Commission on Audit (COA) Chairperson Michael G. Aguinaldo shared the Philippines Supreme Audit Institution (SAI) experiences in maintaining accountability and transparency during the time of pandemic at an online global discussion on “Managing COVID Funds: A Global Scorecard of Accountability” hosted by the International Budget Partnership (IBP) on 24 May 2021. The discussions centered on various countries’ assessment in maintaining transparency, oversight and public participation in managing COVID Funds and highlighted the need for accountability and global effort to battle COVID-19.

Joining Chairperson Aguinaldo in the panel were Mr. Nazir Kabiri - Deputy Minister for Policy in Afghanistan, Ms. Carolina Renteria – Chief of the Planning and Finance Management Division of the International Monetary Fund’s Fiscal Affairs Department, and Ms. Shumani Luruli – Program Coordinator for Plan Act, a Civil Society Organization (CSO) based in South Africa. Ms. Sofia Sprechmann Sineiro, Secretary General of CARE International and a board member of the IBP, was the moderator.

IBP said the scale and complexity of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic have challenged governments' capacity to manage their resources effectively. By the end of 2020, more than $14 trillion had been spent on addressing the pandemic's financial impacts. These included additional spending measures, tax relief programs, and loans and loan guarantees. IBP’s report also stated that two thirds of countries failed to provide enough information on the relief packages that they introduced and almost half bypassed their legislatures.

IBP’s Mr. Viver Ramkumar said the Philippines showed a better way to be transparent and accountable. Together with Canada and Sweden, the Philippines published a gender impact assessment of COVID-19 response. According to Ms. Sineiro fewer national audit offices were able to conduct real-time or expedited audit on COVID funds but COA was one of the exceptions.

Chairperson Aguinaldo noted that real-time and expedited audits were done but not everything in that manner. He said that since the Philippines is used to emergency situations such as typhoons and earthquakes, the best way to deal with it is to anticipate how the government is going to respond. “Because we are able to anticipate, we were able to follow the money trail right away. As far as doing Risk-Based Audit we anticipate where the money is going to flow, what’s going to be done, what do we need to prepare for this. Also, one of the key things that we did early on was to come up with guidelines on how to audit COVID fund expenditures,” Chairperson Aguinaldo said.

“There were some actions on the part of the government that created transparency. The government required periodic weekly reporting of funds and these were published,” he added.

Chairperson Aguinaldo also gave credit to the Philippine government for still having a procurement system and still follow emergency procurement protocols and procedures. He also said that transparency and accountability is important because in situations like a pandemic, it is not an excuse to abuse but this creates an opportunity to abuse.

The COA Chairperson also shared the Philippines experience in working with CSOs in the audits of COVID programs. “It’s been a different challenge from the types of Citizen Participatory Audits that we have done in the past mainly because of the mobility restrictions such as quarantine. Early on, CSOs are very active in monitoring the amount of money disbursed. There were weekly reports so the data was actually there,” he said.

Chairperson Aguinaldo cited Viber groups and other social media groups that were formed by people with common interest. “People would exchange information on various things whether it be social amelioration, if people are getting the money already, and what problems are being encountered. Now, it’s the vaccines. All these feedbacks are filtered out and discussed and that is when the local government is able to respond, correct wrong information, or adjust,” he said. Chairperson Aguinaldo noted that auditing in this time of pandemic is not the kind of audit in the past where COA takes the lead with CSOs but civil society initiating which is one way on how to be more transparent and accountable.

On how governments take remedial measures to institute accountability based on audit recommendations, Chairperson Aguinaldo emphasized that audit can’t be seen in isolation. It is only a part of the fiscal process of the country and that the COA has limited degree of punitive power. “A lot of change has to come from the process itself. Our reports should be used by Congress whenever they have deliberations on the Budget so that money that is not spent or not spent properly should be taken away from the budget of agencies that are not able to utilize. Our Congress also has a Public Accounts Committee looking at our reports more closely and using it for the benefit of rationalizing the budget being submitted by agencies,” Chairperson Aguinaldo said.

The global discussion ended with hope that it has sent a powerful signal to governments and other stakeholders that even during times of crisis, open budget practices are not only possible but also are essential to ensure assistance to those most in need. That is why the IBP’s tagline is “Open Budget, Transform Lives.”