hand, parents of students in a school may actually be able to check if the project had been fully implemented.

And then there are the SALNs, which are considered to be key in monitoring the wealth of public officials and in discouraging corruption. Yet most Metro Manila LGUs found reason to keep SALNs of certain officials away from the public eye.

The officials of Malabon’s Human Resource Department, for one, insisted that SALNs are “confidential” documents. Navotas, for its part, was quick to approve the release of the SALN of the mayor, but uncertainties on the part of the councilors resulted in their failure to hand over their SALNs.

Pasay was as problematic in the release of the SALNs and personal data sheets of its senior officials supposedly because the request letter had been misplaced.

In Pateros, the head of the Municipal Personnel Office said all 14 town councilors would have to unanimously agree first before any of their SALNs could be released to the PCIJ. Some councilors agreed, while the others refused. Because the personnel officer has imposed an all-or-nothing rule, not a single SALN of Pateros’s local executives was released.

(By contrast, Marikina, which ranked second to Quezon City as the most transparent city in NCR, provided the SALNs of its local executives within just five days from receipt of the PCIJ request.)

Most opaque

The four least transparent cities (Malabon, Manila, Pateros, and Caloocan) actually shared one thing in common: Their personnel showed a common tendency to refer requestors to other LGU departments within the same city halls, needlessly prolonging the process of obtaining documents.

In quite a few cases, too, many LGU personnel seemed totally clueless about their obligations in the Constitution and in Republic Act No. 6713 (the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees) to be transparent in all their actions involving use of public funds, and in handling documents vested with public interest.

In Caloocan – the least transparent among the Metro Manila LGUs — only the police department and the civil registry office responded to the requests within the 15-day deadline set in law. All the other agencies of Caloocan either ignored or denied the other requests.

Unfortunately, even the offices there that promised to release documents, including those on education and health services, and those pertaining to doing business in the city, have yet to do so as of this writing. The police department in particular said it had misplaced the PCIJ’s request letter, causing interminable delays.

In Pateros, NCR’s lone municipality, the PCIJ filed requests with eight various departments. The town’s civil servants generally had an accommodating demeanor, but this failed to compensate for the insufficient documents they eventually released. Four offices took action but only one gave a complete set of documents requested. Pateros ended up being the second least transparent LGU in NCR.

Manila, NCR’s oldest and premier city, is the third least transparent. While its officials approved action on 57 percent of the PCIJ’s requests, they actually gave complete documents on only 14 percent of all requests filed.

The PCIJ sent request letters to seven offices of Manila City Hall but only four responded within the 15-day deadline set in law – the Mayor’s Office (SALNs), the business department, the City Civil Registry, and the assessor’s department. Manila’s police and health departments have yet to respond to the PCIJ’s requests, while the mayor’s office has yet to act on a separate request for data on education services.

Malabon, the fourth least transparent city, actually approved up to 83.33 percent of the PCIJ’s requests within four to 11 days. But it released the complete documents requested for only 16.67 percent of the requests, within the lawful deadline.

Malabon and Pateros cited the “confidentiality” status of certain documents for refusing the requests.

Among those that performed better than the bottom dwellers, the need for the mayor’s go-signal before certain documents are released was revealed to be a major block for those seeking access to public data. In Parañaque City, Mayor Florencio Bernabe Jr. had even issued a memorandum that in effect gave him sole power to approve all requests for information. The memo was supposedly based on a provision in R.A. No. 6713, which states that public offices are given the discretion not to disclose any information on the grounds of public safety and “undue advantage.” Out of the 10 requests that the PCIJ filed, only five were granted within 15 working days.

Politics & revenues

The practice in Parañaque prevails as well in Taguig, Pasay, Las Piñas, Mandaluyong, and Navotas even as no written memorandum requiring the mayor’s approval has been issued.

In Pasig, basic documents and those pertaining to education services could not be released simply because during the month-long data gathering for this audit, Mayor Bobby Eusebio was often out of the office. His deputies said there was no definite schedule when he would report for work.

Political rivalry also got in the way of accessing documents in Taguig. Majority of the requests were denied there supposedly because the documents had to be kept “confidential” on account of an ongoing court case between Mayor Laarni Cayetano and her losing rival in the May 2010 elections, retired Supreme Court justice Dante Tinga.

Only the documents from Taguig’s BPLO, the Assessor’s Office, and the City Health Department were provided. Requests filed with the Mayor’s Office, the Public Safety and Order Office (POSO), and the City Budget Office were not granted within the 15-working day deadline set in law.

Documents pertaining to civil registry records and on doing business in Metro Manila were the easiest to secure across the metropolis. In fact, all 17 LGUs provided information on various civil registry and property documents, as well as the procedures, fees, and number of days it would take them to process requests.

As for doing business, 14 of the 17 LGUs gave information on the documentary requirements, the process for applying for business permits and registering business establishments, and the fees involved. In many cases, the data were enrolled in brochures and pamphlets published by the LGUs.

These two offices (Civil Registry and BPLO) conduct regular transactions with citizens every day; releasing documents thus seems almost routinary to them. In addition, these transactions are triggers of revenues (processing and permit fees) and take on the nature of business processes beneficial to the LGUs. - With research and reporting by Karol Anne M. Ilagan, Anne Jeanette O. Priela, Krystal Kay S. Jimena, David Faustino T. de Castro, Essen Mei M. Miguel, Henor G. Gotis, Eric H. Rivera, Stephanie Directo, and Jessa Mae B. Jarilla, PCIJ, July 2011.