The human face of corruption

MANILA, PHILIPPINES | Thursday, December 2, 2004

The human face of corruption

by Benito Teehankee

The View From Taft, Business World

The recent APEC summit in Chile affirmed the member countries' commitment to fight corruption. The summit declaration highlighted the detrimental effect of corruption on business activities, and expressed strong support for the United Nations Covenant Against Corruption (UNCAC).

Meanwhile, the Makati Business Club recently released the results of its fourth enterprise survey on corruption conducted by SWS among 701 Filipino businessmen from the NCR, Cebu and Davao. Among the many findings of the survey, 74% of the respondents said they have moderate or extensive knowledge of government corruption, while 39% said they were asked for a bribe for their income taxes.

There seems little doubt that corruption is a common feature of the business landscape both here and abroad. The rules being undertaken and envisioned by governments to curb corruption, as listed in the UNCAC, are meant to apply the stick to offenders -- to scare them enough to stop the malfeasance. However, while I fully support such initiatives, I believe these are not enough to make a dent on corruption. Corruption is a complex social phenomenon involving not only the government employee, but also the acquiescence, if not outright encouragement, of the private individual. Corruption has a human face.

My wife and I had an instructive and sobering brush with the human face of corruption a couple of years ago. My wife went to a government office to file papers related to a land deal we had just closed. Ever meticulous, she made sure to properly fill out all the forms and to meet all the requirements. Upon submitting the same to the receiving clerk, she asked how long the processing would take. The clerk motioned her into the inner office, and told her to talk to a woman working at the back of a row of desks. My wife sat in front of the woman's desk, and asked about the processing time. The woman pointed to the pile of forms for processing on her desk, and explained how heavy the workload was during those days. She picked up the pile and rifled through it as she explained, "It really depends." My wife was stunned to see P500 and P1,000 bills inserted among the forms. Since the woman was no cashier, my wife knew right away that there was no place for cash among those forms. My wife asked, "Does the head know about this?" "Oh, this is based on his instructions," she remarked, casting a glance at the head's office, where the latter could be seen through a glass window. What was most surprising to my wife was the woman's casual and matter-of-fact tone, which was audible to everyone else in the office who continued to work while my wife and the woman discussed the possible "transaction." My wife called me in dismay and, to calm her down, I asked her to politely and quietly leave the premises and to say that we would follow up by the end of the week.

When I went to the government office with my wife four days later, she was understandably anxious about whether we could accomplish anything because she did not participate in the "transaction." I was curious to see the situation for myself. More importantly, I was going to make sure that our forms were handled properly.

I had a small notebook and pen in hand, as is my practice when going to government agencies, because I always want to know the procedures. I noted the time in my notebook, and asked the clerk about the status of our forms. I made sure to smile and use "po" in every other sentence. He asked us to wait while he talked with a man near the back of the office. He returned to say it would just take a while. I thanked him, and asked for his name. While I noted the name of the clerk, I saw the man at the rear pull out what appeared to be our forms, insert them in his typewriter, and start typing. It was upsetting to realize that he was beginning to work on the papers only then. I took a deep breath, and we waited while our documents moved from desk to desk. After about 30 minutes, which seemed like forever, I approached the clerk with a smile, and asked him how much longer it would take, explaining that I had work to attend to. Finding his assurance of "a little while" vague for my taste, I asked about the procedure flowchart, which I knew must be displayed prominently for people to see. He explained that the walls had just recently been repainted, and that the flowcharts had not been restored yet. Ever so politely, I pressed to see them, and he managed to find and show them to me. I asked him about each of the following steps in the flowchart and the persons responsible. He seemed uncomfortable about my inquisitiveness, but gave the names, and pointed out the people involved as I took notes.

After another 30 minutes had passed, I asked the clerk if I could see the head of the office, again smiling and saying "po" the whole time. My deep breathing was giving me a headache, but I was determined not to have my morning wasted and not to lose my temper. There was no way that this could take more than an hour, since very few clients were there at the time. Failing to dissuade me with more assurances of "a little while," the clerk finally pointed out the head's secretary. I approached the secretary with a cheerful "good morning" while calling her by name, and asked if I could consult the head, who was inside the office. When she asked why, I calmly explained that I needed to understand the process better, so I could plan my time given my workload. We had submitted our forms four days earlier, I explained. Expectedly, she said the process was exactly as the clerk had explained, and that we would just have to wait a little while more. Since we had been there for more than an hour and a half by then, I calmly repeated, in the most polite and imploring tone I could muster, my request to see the head. She finally went inside the head's office, and came out to say I could go in.

The head was talking on his phone when I sat in front of his desk. After a while, he got off the phone, and inquired about my need. I explained the situation once again and my need to find out how long the processing would take, so I could plan my day. I made sure my tone wasn't complaining -- I was merely asking for help and guidance because my time was short. The head explained the process for a while, as the secretary brought papers in for signing. After some time, the head exclaimed: "Actually, if you weren't talking to me, I would have signed this already," pointing to our forms, which had magically appeared on his desk. I made my glee apparent as he signed the forms. As he gave me the forms to give to the releasing clerk (also the receiving clerk), I thanked him profusely. Walking towards the releasing area, I could feel the eyes of the staff boring into the side of my head. I smiled at the clerk, "The head says this is OK for release." He got the forms, stamped them, and gave them back to me. My heart raced as I looked at my watch and walked away with my wife. We had been there for two hours. What an ordeal!

This experience reinforced my beliefs about how citizens can fight corruption at the source and as it happens. First, citizens must know their rights. Republic Act No. 6713, or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees (http://www.tag.org.ph/phillaw/law4-RA6713.html) states explicitly that "all public officials and employees are obligated to process documents and papers expeditiously," and that "all public officials and employees must attend to anyone who wants to avail himself of the services of their offices and must, at all times, act promptly and expeditiously." It would be a good idea to print this in large print, paste it on a folder, and bring the folder when going to government offices.

Second, citizens must be firm about their need to be served as paying taxpayers, but unfailingly courteous to government employees. While the norm of corruption may have already made many people jaded, there are still those who can be reasoned with. Filipinos, I notice, have a particularly soft heart for the polite person who asks for help.

Finally, citizens must invest the time to make the system work. They must know and follow the procedures, and not bend them to their own preference. They must be prepared to follow through on their needs even if this means going to the very top.

In the end, it will not be rules that will stamp out corruption. It will be the vigilance of every citizen.