Mark, a frequent source of insightful comments to many of the posts to this blog, has just, in a comment to a recent blog post discussing alleged financial shenanigans at the local hospital here in Lianga, mentioned how corruption in government, whether local or national, has become institutionalized in what has been referred to simply as SOP.
Ordinarily, SOP (the acronym for Standard Operating Procedure and, as discussed here, has nothing to do with the popular GMA7 weekend noontime variety show on Philippine television ) is generally used to described standardized or universally accepted processes and steps in handling tasks and problems with the purpose of guaranteeing the best result possible under defined circumstances. In the case of corruption in government, it's meaning has become insidiously different.
When a Philippine congressmen or senator identifies a specific infrastructure project to be funded by funds from his pork barrel and receives in return from private contractors doing the project, an agreed amount of money as "kickback" or illegal commission, that is SOP. When an official of the national government uses his office or political influence to secure the release of funds for local government projects and "slices" off a percentage of the actual amount as a bribe, that is also SOP. And when a head of a government agency or department signs final approval of a purchase or acquisition of new equipment and receives a set portion of the total acquisition cost as commission, that also can be considered as SOP.
SOP also figures out in almost all government transactions and services. From applying for a government job or position to securing a business license or government certification, one can get what he wants or needs quickly and with the minimum of fuss and red tape if he avails of SOP. All that is required is to find out how much money is needed and who to give the money to.
In some government agencies and offices, SOP has become so institutionalized that for the ordinary man in the street to go there and not end up paying some sort of bribe or grease money in return for services that should be available to all taxpayers for free or at a nominal price has become more of the exception rather than the general rule.
As a consequence of SOP, bids and contract prices for infrastructure, services and goods submitted for consideration to government agencies are grossly overpriced and inflated to accommodate kickbacks. Bidding procedures for everything from office supplies and equipment to specialized services and labor for the government are almost always rigged to ensure that the whole corrupt system works flawlessly. Everyone in on the syndicate gets his cut of the pie.
This is what makes SOP so insidious. Every one involved in government corruption, even those who have to pay out the big bucks to grafters, believe that they all benefit from the illegal and immoral transactions. But the cost and the inevitable damage to the country and the ordinary taxpayer in terms of precious government resources lost and diverted to the pockets of criminals in public office and positions of trust cannot be underestimated.
Data from private and government sources tell us, for example, that in typical government infrastructure projects undertaken by the Department of Public Works and Highways, one of the government's most graft prone agencies, more than twenty percent to a third of the total funding often gets diverted to bribes and illegal kickbacks. The list of recipients and the percentage of the take for each of them is so standardized and institutionalized that those who are on the receiving end do not even have to ask for their share. They all get it eventually. Everything is indeed SOP.
The same situation is common in almost all levels of the government and local government units like the one in Lianga have not been free from this form of graft. Time and time again, the local town hall has been rocked by accusations that certain high municipal officials have approved infrastructure contracts or purchase orders for town equipment in return for a percentage of the contract or purchase price. And like elsewhere in the country, little has been done to finger the culprits and punish them.
Part of the answer why that is so can be found in the prevailing attitudes of ordinary citizens toward SOP in particular and government corruption in general.
A close friend of mine, in one heated discussion, vehemently declared, "There is no corruption if a government official does not ask for his share of the SOP and yet receives it as a matter of course. As long as he does not demand a kickback, anything he receives is merely his due." "Besides that," he added, "The money will merely go to someone else's pocket if one refuses to receive it."
I had marveled then at this creative redefinition of morality (or amorality) in the government service. No wonder most, if not the majority of Filipinos are all silent, complacent and willing partners in the vicious cycle of government corruption. Almost all are willing to turn a blind eye to what is obviously brazen theft of their precious tax money. And yet these are the same people who gasp in surprise and express indignation at government officials in the wake of news reports that the Philippine government is perceived by outsiders to be one of the most corrupt governments in this part of the world.
My argumentative friend, as usual, had the last word. "It is not corruption per se," he intoned. "It is merely SOP."