The first recorded government innovation was a law against corruption. Four and a half thousand years ago, Mesopotamian King Urukagina set out limits on the power of the rich to demand money from the poor. 48 centuries later, all reformers follow in his footsteps.

This includes the dedicated team at the Philippines Commission on Audit. As a constitutional body independent of the Philippine government, the Commission conducts checks on the government’s finances to ensure funds are being used appropriately. It also assesses if public projects have been managed effectively.

GovInsider spoke to Michael G. Aguinaldo, Chairperson of the Commission, to find out how the Commission is promoting transparency with checks conducted by citizens, geolocation and data analytics.

Engaging citizens in conducting audits

The Commission is helping ordinary citizens to check on the progress of public projects. “It can really be a government by the people for the people,” says Aguinaldo.

For instance, in 2015, new roads were being built in the province of Palawan to transport farming produce to markets. The Commission taught local farmers to measure the length, width and depth of a road so that they could give reports on whether roads were being built properly.

Citizens in poorer regions also conduct checks on public facilities such as schools and clinics. Parents fill in surveys detailing the condition of the schools their children are attending. “Does it have a ceiling, a floor, walls? How many students are there, and how many desks are available? How many teachers are there per student?” asks Aguinaldo. Similarly, patients at healthcare clinics take note of whether the doctors and nurses are present at the clinic, whether it stocks medicine, and the cleanliness of the toilets.

The Commission then presents this information to local government authorities. “The purpose of this is not to condemn anyone”, says Aguinaldo, but the data gives the Commission “basis to ask questions”, and to drive improvement.

Going the distance with tech

Aguinaldo sees plenty of potential in engaging citizens to check on the progress of public projects, “especially if you combine it with existing technologies”. The Commission has created a portal for citizens to share pictures of public works building sites taken with their cell phone cameras.

This is especially helpful for projects in remote areas, which auditors may not be able to inspect in person. With this portal, “I can look at my cell phone and I can see pictures taken of a project being done in a province 1,000 km away,” explains Aguinaldo. “I can access it anywhere in the world.”

The Commission is also using drones and geo-tagging technology to capture live images of building sites and monitor the progress of public projects. It is currently working on a website that would make this information publicly available.

Detecting fraud with data analytics

Aguinaldo is keen to explore how his team can get deeper insights by analysing the data it collects. “It’s very important when you’re trying to rationalise and plan, and to determine why certain things happen as they do, [such as] why is it that in certain years the number of audits on a particular issue like procurement suddenly goes up,” he says.

The Commission has developed a software for detecting spending anomalies. For example, the software might flag a patient who has submitted national health insurance claims for four successive eye surgeries. Auditors can then investigate further to determine if there is any underlying fraudulent activity.

The Commission has made the use of data analytics compulsory in their checks to ensure that no suspicious activity slips past the auditors. Aguinaldo is hopeful of the impact this could have: “I’m very excited because we’re getting better at coming up with solutions and programmes that can help us monitor a lot of the things we do.”

Making processes more efficient

On top of promoting accountability and waylaying dishonesty, Aguinaldo hopes to simplify processes. “If there’s a keyword, it would be ‘simplify’,” he says.

The Commission has introduced different levels of authority for auditors, so that they can write off smaller amounts without having to go through the many loops required in the past. A write-off is a record of an asset that can no longer generate money for the organisation.

“Sometimes the amount that’s going to be written off is $15,” explains Aguinaldo. “The amount of time we’re spending on this costs more than the amount involved.” With the new system, resident auditors can write off up to about US$2000, he says.

Stopping the misuse of funds before it happens

Underlying Aguinaldo’s vision for the Commission is an aim to educate government officials in the proper use of financial resources. “You’re there not only to catch, but also to teach,” he says. “It’s not enough to tell them that what they’re doing is wrong. You have to tell them how to do it right.” This will allow the Commission to step in and provide advice before any money is spent inappropriately.

The Commission will educate public officials in two main ways: conducting general seminars and workshops on new regulations, and providing targeted consultations when officials have doubts about how funds can be used. “There are certain grey areas, because we do have so many rules,” Aguinaldo explains.

The Commission on Audit’s battle against corruption can sometimes be a lonely one, but it has turned to the help of citizens to ensure that public projects are managed well.