IF IT is not fraud that turned the May 2019 election awry, then it must be bad – really bad – project management.
Longtime election watchdogs say that project management is key in ensuring that all components of an automated elections would work given the multiple processes and timelines involved. Or as National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) Secretary General Eric Alvia puts it, managing an election is like conducting an orchestra.
“There are so many various components that it has a life of its own, but you have to integrate it,” Alvia says. “It (automated polls) has to work together.”
He says that the Commission on Elections (Comelec) is the conductor who has to pay attention to all the sections. To be more exact, Comelec Executive Director Jose M. Tolentino Jr. played that role in the May 2019 elections, since he headed the Commission’s Project Management Office (PMO), which was formed to coordinate all election-related activities for this year’s polls.
To NAMFREL National Council Member Lito Averia, meanwhile, procurement as part of project management plays a huge role and has a great impact on the conduct of the elections.
A problem in procurement may cascade in the other areas, Alvia says, pointing out that this stage affects logistics, supply chain management, and other implementation activities.
“May domino effect, geometric, may ripple effect – that’s what’s happening now to our elections,” he says.
Lawyer Ona Caritos of the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (LENTE) for her part says that she has seen improvements in Comelec over the years. But she says that the glitches encountered in this year’s elections – from bleeding pens and thin paper to defective memory cards and voter-counting machines – are no longer acceptable since this is the fourth time for the country to have automated polls. Difficulties may have been anticipated during the country’s first automated elections in 2010, she says, but they are no longer forgivable nearly two decades hence.
For instance, Caritos cannot accept that a supplier providing “lemons” is a reason for having defective items in the recent polls. She snaps, “Well, we don’t want lemons in an election. Ang labo naman ng sagot na iyon (That argument is hogwash).”
PCIJ had told Caritos of Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez’s comment in an interview with the Center that the defective Secure Digital (SD) memory cards incident was “a case of a few lemons.” Jimenez had also pointed out that the problematic units were replaced and that the elections weren’t compromised.
In fact, despite all the technical problems that Comelec encountered in the polls, Jimenez still considers the elections a success. As far as the poll body is concerned, the standards Comelec is looking at are whether or not the elections were conducted, how the elections were conducted, and whether or not the results came out as expected -- on time, credible, and accurate.
By these parameters, Jimenez said, the May 2019 polls came out successful: “We held elections on time. We had record low levels of violent incidents. We had zero failure of elections, which means that in all 85,000 polling places, nagkaroon tayo ng halalan (we had elections).” The only notable exception to this, he said, was Jones, Isabela where at least two vote-counting machines or VCMs were burned by two armed men. In general, said Jimenez, the results were considered credible.
Not off hook
Still, observers like Caritos refuse to let Comelec’s top-level bureaucrats off the hook. Caritos for one insists that it boils down to project management, which to her can be considered like an event management, wherein every activity builds on the conduct of main activity on the day itself.
Alvia meantime says that Comelec’s PMO must have a dashboard that could provide election officials a “situation awareness” for every single bid that takes place. He says that this should help them see potential delays and how these may affect other activities.
Alvia recalls that Comelec’s implementation calendar had to be revised over four times, which meant that the poll body kept moving deadlines, creating pressure on activities that had already been lined up.
For example, he says, Comelec was supposed to conduct two mock polls, but because of delays, only one was held, in January 2019. Procurement delay also led to Comelec using old paper from 2016 to be used for the ballot in the Overseas Absentee Voting last April. This was caused by late procurement of the ballot paper, which also led to the printing schedule being moved.
Indeed, the supply of the ballot paper and marking pens for the 2019 elections reveals Comelec’s weaknesses in procurement planning. In this contract the poll body had to resort to negotiated procurement because its first and second bidding for the items failed. The awarding of the contract dragged on from July until late November 2018, less than two weeks before a scheduled field test. To entice suppliers, Comelec by then had to increase the approved budget for the contract (ABC) by 10 percent and even offer interested bidders to propose a bid amount higher than the ABC given the additional costs entailed to produce and supply the paper on short notice.
In the end a single bidder that was already post-disqualified in the first bidding (because it failed to meet the technical specifications for the marking pens) won the contract. This same company supplied the bleeding marking pens and the ballot paper that many observers felt was thin compared to the paper used in previous elections.
Price quote excess
Having ABCs that are too high is another planning issue. The ballot paper and marking pens contract is one of the few contracts whose amounts were close to the ABC. Majority of the contracts undertaken by Comelec were awarded to suppliers who looked like they underbidded because they gave bids less than half of the ABC.
These included the contract for the SD cards that were found defective; Comelec acquired them at PhP217 each when it had actually budgeted PhP753 per unit. Other items for which Comelec had allocated a much higher ABC than the contract amount include 2,200 printers with three toners at PhP59.16 million ABC vs. PhP19.48 contract amount; deployment of election equipment and peripherals in three regions at PhP308.1 million vs. PhP152.3 million; and external batteries at PhP274 million vs. PhP168.6 million.
There are several reasons why a bidder would give a much lower amount. The most obvious is that it is a procurement strategy because the lowest calculated and responsive bid is awarded the contract. It could also be an indication that the bidder will provide items of lesser quality hence the low price. Another reason, however, is that the ABC is just too high and does not reflect market reality.
LENTE’s Caritos remarks that Comelec sometimes just recycles the ABCs from previous procurement, with some adjustment for inflation. As a result, some suppliers have asked for clarifications regarding bid documents with labels from previous elections. For instance, in one of the biddings where LENTE was an observer, a supplier noted that the bid documents handed out had “2016” written on it when items were being bidded out for the 2019 elections.
Comelec insiders say that previous procurements are indeed among the parameters the Commission uses in coming up with its ABCs. It also factors in inflation and the results of a market canvass in which Comelec issues requests for information.
Pegged on Smartmatic?
For the May 2019 polls, some commissioners during en banc meetings raised questions about the Comelec’s high ABCs, one insider says. The official also says that one reason for the high ABCs for the recent elections was because the reference amounts were from bids of perennial and controversial Comelec supplier Smartmatic for previous polls. Smartmatic tends to give higher bid amounts because it manufactures its own products, the official says.
The same official concedes that Comelec has a lot to improve in terms of procurement, commenting that the poll body is not well-equipped to do market canvass and determine the ABC. Other agencies, the official says,
“Parang oiudo,” Alvia of NAMFREL says of Comelec’s way of doing things. “We (Comelec) do things as it comes.”
After the May 2019 polls were over, Comelec was left with PhP1.26 billion in excess funds. This was because its total ABC for all 23 items procured for the elections had been PhP5.3 billion, but it awarded only PhP4.02 billion worth of contracts.
Election lawyers say the excess is kept as savings by Comelec. But a Commission on Audit director says that the balance should revert to the National Treasury after the end of the year, except for projects funded by capital outlay.
Capital outlay refers to appropriations for the purchase of goods and services, the benefits of which extend beyond the fiscal year and which add to government assets.
Queried which items in the 2019 elections were funded through capital outlay, Jimenez after consulting with Comelec staff replied that it depends on the item or service procured. The transmission of election results or the Voter Registration Verification Machines or VRVMs (if not purchased) for instance do not involve capital outlay because these were only used for their intended purpose during the elections.
No cry for help
In any case, Averia says that Comelec’s lack of capacity in procurement includes testing items that involves technology.
He says that Comelec should have sought help from the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) or the Bureau of Product Standards of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) to check whether the paper conforms to the technical specifications needed, as well as the marking pens that turned out to have issues with viscosity and rate of evaporation.
Then again, Comelec did have the paper for the last elections tested by DOST. It didn’t do the same with the marking pens, which supposedly passed the technical specifications. The pens had to be replaced later as their ink bled though the paper, which to some voters felt thinner than usual.
PCIJ has reached out to the suppliers of the ballot paper and marking pens (Triplex Enterprises Inc.) and SD cards (Silicon Valley Computer Group Phils. Inc. and S1 Technologies Inc.). It has yet to get any response from the companies involved as of this writing.
PCIJ had also requested for an interview with Comelec Chairperson Sheriff Abas, but the Commission head instead referred the Center to Jimenez. In other press interviews, however, Abas had said the malfunctions and technical mishaps in the 2019 elections were due to the peripherals such as the ballot paper and marking pens being mismatched with the VCMs. In 2016, these items had been bundled as one lot and supplied by Smartmatic, which had won the bidding for the VCMs. When Comelec exercised its option to purchase the machines, it meant that the other items had to be procured through a public bidding.
Caritos says that unbundling or having suppliers other than Smartmatic participate was actually a move done to assuage concerns that the automated-elections system is not controlled by just one entity and a foreign entity at that (Smartmatic). Unbundling was also exercised to allow more suppliers to compete and make the process less prone to corruption, she says.
But, asserts Caritos, unbundling the contract cannot be considered a reason for the mess that was the 2019 elections. She points out that the items used in the 2013 elections were also unbundled. Yet, says Caritos, the problems with the SD cards and VCMs were not as big as the problem encountered this year.
NAMFREL’s Averia meanwhile says that it shouldn’t be an issue if the items are procured separately, so long as these conform to the technical specifications. His colleague Alvia also likens unbundling to making a car whose parts can come from different suppliers, but which all have to meet a standard. The Technical Working Group, says Alvia, should have done its work.
Although Comelec Spokesperson Jimenez remains firm in saying that the 2019 polls were a success, he said that he is not blind to the reality of people dissatisfied with the elections because of the “many missteps” encountered along the way. Looking backward is in the nature of these missteps, he said. This is why Comelec is conducting an evaluation of the elections, he said -- to find out what exactly it did wrong and which things could have been done better.
On May 29, 2019, the Commission En Banc approved PMO chief Tolentino’s recommendation to initiate a Fact-Finding Investigation “to determine the root cause of the various technical issues in relation to the May 13, 2019 National And Local Elections.” These include, it said, the “defective SD cards,” “errors in the use of the Voter Registration Verification Machine (VRVM),” “glitches in the Transparency Server,” and “defective vote counting machines.”
Comelec Resolution No. 19-0629 states that the investigation will include a forensic examination to be headed either by Comelec’s Technical Evaluation Committee or DOST. The investigation will be headed by the Steering Committee for the 2019 elections, with Commissioner Marlon S. Casquejo at the helm, and including the PMO.
Jimenez told PCIJ that Comelec’s schedule being moved several times due to procurement delays is one of the things that he expects to emerge in the evaluation of the elections.
“The chronologies could have been tightened,” he said. “There could have been a greater sense of urgency -- probably just to make sure that you don't eat up in the early days the time that you need to do it properly at the end.”
“One of the things we're gonna see,” he said, “is because things were so loosey-goosey here, noong nagkakagitgitan na, medyo lumiliit na nang lumiliit ‘yung options mo, kumokonti nang konti (when push comes to shove, you get fewer and fewer options).”
But Jimenez also said that suppliers aren’t perfect either. He noted, “We can find ourselves at the mercy of suppliers that are less than prompt, that are intractable. So may mga issues rin tayo na ganyan na kelangan intindihin (So we have those issues that we have to understand as well).”
In addition, he said, roughly half the time that Comelec should have been preparing for the 2019 elections, the poll body was preparing for the Board of Canvassers and the on-again, off-again barangay elections. Comelec does not bring this up, but the pressure was inescapable, he said.
Jimenez said that “we will be finding out in the course of the forensic investigation” what caused the mishaps. “But again, right now, obviously some things went wrong,” he said. “You just have to be careful figuring out which things actually went wrong so that we can prevent them from happening again.”
— PCIJ, August 2019