In Pasig, fighting corruption yields COVID-19 cash aid for the people

JC Gotinga

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

Pasig Mayor Vico Sotto began his term by cleaning up the local government’s procurement process and auditing its assets. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the city had money to help every household, and then some.

STATE OF THE CITY. Pasig Mayor Vico Sotto delivers his State of the City Address on July 2, 2020, marking the first year of his term. Photo from Sotto's Facebook page  

MANILA, Philippines – Some people in Pasig thought their new mayor, Vico Sotto, was off to a slow start – an audit of the city’s assets and a revamp of its procurement process weren’t exactly the swashbuckling moves they had imagined from this son of two entertainment celebrities. 

But, in April, when the lockdown owing to the coronavirus pandemic threatened to starve poor, jobless families across Luzon, Pasig City had money to assist thousands of households not covered by the national government’s emergency cash subsidy.

The city had huge savings.

At the time, the city government had distributed nearly half a million grocery bags to its needier communities, and coupons equivalent to cash that public school students’ families could use to buy food at local markets.

Also, nearly 20,000 drivers of jeepneys, tricycles, UV Express shuttles, and market stall vendors, who were unable to work, had each received P3,000.

By mid-April, the Pasig government had spent at least P220 million in different forms of aid for residents hit hard by the lockdown.

And then the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) announced it would give cash subsidies to millions of families. Everyone who felt they were poor enough to deserve financial help expected to receive a share.

The catch was, at the time, only 18 million families nationwide were covered by the DSWD subsidy, and it put local governments – in charge of distributing the cash aid – on the spot.

From Pasig, only 93,000 families made the DSWD’s list, leaving out some 127,000 other families living below the poverty line.

“Imagine-in mo ’yung galit, ’yung reklamo, ng mga residenteng hindi makakatanggap. Syempre may entitlement kasi pagka medyo hindi ka masyadong maayos ang kalagayan sa buhay, feeling mo may utang ’yung gobyerno sa ’yo, ’di ba? To think sila ’yung deserving talaga ng subsidy from the national government,” said a Pasig official from Sotto’s office who asked not to be named in this report.

(Imagine the anger, the complaints, of residents who were not beneficiaries. Of course, they felt entitled because when you’re not doing so well in life, you feel the government owes you, right? To think they really were the ones who deserved subsidy from the national government.)

Despite stay-at-home orders, some disgruntled residents stormed local government offices demanding cash subsidy. The city’s complaints hotline, Ugnayan sa Pasig, received many similar complaints.

“Bakit hindi sila kasama, eh sabi ni Presidente, kasama sila?” the official, who helped oversee the subsidy distribution, recalled the complaints. (Why weren’t they included, when the President said they were included?)

To prevent social unrest, Sotto and the rest of the city government bit the bullet. They would dip into savings from the past several months, and even some from the city’s trust fund, Sotto said on April 13, to roll out their own “supplemental” cash subsidy program for every household not on the DSWD’s list of beneficiaries.

The 93,000 families on the DSWD’s list were to receive a total of P16,000 each in two tranches. Pasig promised to give half of that – P8,000 – to the rest of the city’s families.

For this, the Pasig City government is spending around P1.2 billion.

Distribution difficulties

The first hurdle was to distribute the national government’s subsidy, and that entailed a few problems.

One, everybody expected to receive it. How do you explain to a desperate, undeniably indigent person that they are not on the list of recipients?

In Pasig, less than half of the 220,000 names the local government submitted to the DSWD were approved as beneficiaries. In other words, local government workers were going to bring bad news to more people than they were going to give cash to.

Two, that list was from 2015, and, as Mayor Sotto anticipated, there was quite a number of discrepancies: people on the list who no longer resided in the barangays they were listed under.

FOCUS ON THE POOR. Mayor Vico Sotto speaks with a senior citizen during the distribution of Pasig City's regular assistance to the elderly. Photo from Sotto's Facebook page

Workers from city hall and the barangays had to sort the trouble out without delaying the process too much – the city couldn’t roll out its supplemental subsidy until it had finished giving out the first tranche of the DSWD’s cash aid.

“’Yung hirap sa aming mga staff na magpaliwanag na, ‘Eto lang po kasi ’yung approved.’ Even sa mga kapitan ng barangay eh, medyo initially, dun sa first few days of implementation of the national SAP, mayroon pa rin kaming kaunting friction with them eh, kasi bakit daw parang ’yung list ay nanggaling lang sa city.” the official said, referring to the national government’s “social amelioration program” or “SAP.”

(The staff had difficulty explaining, “These were the only ones approved.” Even with the barangay captains, initially, in the first few days of implementation of the national SAP, we had a little of friction with them because they asked why it seemed the list only came from the city.)

City hall officials had to explain, even to barangay leaders, how it was the DSWD that picked beneficiaries from a much longer list of names the city government originally submitted.

Take their picture

By the second week of distribution, barangay leaders had identified who among the DSWD’s list were no longer residents, and they recommended other residents in lieu of them.

The Pasig City government then submitted an updated list to the DSWD’s national capital region (NCR) office for its approval.

“Medyo good naman ’yung relationship namin sa DSWD-NCR, so kung ano ’yung request namin na support, nandoon sila agad,” the Pasig official said.

(We have a pretty good relationship with DSWD-NCR so whatever our request for support was, they were ready right away.)

Despite these difficulties, Pasig was among the first local governments to finish distributing the first tranche of the DSWD’s subsidy. They started in mid-April and finished on the first week of May.

The trick, according to the official, was to hand out the cash as soon as the beneficiaries submitted their filled-out forms. Most other local governments encoded all the forms before starting to give out the cash, which took a lot longer.

This surprised DSWD Secretary Rolando Bautista when he came to inspect the distribution in Pasig, the official said. “Oh, you do payroll onsite?” Bautista asked.

Simple, the official said. Take pictures of the beneficiaries holding their cash subsidy and, along with their forms, attach it to the liquidation. It made the process faster without risking pilferage.

The rich, too?

The local government was preparing to conduct a census before the pandemic took hold, and it had to be postponed, Sotto said in an interview on April 13. He explained why the city’s supplemental subsidy would include all resident families, even the wealthy.

Because there was no fresh data on hand about the economic status of the city’s residents, the mayor decided it was better to err on the side of generosity.

Sotto just appealed to the well-to-do, including his neighbors in the posh Valle Verde subdivisions, to decline their share. If they do, the money saved will go to programs for the poor.

“So i-open natin sa lahat. Hinihikayat na lang po natin ’yung mga maykaya o okay pa naman, na huwag na lang nilang tanggapin ’yung tulong. Or tanggapin nila, tapos ibigay nila sa mas nangangailangan,” Sotto said. (So we’ll open it to everybody. We just urge the well-off or those still doing okay not to accept the aid. Or accept it, then give it to those who need it more.)

On May 5, Pasig City began distributing its own supplemental cash subsidy. It came with its own difficulties.

Because Sotto made the distribution of the Pamaskong Handog Christmas goody bags in December double as a survey, the city government had a pretty updated list to work with.

However, it was “not enough to cover all the families,” the official from the mayor’s office said.

“So we literally went from house to house. We knocked on every door,” the official added.

Pasig has many dense communities, where several families share an apartment, and where doors line mazes of narrow alleys traversing entire blocks of wall-to-wall houses.

It was a grueling month-and-a-half for the city government’s employees, but they did it. On June 14, they finished distributing the supplemental subsidy to the targeted beneficiaries – in the plainest terms, the city’s non-wealthy families.

Still, some people from upscale subdivisions demanded their share – “We’re taxpayers, too” – and the city government had to oblige.

More DSWD beneficiaries

When the national government announced it was adding 5 million families to the DSWD’s emergency subsidy program, Pasig City submitted 33,000 names of deserving beneficiaries.

The DSWD approved 26,000 of those names. Because they had already received Pasig’s P8,000 supplemental subsidy, the city government and the DSWD agreed that they would only receive P8,000 from the national government, not the whole P16,000.

The other P8,000 would be credited to the city government, since, in effect, it already covered the first tranche of cash aid for the 26,000 new DSWD beneficiaries.

“The objective is just to be fair to the first batch of beneficiaries. They got P16,000, so the new batch should also get P16,000 total,” the official said.

Not that Pasig is out of money, the official pointed out. But the reimbursement from the DSWD would come in handy as the city government distributes its supplemental subsidy to residents of upscale subdivisions and condominiums.

As of Monday, July 6, the city government had distributed 97.5% of its supplemental subsidy, and it would cover all families in Pasig, the official said.

Anti-corruption drive

On July 2, Araw ng Pasig (Pasig Day), Mayor Sotto said in his State of the City Address that the local government saved P414.7 million from the city’s revamped procurement process.

Aimed at cutting corruption, the new bidding process for the city’s supply and service contracts includes third-party observers and experts during sessions, which are livestreamed on social media for increased transparency.

More importantly, Sotto keeps a close eye on both officials and bidders, so that no grease money is exchanged – the main reason procurement and other project contracts end up bloated.

Sotto himself has refused an offer of P2 million to expedite a business permit, he said during his speech.

With these, the city government was able to slash all contract prices by at least 10% – a feat Sotto heralded as a major accomplishment.

FOOD PACKS. Among the first forms of aid Pasig City gave poor residents were nearly half a million food packs. Photo Mayor Vico Sotto's Facebook page

Sotto’s frugal approach to the city’s finances also helped shore up money for social welfare programs during the pandemic, the official said.

Money saved from canceled programs and projects were promptly realigned to social services. It’s a trend they expect would continue as the pandemic causes more plans to be called off or modified.

Everything the city has so far spent on its social welfare programs during the pandemic were from savings of Sotto’s administration, the official emphasized. They have not dipped into the savings of the city’s previous administration.

Credit the whole city government

For these, Sotto credited the entire bureaucracy during his speech.

He thanked the vice mayor, Iyo Bernardo, congressman Roman Romulo, and the city council for legislating the decisions that enabled the city to respond nimbly to the pandemic.

The mayor usually gets all the praise, as he gets all the criticism, too, Sotto told them. But the fact is, it takes the entire bureaucracy to get anything done.

The official from the mayor’s office said credit should go to the people on the ground. Pasig’s employees gamely navigated every neighborhood to distribute aid even if it wasn’t in their job description.

“Even our engineering staff, our Business Permit and License Office staff, even our cashiers used to working in air-conditioned counters, were tasked to go house-to-house, and they hardly complained,” the official said.

They did not complain that it was hot or that it rained, or that they had to work until midnight, all despite the threat from the virus, the official added.

As the Pasig government workers made their rounds distributing the cash aid, there wasn’t the old fanfare about the mayor or congressman or some other politician styling themselves the people’s benefactor. They bore no streamers or flyers, and no politician’s name or face on their clothes.

“Naramdaman nila na we’re just in it para tumulong. Walang any political agenda, walang agenda at all but to help,” the official said. (They felt that we’re just in it to help. Not any political agenda, no agenda at all but to help.)

‘Sana all’

In the first few months of Sotto’s administration, some of his political supporters expressed worries, even dismay, at what they perceived as Sotto’s stolid governance. He was clean, but he didn’t pack a punch, they said, and that imperiled his political survival.

Sotto shrugged these comments off, saying real reforms take time, and people are bound to see the results, though eventually.

The pandemic happened, and the Pasig government’s response drew widespread attention for positive reasons. Sotto trended on social media several times for the programs he launched, with netizens exclaiming “sana all” – wishing all local governments, and even the national government, were as competent.

As the city government completes its supplemental cash subsidy, it is preparing new programs still in response to the pandemic.

When the new school term begins in August, all 138,000 public school students in Pasig will receive either a laptop or a tablet to enable them to participate in distance learning as campuses remain off limits.

Senior high schoolers and students at the Pasig City Science High School will get laptops. The rest will receive tablets. “One gadget for each student,” Sotto said in his State of the City Address.

The city’s 3,500 college students at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Pasig will also each receive a tablet. For this project, the city government is spending upwards of P1.3 billion.

For displaced workers, Pasig will launch its Tulong at Pampuhunang Ayuda para sa Taga-Pasig or TAPAT. Job seekers may take a P5,000 loan from the city government to help cover their expenses. Those who wish to start small businesses or to adapt an existing business to the pandemic’s realities may take a P10,000 loan with no interest, Sotto announced on July 2.

Despite the dip in the city’s income because of the pandemic, the local government has money on hand for these projects.

“We’re really doing good,” the Pasig official said. –



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JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.