LEADING THE BIR TOWARD THE RIGHT DIRECTION
Discover why BIR Commissioner Lilia Guillermo is considered a perfect example of the kind of personnel the BIR is looking for: competent and dedicated to public service.
By Godfrey T. Dancel
PHOTOGRAPHY BY RENJIE TOLENTINO
When you put one of the most powerful and dedicated women in the country in one of the most powerful government agencies, you get the perfect combination to come up with quality service that the people deserve. Such is the case with Commissioner Lilia C. Guillermo leading the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR).
Guillermo, an alumna of the University of the Philippines Diliman, knew early on that she wanted to go into public service. “I was a scholar in the University of the Philippines, so I told myself that I have to give back,” shares the Bachelor of Science in Statistics and Master of Science in Industrial Engineering graduate. And after over four decades of public service, she definitely has given back to the nation she feels indebted to.
The commissioner’s educational background and her experience in other government agencies, like the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) and Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), have served her well as she handles the challenges at the BIR, this time as head of the agency.
“I was taken in from BIR [where I was already an undersecretary] to DBM because of my background, because they needed an undersecretary to handle the digital transformation at the DBM,” she shares about her stint as DBM undersecretary and chief information officer. “So I went to DBM and handled the modernization of the Public Finance Management Program, from revenue generation to expenditure.” Simply put, her efforts helped bring about the timely and effective monitoring, allocation, management, and spending of public funds.
“You know, the application of information and communications technology is similar all throughout, regardless of function, because as long as you know how application systems are developed, how infrastructure supports all of these applications,” she explains, referring to her successful efforts in the three important government agencies. “I’m a systems person, so it’s easy for me, regardless of the function, to apply development strategies for use in a particular field.” Guillermo recalls how she turned things around at the BSP. “There was no chief information officer (CIO) at the Bangko Sentral, so I asked the governor to designate me,” she says, referring to then-BSP Governor Benjamin Diokno, with whom she also worked at the DBM. “I handled the modernization of the BSP internal systems, knowing that the BSP’s system should be better than that of the lower banks. So that was a big challenge. Another very important aspect which I introduced is data governance. This involved a whole of agency approach. It used to be that each of the different groups had their own system, so there was no single database. With several databases, management had a hard time accessing and making sense of the data.” As BSP’s CIO, Guillermo led the crafting and implementation of the BSP’s IT Modernization Roadmap of 2018-2023. Her success at both DBM and BSP came as no surprise, having previously spearheaded the BIR’s Tax Computerization Program, described as the biggest IT undertaking by any government agency to date. As challenging as the tasks she had to perform at the BIR, DBM, and DSB were, Guillermo took these on and passed with flying colors. “As I mentioned, if you have the support and the trust and confidence, the commitment of the management, that they will support digitalization of the systems and functions, things will go smoothly,” she says matter-of-factly.
A GLIMPSE OF WHAT IS IN STORE
Months into her term, Guillermo has proven once again that there is always room for improvement within the BIR. Just recently, the BIR was commended by the Civil Service Commission (CSC) for being among the top 10 government agencies in complaint resolution from January to June 2022. “Actually, we follow the 3-7- 20 rule,” she reveals. If the complaint is simple, we see to it that it’s resolved in three days. If it’s of medium gravity, resolved in seven days, and if it’s quite a complex or technical complaint, 20 days. So these are the rules of the Anti-Red Tape Authority (ARTA) and its Action Center. We also have an office called the Public Information Education Division that actually handles the resolution of these cases. We see to it that valid cases are addressed at once.” With tax collection the major thrust of the BIR, Guillermo is bent on improving the agency’s tax collection performance. This, especially because of concerns raised in previous years about the BIR’s ability to live up to its mandate. “Actually, to improve tax collection performance needs action on both internal and external facets,” she states. “First, for the external, we see to it that we have enforcement programs like the Run After Tax Evaders (RATE) program, [through which we identify and prosecute high-profile tax evaders]. We also have the Oplan Kandado through which we close businesses if they’re not paying taxes correctly. We have activities on broadening the tax base as well as intensified audit and investigation. As for the internal aspect, we see to it that we recruit the right people, that we have regular sessions on capability building. We strengthened budget management and our Integrity Management Program. And actually last but not the least, is our digital transformation program. And that’s [in line with] the call of the president, for the entire country to be digitally prepared, digitally transformed, so that we will be competitive.”
HOLISTIC TRANSFORMATION THROUGH TECHNOLOGY
Guillermo puts emphasis on the role of taxpayers in the success of the BIR and all of its programs. At the same time, she notes that while there are challenges, there has been considerable success in reaching out and working together with taxpayers and taxpayer groups. “Well the biggest challenge is partnership with taxpayers. [But one thing we have done is to reach out to] associations like the associations of lawyers, certified public accountants, and businessmen, like the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chamber of Commerce. During my first 100 days, I talked with them and discussed the direction the BIR is heading,” she reveals. “We want digital transformation as well as moral transformation,” Guillermo continues. “So we said that if BIR transforms or goes digital but if the taxpayers will not use it, it will not be successful. For example, with regard to the use of electronic receipts and invoices, we looked at 100 large taxpayers who have not complied. We explained they have to be prepared to be digitally transformed. And that’s a very big challenge because they say that they will have to revise their systems. They will have to allot a budget for it, and do so many other things. That’s a very big challenge for us. But with the help of the associations, through their coordination with us, we have made considerable progress.”
“Resistance to automation of our systems is another matter,” the commissioner laments. “So that’s a very big challenge because I need cooperation from all taxpayers, big and small. We have to see to it that they embrace technology. They have to realize that the only way for us to really meet our targets, despite the economic conditions now, is to use technology.” Despite the bumps that the BIR leader has met in her efforts to transform the agency, she looks forward to a brighter future. “I hope that our transformation efforts continue and that we will be able to serve our taxpayers effectively so that they will be happy. I mean, it’s hard for them to comply, but they have to see clearly how technology helps us on these things,” she says, pointing out how important it is for taxpayers to see that the BIR’s systems do work. This, to her, will help convince taxpayers to embrace the BIR’s new systems and processes powered by modern technology.
READY FOR MORE CHALLENGES
Guillermo is confident that in time, the many challenges at the BIR could be resolved given a committed leadership with the right approach. “For [the BIR] to be successful, it starts at the top [echelon of government], she says. “And I’m very happy that the president and the secretary of finance have made digitalization a priority. Because really, without the direction from the top, it will be very hard. So for me, it’s a matter of getting commitment from top [officials of the land] and I know I have that, their trust and confidence.” As for the notion that an effective BIR commissioner should be a lawyer, a certified public accountant (CPA), or a CPA-lawyer, Guillermo has a categorical answer. “I don’t need to be a lawyer. I don’t need to be a CPA, either. I have very good lawyers, very good CPAs, around me.” What is important, she stresses, is that she knows the direction the agency should be heading, and she is ready to lead it to such.
“I’ve been with the bureau for the past four decades,” she reveals. It goes without saying that she knows the ins and outs of the agency. “I understand procedures, processes, pertinent laws—both old and new. If there are new laws, I discuss these with my lawyers [so we could understand their ramifications and how these impact the BIR].” For Guillermo, heading the BIR takes unparalleled commitment to undertake actions meant to achieve all the set goals. “It’s really political will. As the head of this agency, I should have the political will to reach our collection targets so that the Philippines will be able to fund priority projects, and at the same time, political will to change the image of the bureau.” Doing things right is a crucial factor Guillermo has identified in cleansing the image of the BIR. “I know I cannot really stamp out graft and corruption [right away] a hundred percent, but I am sure we can minimize it. And I believe that technology will help us fulfil this commitment. Internally, we also have image-building efforts. We tell our people to really see to it that they will be fair and just in the performance of their duties. As for our new recruits, we tell them, “Please do not come here to enrich yourselves but to serve the country.” Guillermo is herself a perfect example of the kind of personnel the BIR is looking for: competent and dedicated to public service.
REWARDS AND ACHIEVEMENTS
Guillermo, throughout her decades of dedicated service to the nation, has received rewards and commendations as validation of her excellence. A few, however, stand out and have personal significance to her. “One is [the result of] the World Bank Tax Computerization program, which gave me a break. I am a statistician but when I went into systems, it gave me a break [to serve the BIR and the country in another way, this time] through the proper management of important data. So because of that, I was awarded as one of the most powerful women in IT in the Philippines [for 2003], no mean feat because usually it’s the males who dominate the IT industry,” she declares. “And then, another significant recognition I received was the Presidential Career Executive Service Award given to me by the Career Executive Service Board in 2019.” Her promotion as DBM undersecretary and later on as assistant governor of the BSP are of particular significance to Guillermo, as she had previously thought that she would retire at the BIR. Her meritorious service, however, led her to the two other agencies. Of the two aforementioned posts, she considers the latter as the “most important step” in her career. “Whenever I was walking down the halls of the BSP building, I would keep telling myself I did not dream of being with the BSP, but maybe [being able to continue serving the country] is my reward [for the service I had previously rendered].” One thing that has moved Guillermo to unselfishly share her talent and do her best in the various capacities she has occupied in different agencies is the prospect of receiving “retirement benefits that are out of this world.” She continues, “for 40 years, I have worked not only for the country or for the government, but for the Lord. The ‘out of this world’ retirement benefits I expect to receive refer not to the material benefits, but the benefits that I will receive when I face the Lord.”
SETTING OUT TO FINISH WHAT SHE STARTED
As her term as BSP assistant governor and CIO was about to come to an end earlier this year, Guillermo’s name was floated as a possible BIR head. After all, she had had a long and fruitful working relationship with Diokno, whose name was then being floated as a frontrunner for the position of finance secretary. As the BIR is under the Department of Finance (DOF), their possible appointment to the BIR and DOF, respectively, presented a perfect chance for them to further collaborate, albeit in another department. “It was really hard for me to accept it,” Guillermo says of the offer to head the BIR. “But I told myself, maybe it’s God’s plan that whatever I started at the BIR, I have to finish.” With the wealth of experience that Guillermo brought with her in her homecoming at the BIR, as well as the continued confidence in her capabilities, she is sure to make a major impact on ensuring that taxation, from which the nation’s lifeblood flows, will be carried out efficiently and with utmost integrity. Editor’s Note: Commissioner Lilia Guillermo was replaced by tax lawyer and erstwhile BIR Deputy Commissioner for Operations Romeo Lumagui Jr. as head of the BIR in mid-November 2022.