Auditing as a tool for effective governance has been recognized and practiced since the Spanish colonial era. One proof of this was the residencia, an inquiry into the administration of an outgoing Governor General and consequently of other officials. Conducted by the Royal Audiencia, it was designed to hold colonial officials to strict accountability for all acts during their term of office. Another was the visita de tierra, a visit of inspection made every three years, which often revealed glaring anomalies in the handling of local government accounts.

Colonial officials also performed investigations akin to audit at the time. One was a fraud audit of sorts for galleon trade conducted in the early 1700s. Another, which involved the inspection of the Misericordia de Manila in 1751, had shades of financial audit.

In 1739, a Royal Decree by the King of Spain established the royal exchequer which was the national treasury of that era. All books of accounts of the Spanish colonial government were required to pass through the scrutiny and certification of the contador or the accountant and that of the oidor, a representative of the Spanish crown, who by the nature of his duties may be considered as the precursor of the auditor.

By mid-19th century, the Tribunal de Cuentas was created. It functioned as the supreme auditing institution of the islands until the end of the Spanish rule in 1898. Staffed by a president, two auditors, a fiscal, accountants and examiners, the Tribunal had exclusive jurisdiction over the audit of all financial matters affecting the colony. These personnel, all appointees of the King, were required by law to review all vouchers and to cross-check them against corresponding entries in the books of accounts.


The Birth of an Institution

Nurturing a nascent government requires a mixture of boldness and prudence. And at a time when the early Philippine government was being zealously fleshed out by its American rulers emboldened by their newfound power, then President William McKinley ensured a healthy dose of prudence in these activities.

An unnumbered memorandum signed on May 8, 1899 by McKinley gave birth to the Office of the Auditor for the Philippine Islands.

By 1900, the Office had become a fixture of government. The civil government was formally ushered in 1901 under William Howard Taft. The major change in the nature of government had ripple effects in the structure of government. One result of such change was the conversion of the Office of the Auditor of the Philippine Islands to the Bureau of the Insular Auditor.

However, it was more than a mere change of name. A provincial audit division was created for the Bureau. Moreover, double-entry bookkeeping was introduced which accounted for fuller analysis of settlements and ensured a higher degree of correctness.

In 1905, a change of guard took place. Taft resigned as Civil Governor and was replaced by Luke E. Wright who led as Governor General. Under his administration, Act No. 1402 was passed whereby the Bureau of the Insular Auditor was renamed the Bureau of Audits.


Growth and Changes: Becoming A Stronger Institution

As the nation celebrated its independence with the promulgation of the 1935 Constitution, the institution also reached a milestone. The 1935 Constitution expressly provided for a General Auditing Office, thereby elevating the audit institution to a constitutional body. Renamed as the General Auditing Office or GAO, it now embarked on a full Filipinization of the institution as a reflection of the government-wide transition to self-governance. For the first time, the institution was headed by a Filipino Auditor General in the person of the Hon. Jaime Hernandez.

As a major stride towards the independence of the audit institution, the GAO was explicitly placed under the direction and control of an Auditor General to separate it as an organization from the Executive and other departments of the government.

In 1972, the country was placed under Martial Law. Government experienced a major upheaval, and the GAO was not exempted. The GAO was renamed the Commission on Audit (COA) and was granted broader powers under the new Constitution promulgated in 1973. Under this Constitution, COA was given a broader area of audit coverage by including the accounts of all subdivisions, agencies, instrumentalities of government and government-owned-and-controlled corporations among those to be examined, audited and settled.

As opposed to having an Auditor General single-handedly leading the GAO, the new Constitution provided for a three-man collegial Commission on Audit. This change aimed to strengthen the independence of the auditing office and improve the quality of its decisions, given the rationale that a three-man body was less susceptible to pressure than an office held by a single person. It worked as a built-in internal check within the Commission and encouraged opposing views to surface thereby resulting in earnest consultation and better deliberation.

In the years that ensued, the Commission was a hub of activity. A landmark legislation on auditing, Presidential Decree 1445 or the Government Auditing Code, was promulgated in 1978. A Standard Government Chart of Accounts was likewise issued which greatly facilitated financial audit for computerization purposes. The Commission also implemented its comprehensive audit program focusing on the 3Es: economy, efficiency and effectiveness. Installation of this program represented a break from tradition that laid undue emphasis on compliance and voucher audit. And on top of all these, the Commission embarked on a massive reorganization and professionalization of its personnel.

This era will also be remembered for the significant involvement of COA in international events such as initiating the establishment of the Asian Organization of Supreme Audit Institutions (ASOSAI), on to sponsorships of trainings for Asia’s auditors and culminating with the hosting of the XI International Congress of Supreme Audit Institutions (INCOSAI) in 1983. It was also during this time that a COA Chairman was first elected to the United Nations Board of Auditors.

Years later, the world witnessed the 1986 EDSA Revolution. It was truly a historical event that highlighted the need for reforms in government as a whole. It provided everyone a chance for introspection and created an avenue towards change. As fate would have it, the COA again found itself working under a new government, under a new Constitution and with an even broader scope of authority.

The 1987 Constitution maintained the independence of the Commission on Audit as the supreme auditing arm of the Philippine government. Moreover, the Constitution reiterated COA’s role as the sole official external auditor of government agencies as well as government-owned- and-controlled corporations (GOCCs). In other words, the previous practice of some GOCCs and other government agencies of hiring private accounting firms as a requirement of foreign funding institutions to act as their auditors for foreign-assisted projects was no longer allowed.

Change, it seems, is the inescapable destiny of the Commission. But as history proves, whatever the nature of change brought about by national political events, the Commission manages to make it for the better.