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In the Philippines, Citizens Go Undercover With Bantay to Monitor Public Offices

BY Antonella Napolitano | Wednesday, July 30 2014

The results of the Red Tape Index, the first monitoring study by Bantay.ph

Last year, the New York Times reported on the tens of thousands of people protesting in the streets of Manila, Philippines, after the arrest of a powerful businesswoman that had helped divert millions of pesos from poverty-reduction programs.

The Philippines, a country of almost 100 million, is considered among the most corrupt country in Southeast Asia, despite a boost in Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index in the past few years (from 134th in 2010 to 94th in 2013 out of 175.)

Corruption involves all levels of government, but is aided also by a mindset of tolerance, says Happy Feraren, the co-founder of Bantay.ph, an anti-corruption educational initiative that teaches citizens how to monitor the quality of government services, sometimes by going undercover.

“We are firm believers in the feedback loop. Ranting on Facebook and Twitter will only get you so far. If we use proper channels for feedback, we have a chance of actually turning these complaints into cases which can later on lead to reform,” said Feraren, while presenting the project earlier this month at the Open Knowledge Festival in Berlin.

The project is funded by the micro-finance institutionLifebank Foundation, the SouthEast Asia Technology and Transparency Initiative (SEATTI) and Makati Business Club, a non-profit business association that promotes the role of the business sector in development work. The association with the business sector is not casual: pointing out that corruption would get in the way of investment in the country is a powerful argument for transparency advocates in the Philippines, Feraren told me in a Skype interview.

Part of the funding for the project also comes from the U.S. embassy.

“Want good governance? Try good citizenship!”

At first Feraren and her co-founder (and childhood friend), Henri Motte-Munoz, wanted to do something similar to I paid a bribe and crowdsource reports of corruption.

But, while acknowledging the importance of the Indian-based project, they were afraid that in their country the initiative would have ended up becoming just a database full of complaints.

“There are already anti-corruption laws that are not implemented. There are already several assistance hotlines and complaint desks, but nobody uses them,” Feraren told me. “We wanted to show that citizens are also part of the problem, that there is a demand on the citizens' side.”

Public offices are often populated by the so-called facilitators, people that will take a bribe for faster processing of passports or business permits, for example, Feraren explained.

Such bribes are common practice, mostly acknowledged and tolerated by Philippine citizens.

“Corruption exists partially because we allow it to exist. Our movement wants to take a pro-active stance against corruption by educating citizens on how to demand good governance,” it states on the Bantay website.

Beginning in 2013 as a project on good governance, Bantay advocates for change in the everyday work of public offices, such as providing passports, driving licenses or business permits.

They focus on both discovering corrupt practices and assessing the level of service standards in terms of time and money required for each service by using the Anti-Red Tape Act, a law enacted in 2007 that aims to promote transparency in the government, re-engineer inefficient (and sometimes corrupt) systems and procedures of each office or agency, even providing sanctions for public bodies that are not compliant.

The Act also introduced the Citizen's Charter, a list of all the required documents, processing times and necessary fees for every service in every public office.

“That act enables a contract with citizens, but many don't know about it. Some offices don't display it, some do it only in English, a choice that prevents some to read it,” Feraren tells me.

Bantay targets young citizens at the moment, mostly university students aged 16 to 19. The NGO partnered with universities in the Manila metropolitan area to make their advocacy projects part of the mandatory “volunteer program” for about 100 college students.

One of Bantay's educational posters (Source: Bantay.ph)

Bantay's educational program is made up of several interactive meetings: five sessions on citizens' rights and the basic requirements for a transparent and efficient process in public offices. The organization uses simple and colorful educational posters, also available on the website.

Finally, students are trained and prepped for field work: three undercover visits to public offices, which is the second step of the program.

Monitorial democracy: closing the feedback loop

Alongside educating students about their rights, Bantay brings them into the field to learn how to monitor the activities of public offices: students belonging to the program visit public offices, showing up as normal citizens wanting to obtain documents.

Their monitoring activities include checking if the Citizen's charter is visible in the office, talking to other people waiting in line to check if they have been asked by public officials or facilitators to pay bribes in exchange for a speeding up of the paperwork for their passport or driving licenses, and even checking if the toilets work or if seniors have enough seats while waiting for their turn.

Their objective is to assess how compliant each office is according to the Anti Red-Tape Act, the level of transparency in the process to get services they are entitled to, and, of course, if there are bribing activities taking place in that office.

An example? “If you're getting your driving license without having to take the written and practical exam, then something is very wrong!” warns one of Bantay.ph posters that can be downloaded on the website (see above).

The results of their field research are then collected, visualized and sent to the public office for them to target malpractice and change what is not working.

There are some offices that are more open to feedback and that have already implemented changes after receiving critique from Bantay. “It's a number of things, from toilets renovation to a waiting line dedicated to seniors citizens,” Feraren says. “Some offices have also improved their Citizen Charter.” According to the Anti Red Tape Act, each public office has its own.

Using the data collected, Bantay.ph computes a “Red Tape Index” for each agency, which includes ratings of compliance, transparency, facilities, process flow etc.

The first study, presented yesterday in Manila, focuses on five cities in the metropolitan area of Manila, and is published on the Bantay website.

“We give them concrete examples of things to improve, things they can immediately respond to” she says, adding that for now Bantay has started a conversation with some local offices in the Manila area, but not yet with mayors.

In a post on monitorial citizenship published earlier this year, Ethan Zuckerman advocated for a culture of monitorial citizenship: drawing on "The Good Citizen," an essay by Michael Schudson, he wrote that monitorial democracy is “where a responsibility as citizens is to monitor what powerful institutions do (governments, corporations, universities and other large organizations) and demand change when they misbehave.”

This seems to be the same direction Bantay is exploring: Feraren tells me that her hope is that the project will also reveal how hard it is to be a good government employee.

The role of education in preventing corruption

A 2014 study by researchers Weitz-Shapiro (Brown University) and Winters (University of Illinois) on the role of education in political control of corruption (recently mentioned by World Bank's Tiago Peixoto) suggests “a new mechanism through which high educational attainment might decrease corruption—not through changes in preferences that may be associated with different education levels, but rather because more educated individuals are better able to discern more from less credible information and therefore are more likely to act on the former.”

The school year has just begun again in the Philippines and Bantay has had several requests already from universities outside the Manila area. The project aims at educating 300 more monitoring citizens.

At the end of our interview, Feraren recalls a success story: in the first batch of volunteers, there was a student that was forced by his father to pay a bribe to get his driving license. He became so invested in the Bantay program that he ended up returning his original license and going through the whole process again, this time without the bribe.

“People think corruption is exclusive to the government, but it's not, and people can prevent it on a small scale,” Feraren says.

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