G-Watch Holds Online Forum on the Auditing of COVD-19 Funds

Government Watch (G-Watch) recently organized an e-discussion on the role of the Commission on Audit (COA) in the handling of the government’s COVID-19 funds. Entitled Usapang Pananagutan: The Role of State Audit Institutions in Making COVID-19 Funds Accountable, the online forum was held on 15 September 2021, and was attended by about 80 participants and viewers from both government and civil society.

The forum began at 1:30pm, and was formally opened by Joy Aceron, Convenor-Director of G-Watch. She began her remarks by emphasizing COA’s crucial role in fighting corruption, with their reports putting pressure on powerholders.

Aceron then pointed out that the gathering is an attempt to provide COA with a platform to explain its role in advancing transparency, participation and accountability (TPA). But more specifically, the e-forum is also an opportunity for the Commission to explain its mandate in the auditing of COVID-19 funds.

To frame the discussion, Aceron raised the following questions:  

1.     The independence of supreme audit institutions, such as COA, is important. But among the countries in Southeast Asia, the Philippines only has mid-level independence, due to issues concerning hiring and staffing. How can COA address this major challenge, particularly when it comes to high-level appointments?

2.     Supreme audit institutions help curb corruption. But one major gap in terms of practice is civil society’s limited engagement with COA. How can we build a COA-civil society alliance that can ensure their independence, maximize their strengths, and address their different approaches?


Aceron’s opening remarks were immediately followed by a presentation from COA Assistant Commissioner Cora Lea dela Cruz. She began by recognizing the adverse effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to the loss of employment, as well as lower financial resources due to prolonged quarantine.

Dela Cruz then enumerated the classification of COVID-related government expenditures: (1) direct government expenditures, (2) support for individuals, (3) support for businesses, and (4) support for financial systems. She also pointed out that two legislative measures were passed to deal with the pandemic: Bayanihan 1, which gave emergency powers to President Rodrigo Duterte; and Bayanihan 2, which is meant to bolster economic resiliency.

With this background, dela Cruz said that COA acts as an enabling partner in ensuring transparency and accountability in the government’s pandemic response. She added that for 2021, the government’s total budget amounts to Php4.506 trillion. The health sector has received a sizable sum, with Php13.8 billion allotted for COVID-19 response.

Dela Cruz also identified COA’s actions and initiatives related to the pandemic: (1) prompt policy decisions/actions of COA in the audit of COVID-19 funds and programs; (2) enabling efforts to assist agencies in mitigating the effects of pandemic; and (3) ensuring that work systems are at its optimal level and that new means for service delivery are developed and implemented.


The second part of the discussion was presented by COA Director Josephine Manalo. She explained that the Commission issues various audit reports covering the financial, compliance and performance aspects of any government transaction. Included in these reports, Manalo added, are the violations in compliance processes.

She claimed that COA has issued Notices of Suspension, Disallowance, and Charge against various government officials, employees and private parties in January-December 2020 and January-June 2021. Because of these actions, the government was able to settle Php1.74 million.

However, due to the pandemic, COA has relaxed certain policies and procedures to give agencies greater leeway. In addition, the Commission has longstanding protocols that would allow the agencies concerned to respond to the findings.

According to Manalo, once the initial audit findings have been collected, COA will conduct an exit interview with the concerned agency so that the latter can provide feedback and address any negative finding. The Commission also sees to it that the final report will only be released to the public 60 days upon the transmittal of the recommendations to the concerned agencies. All these reports, Manalo added, are then uploaded to the COA website.

Specifically, on COVID-19, Manalo said that the spending compliance on Bayanihan 1 and 2 were not strictly followed. For example, the procedures for payments for hazard pay and allowances for health workers were largely overlooked. At the same time, there was no proper documentation of cash advances. Manalo believes that these oversights were committed because the agencies were doing things in haste, since thy needed to immediately respond to the pandemic.

Manalo added that the adverse findings can addressed if: (1) the agencies will immediately implement COA’s recommendations; (2) update COA auditors on the actions taken by the agency; and (3) submit the necessary reports to COA as indicated in the General Appropriations Act.


Two reactors from G-Watch shared their takeaways from the COA presentation.

Gabriel Peralta of G-Watch Quezon City praised the Commission for performing its mandate of releasing reports on government expenses, despite growing attacks from the executive department. He also emphasized the importance of these reports for Sangguniang Kabataan (SK) officials since they are able to learn firsthand how government funds should be properly processed.

For her part, Cindy Uy of G-Watch Dumaguete pointed out that civil society participation is supposedly included in both the planning and budgeting process. However, she asked how the views of citizens are incorporated in the findings or recommendations. Manalo responded that COA is always open to citizens’ participation, and that all their reports can be scrutinized by the public.


During the open forum, questions were raised regarding the timeline for the preparation and release of the reports, the actions that the Commission has undertaken against instances of overpricing, and if cases have been filed in court.

One question that drew the interest of the participants was COA’s reaction to President Rodrigo Duterte attacks on the Commission. Dela Cruz responded by emphasizing that the findings in the reports are not opinions of COA but based on evidence and on the procedures that all government agencies must follow. She added that in the spirit of demonstrating that institutions are properly functioning, the Chief Executive should not prohibit cabinet secretaries from cooperating with the Commission. Dela Cruz also said that the President and the public should have confidence that our institutions will perform their mandated functions.

The third presentation came from Pura Sumangil, Executive Director of the Concerned Citizens of Abra for Good Government (CCAGG). It began as an offshoot of the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL), which monitored the 1986 snap presidential elections. After the People Power Revolution, NAMFREL volunteers in Abra province decided to form CCAGG to monitor public infrastructure projects. Their initial efforts have led to the suspension of several erring government officials.

On 8 August 2000, CCAGG signed a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with COA, authorizing the former to participate in the conduct of government audits in the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) for a period of one year.  

Known as the Participatory Audit Project, the partnership focused on the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). This initiative was considered as a breakthrough because for the first time, civil society volunteers were deputized as auditors, tasked with ensuring the proper implementation of government projects.


A short open forum followed the presentation, wherein participants asked if the partnership with COA was sustained, as well the factors that enable CCAGG to continue its monitoring work.

After the open forum, Vicky Maglanque of G-Watch closed the e-discussion by telling the participants that the forum was both apt and timely since it was held on International Day of Democracy. She also added that taxpayers should know how their money is being used, and emphasized the need for greater cooperation between COA and civil society.