Tracking Government Projects

(Published by the Manila Times on 29 May 2019)

In this digital age, information can be transmitted from one person to another in an instant, with a few presses and clicks on the screen of a gadget; that same information can be shared by practically everyone in the planet who has access to the internet.

The government therefore serves the public well by uploading readily accessible information about the so-called “big ticket” projects under its “Build Build Build” (BBB) Program by maintaining a website at build.gov.ph. Anyone, especially the Filipino taxpayers, who wishes to track the progress of these projects can do so by simply browsing the pages of that website.

The other day I read from the papers that the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has just approved a loan for the 53.1-kilometer Malolos-Clark Railway Project in the amount of USD2.7 billion. This reportedly was the biggest loan package the bank has ever extended for any single project.

Implemented by the Department of Transportation, this project is part of the bigger Php149 billion North-South Commuter Railway (NSCR) Project which was started in 2013. The BBB website summarizes its project description as “a 147-km mass transportation railway system traversing Clark, Pampanga (Region 3), and Calamba, Laguna (Region 4). It has 3 interconnected railway systems: 1) the PNR Clark Phase 1, 2) The PNR Clark Phase 2 [Clark Extension], and 3) PNR Calamba. The total cost is PhP777.551 Billion. The PNR Clark Phase 1 involves the construction of a 37.6-km rail line that will connect Tutuban, Manila to Malolos, Bulacan. With this line, commuters from Tutuban will reach Malolos in approximately 35 minutes from over 1 and 30 minutes of travel time. It can accommodate 300,000 passengers daily in its opening year.”

There is a bar graph that shows progress of project implementation, from project development, to procurement, to project implementation (meaning, construction). Sub bar graphs for each milestone show that project development progress is at zero percent; procurement at zero percent; and project implementation progress is also at zero percent.

Right there one will find that the website is deficient. It needs regular updating. For a project that started 6 years ago (in the middle of the Aquino administration), zero progress in at least the initial stages of project development and procurement cannot be, in my view, an accurate accounting. Surely a project cannot get ADB approval without sufficient project development documentation.

Project development, includes, at the minimum, pre-feasibility and/or feasibility studies, resettlement plan (for those who will be displaced), environment plan, right of way financing, procurement plan, organizational structuring, sustainability and operational and maintenance plan, and financing/loan documentation. All of these studies go through rigorous, sometimes contentious, discussion and analyses, which largely explain why government projects take time to get done.

Adequate documentation of consultative processes involving stakeholders is vital during the early stages of project development, especially with the size and scope of BBB projects. How are the population being displaced by these projects going to cope with their livelihood? What will mitigate destruction of the eco-system if project sites are within mangrove areas, for example? Answers to these questions are some of the basic information, among many others, that the BBB website should make readily available for the public to access.

On procurement, citizens would appreciate being given the ability to browse or download documentation of each step being undertaken within the entire bidding process. Procurement consists of mandatory steps, such as planning, pre-procurement conference; issuance of procurement notices; pre-bid conference; submission, examination and evaluation of bids; post-evaluation qualification; then finally notice of award and notice to proceed.

Procurement planning, at which stage project cost is determined, is crucial for establishing the conditions that will either enable or disable irregularities to happen during the course of project implementation. Here project proponents determine unit costs for each project component. Overpricing by a few centavos for each unit of material, for example, means millions of pesos can be lost to corruption if total cost runs into billions of pesos. At some point after evaluation of bids, observers can also tell if collusion among bidders took place, indicating that the purpose of getting the best value for money through competition has been compromised.

Many studies have shown that up to 40 percent of public funds are lost due to corruption. Most of these leaks happen during procurement and contract execution.

And yet, if done properly, government procurement can provide the most efficient process by which public funds are converted into goods and services that can eventually benefit the people. Some experts even argue that government projects that go through procurement are in the long run less costly, from the viewpoint of the taxpaying public, than those that apply private-public-partnership methods of financing. That’s because while PPPs can mobilize private funds for public goods, they also promote private gain more than they ease public pain.   

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