Palace media arm insists 375 contractuals ‘not trolls’; lawmaker not buying it
The 375 “contract of service” (COS) personnel hired by the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) in 2020 to the tune of P70.6 million were “social media specialists” and not online trolls, according to PCOO Undersecretary Kris Ablan.
Ablan gave this explanation after the Commission on Audit (COA) flagged PCOO’s “unrestricted” and unjustified hiring of contractuals at a number more than twice the size of its regular staff of 144 employees.
The 375 contractuals accounted for 71.7 percent of the PCOO’s total workforce, with 70 directly reporting to the office of its chief, Secretary Martin Andanar.
The COA said the necessity of hiring that many extra workers could not be established due to the “absence of the agency’s written policy guidelines on availing the services of COS (contract of service) personnel, justification for the need to hire [them] and incomplete documentation of disbursement vouchers.”
“The unrestricted/massive hiring of COS personnel cost the PCOO a total of P 70,688,830.39 for their salaries during the year, resulting in the depletion of government funds which could have been used for other programs and projects of the government,” the COA said in its 2020 audit report on the Palace media arm.
‘Highly technical skills’
In a TV interview, Ablan said the COS employees who were hired had “highly technical skills” and included social media specialists, specifically graphic artists who design and upload infographics that help explain to the public the national ID program, COVID-19 vaccines and the government’s pandemic response.
Ablan stressed that these “social media specialists do not equate to trolls,” adding that the agency was taking steps to regularize some of the COS workers.
But Bayan Muna Rep. Ferdinand Gaite was not buying Ablan’s explanation.
“The PCOO’s excuse that the social media specialists were graphic artists that upload infographics is just unbelievable. Because if you check their Facebook page, they have a few infographics. In my opinion, it would not need dozens of so-called specialists to accomplish this task,” Gaite said on Friday.
The lawmaker, who once headed the government workers’ union Courage, said Ablan was still unable to explain COA’s findings about the accomplishment reports submitted by the COS employees being “pro forma,” with only the names and time covered being changed.
“It’s really suspicious,” Gaite said. “Why can’t they give a proper and detailed accomplishment report? Are they hiding some tasks that these ‘specialists’ performed? We need to know the truth, as this is not the first time that the Duterte administration has been flagged for unscrupulous online operations, ranging from inauthentic online behavior in Facebook to cyberattacks against independent media and human rights organizations.”
He reiterated his call for a congressional inquiry into the PCOO’s use of its funds, citing reports that recent cyberattacks on the websites of so-called alternative media agencies and a human rights group had been traced to government networks.
The 375 COS personnel cited by the COA were described as “service providers” in their individual contracts with the PCOO.
Their accomplishment reports, instead of listing actual tasks performed for a specific period, instead contained general statements and accomplishments that were “repetitively reported every month,” the state auditing agency noted.
The PCOO earlier explained that it needed to hire COS workers “in order to augment the lack of manpower of the agency.”
It was not the first time the PCOO came under heavy scrutiny.
Last year, the House appropriations committee suspended its deliberations on its proposed 2021 budget after another ranking PCOO official, Undersecretary Lorraine Marie Badoy, “Red-tagged,” or linked several lawmakers to the communist insurgency without offering proof.
Legislators then also brought up a host of issues against the agency, including poor working conditions of its staff and grievous errors in their published materials.
The PCOO had been called out for several booboos, including a Facebook post in 2018 about President Duterte conferring honors on outgoing Norwegian Ambassador Erik Forner, who was described as the “representative of Norwegia.” In 2017, the Philippine News Agency (PNA)—a unit under the PCOO—used an opinion piece from Xinhua, China’s state news agency, which dismissed as “ill-founded” the historic 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling that favored the Philippines and found no legal basis for China’s sweeping “nine-dash line” claim in the South China Sea.
That same year, the PNA website also used the logo of Dole pineapple company for a story involving the Department of Labor and Employment.
—With a report from Inquirer Research
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