President Aquino’s preemptive speech on the pork barrel issue—read on Aug. 23, or three days before the so-called Million People March—was both welcome and woefully inadequate. He showed he was listening to the people when he announced that it was time to abolish the congressional pork barrel, known since 1990 as the Priority Development Assistance Fund. His plan to introduce a new mechanism to take the place of the PDAF, however, showed that while he may have heard the public outcry against pork barrel abuse, he did not understand the depths of public outrage.
The very nature of the budget reforms he introduced proved that he wanted to preserve the two-decade-old expansion of legislative power, from appropriation of funds to expenditure. He saw it as a necessary condition of present-day governance. It is this expansion, however, that lies at the crux of the issue. When senators and congressmen who facilitated billions of pesos in pork barrel spending do not feel themselves obliged either to vet conduit organizations or account for the funds, because it is not their job, then why entrust them with the responsibility in the first place?
That is the question the public is asking, and it is unfortunate that President Aquino seems to have misheard it. He has obviously studied the issue of pork barrel abuse in some depth, but his study seems to scant the full implications of abuse.
The start of the last paragraph of his unexpected speech offers another example of a mishearing, of a subject studied in depth but whose full implications have not yet been accepted.
“Gagana lamang po ang sistemang ito kung makikiisa at makikilahok kayo. Ihahayag po nang buo ang impormas-
yon; suyurin at kilatisin po natin ito.”
The official English translation provided by Malacañang reads: “For this system to work, your cooperation is required. The information will be there for you to monitor: let us understand and examine it.” That is, by and large, an accurate translation. But the first clause of the second sentence can still be improved: “The information will be there for you to monitor” does not quite convey the scope of the original. “Ihahayag po nang buo ang impormasyon” is better rendered as: “The information will be presented in full.”
That rendering, however, raises the issue of freedom of information. The President is right; understanding and examining information are crucial to any transparent and accountable use of government funds. The question is: Who will present that information, and in full?
The answer, to follow both Mr. Aquino’s logic and language, is the government itself. The seventh specific budget reform he listed, for example, makes the following commitment: “we will make sure that each item will be disclosed in the [Department of Budget and Management] and related agency websites and the National Data Portal of the government.”
This is a necessary, indeed progressive advance. But it is not enough.
To monitor, examine, or understand government spending in full, the citizens on whose cooperation the President relies need to be able to access any information they need—not just the information “presented” by the DBM, however “full,” but every bit or byte of government data that does not fall under protected forms of privileged communication or confidential information.
As the unfolding drama over the supposed P10-billion pork barrel scam allegedly masterminded by businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles reminds us, the DBM makes mistakes, and those mistakes are then reflected in the Commission on Audit reports. Any citizen wishing to understand and examine a particular budget transaction, then, should have access to all kinds of information, even unpromising leads or outright dead ends.
We acknowledge President Aquino’s decision to place completeness of information (“buo ang impormasyon”) on center stage, but we must remind him that cooperative citizens may and will in all likelihood define completeness in other, nongovernment-packaged ways.
That’s a good thing, and reason enough for the Aquino administration to finally make good on a fundamental campaign promise and pass a law guaranteeing freedom of information.