Ma’am Karen’s burden

November 29, 2017


The Philippine Star | November 29, 2017


I have ridiculed the transport department for having too many lawyers and not enough engineers calling the shots. But it seems they just have the wrong kind of lawyers. After hearing UP Law and Harvard trained Atty Karen Jimeno discuss how she is updating the cumbersome and antiquated legal system at DPWH, I must say the infrastructure agencies need lawyers like her.

Ma’am Karen made a presentation on behalf of DPWH before the Foundation for Economic Freedom last week. She bravely responded to questions from FEF’s normally skeptical members. She came out of it pretty well, her fever and bad cold notwithstanding.

Actually, I have seen her presentation on the P8-9 trillion Build Build Build program in one form or another over the last year. But her last slide is important. It was about the reform measures she initiated to make DPWH more effective.

The most important items are about how Atty Karen thinks they should handle right of way (ROW) acquisition. ROW problems are seriously slowing down delivery of infra projects.

Indeed, even with leftover PPP projects like the NLEX-SLEX connector road being undertaken by San Miguel, I see a two-year delay in completion because of ROW problems. The original delivery was supposed to have been last September. The project won’t be delivered in 2018. If we are lucky, maybe we can start using portions of it by end of 2019.

The project is important because by one estimate, it can reduce EDSA traffic by 50 percent. And Ramon Ang of San Miguel plans to run a BRT system on top of it that goes all the way to Susana Heights in Muntinlupa. That means it will benefit not just car riders but ordinary commuters many of whom are probably using MRT3.

The Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway (TPLEX) should have been completed by now all the way to La Union but ROW problems caused so much trouble and delay. DPWH was moving too slowly to enable the contractor to complete the expressway construction faster.

ROW problems severely affect the ability of DPWH to absorb all that money being made available under the Build Build Build program. To Ma’am Karen’s credit, she admitted the system is a mess. But she has introduced reforms that should help somewhat.

Usec Karen informed us they have decentralized the approval of ROW payments, an improvement of the current system where everything must go up to central office in Manila. On her recommendation, they created a task force to minimize delay in project implementation.

But Usec Jimeno also shared the problems she found when she took office. For one, they don’t have enough lawyers to handle the ROW cases. They have vacancies but could not get capable lawyers to join the staff because of the pitifully small salary.

She didn’t deny that the bureaucracy is too laid back and with no sense of urgency. But that’s also because a good number of them are casual employees for years and years and have no motivation to do better.

But Usec Karen is now more hopeful they can move faster on ROW cases thanks to the new ROW Law for big ticket projects. They however also have problems in complying with property appraisal requirements as those authorized by law to do appraisals like the DBP and Land Bank have their own priority concerns.

Actually, I can understand why DPWH officials are reluctant to move fast on papers sent to them for approval. Look at what happened to former secretary Babes Singson who is now facing an Ombudsman case over ROW payments he authorized that turned out to be problematic.

Criminal syndicates are entrenched in the system. It is not easy for a top official to know if the papers sent to him by his staff are legitimate.

Usec Karen admits that having a more efficient ROW system is critical to their mission and it is her responsibility to make sure the legal staff is up to the challenge. Inasmuch as I am sure the Usec joined DPWH because she thought she could make a difference, I am hopeful things will improve in the coming months.

But, I suggested to her to revise the rest of her powerpoint presentation to provide a more realistic delivery date of projects. They have to take into account the delays that will still happen due to ROW and other bureaucratic problems.

I do not believe they can institute 24/7 work schedule on the urban infra projects given that all have serious ROW problems. Costs will just dramatically increase if they mobilize a work force for a 24/7 schedule but are slowed down by ROW problems.

In any case, Usec Karen also revealed that DPWH has also issued orders to streamline procurement process based on the New Procurement Manual. They have also started to implement Project and Contract Management Application (PCMA) that will improve transparency and accountability of physical and financial outcomes through use of online geographic based status reporting and geo-tagged photos.

The Usec also said they created the Infrastructure Monitoring Advisory Groups (IMAGs) that will enable participatory and transparent monitoring of big ticket projects. They have also created a multi-media citizens feedback mechanism to receive and take action on any complaint, query or suggestion.

I must say that the good intentions are there but whether they can execute is another. In the end, it is project delivery that counts.

I admire people like Usec Karen who leave well paying private sector jobs to make a difference in delivering public service. That’s Ma’am Karen’s burden.  

For now, it would be nice to see work started on those seven bridges across the Pasig River being constantly announced by DPWH Sec Mark Villar.


Ma’am Karen’s burden