Miriam hits underspending at ICT Office, wants Wi-Fi project completed soon

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Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago has warned that she would block any additional funds for the nationwide free Wi-Fi initiative if the first year of its implementation is not done by December.

Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago
Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago

The nationwide free Wi-Fi project costs P3 billion. An initial P1.4 billion has been programmed this year, but the Department of Science and Technology is asking another P1.6 billion in its proposed P17.8-billion budget in 2016. DOST officials are set to face senators for budget deliberations on October 6.

Santiago, author of the Magna Carta for Internet Freedom, will file a resolution on Monday, Sept. 28, urging a Senate inquiry on the DOST’s Information and Communications Technology Office (ICT Office), which, according to state auditors, underspent by P827.6 million in 2014.

“Was it not too ambitious for an agency to embark on a P3-billion project this year when it failed to implement several projects worth less than a billion in 2014? Of course Internet-loving Filipinos want free Wi-Fi, but can the DOST deliver on its promises?” the senator said.

Santiago cited a recently released Commission on Audit (COA) report, which found that the ICT Office faced roadblocks in two major projects in 2014, and thus spent only P65.2 million of the P892.8 million in e-Government funds programmed that year.

The COA said bulk of the unused funds were earmarked for the Integrated Government Philippines (iGovPhil) Project, which would have set up a shared network among offices delivering common services, and the Philippines Community eCenter (CeC) Program.

State auditors claimed that the underspending was the result of procurement delays, as they questioned whether the ICT Office bids and awards committee for special projects was fully capable of handling high-value projects.

“Government efforts to pursue ICT projects are laudable. We cannot lag behind other countries on that front. But before the government can even dream of implementing big-ticket projects, it must improve the capacity of responsible agencies,” Santiago said.

She also agreed with COA recommendations for the ICT Office to carefully select members of bids and awards committees for priority projects and to improve trainings on procurement bidding to help the agency efficiently perform its functions.

Besides flagging procurement inefficiencies, state auditors also criticized how a total of P186.7 million in project and maintenance and operating expenses funds of the ICT Office reverted to the national treasury, an indicator, they said, of poor monthly cash programming.

Santiago said underspending should be avoided not only in the DOST, but in all agencies.

“This government cannot keep underspending and, at the last minute, force agencies to accelerate fund disbursement to buoy the economy,” the senator said.

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