How transparent is our National Budget?

Edwin Santiago, Executive Director of the Stratbase ADR Institute

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) lists eight major characteristics of good governance — participatory, consensus-oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive, and follows the rule of law.

Of these, accountability and transparency are arguably the most basic requirements in achieving good governance. This tandem, to a very large extent, determines the success of anti-corruption efforts.

Accountability is hinged on the democratic principle that our public officials are not owners of their positions but are merely our representatives, to whom we have delegated authority. Sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them, is enshrined in our Constitution.

It is therefore imperative that our public officials are answerable for their actions and decisions and must be able to justify them. But, apart from the government, on its own, being able to question and punish irregular discharge of responsibilities, this can only happen for the people when government exhibits transparency. Without the availability of information, accountability becomes illusory.

But transparency is not necessarily achieved solely by making information available. More important are the timeliness, accessibility, and quality of the information.

When citizens, for instance, are made to jump through hoops — sometimes, even “flaming” — using bureaucratic run-around, access is effectively curtailed, and timeliness is greatly compromised. Also, the quality of information provided determines the degree of transparency. Information that is incomplete or couched in technicalese may just sound gibberish or nonsensical to outsiders.

When creative measures are employed to stonewall or delay the sharing of relevant information, transparency becomes more lip service than a genuine commitment of a government determined to curb corruption. Not only will these practices make it difficult to have public officials answerable, but they also aid and abet in making the officials elude public scrutiny.

Perhaps due to mounting international pressures — brought about by various rankings and indices measuring transparency, accountability, and corruption perception — or a sincere desire of the government to fight corruption, I must concede that we have made significant progress in the area of transparency — in terms of accessibility of information, in particular. The advancements in information technology and the ubiquitous use of social media in the country have made people more conscious of the issues and more demanding of answers. They have also given the government fewer reasons not to be able share information.

Take the case of the national budget. The General Appropriations Act, or the law containing the national budget, was only accessible then through a printed copy. That book, which is often about five inches thick, and its sheer weight, can be a glaring example of how access to government information can be limited. Even if you were able to figure out how to lug it outside the Department of Budget and Management, the first hurdle was to be able to get a copy. The final challenge would be understanding all the numbers and terms in that voluminous document. And, then, you would realize that for the national budget to make more sense to you, a comparison with the previous year would be needed, and, chances are, you would be asked to go through the same process.

But those days are gone, as this information is readily available on its webpage. The Department of Budget and Management (DBM) scores high in transparency in terms of this budget document. Accessibility, check! The DBM website provides the convenience of viewing and downloading the document without even visiting their office and, certainly, without having to carry that book. The website also provides the documents pertaining to previous years, allowing a more comprehensive and comparative analysis of the budget. Timeliness, check! The document is available instantaneously, 24/7, no request letters and approvals needed that tend to delay access. Even the difficulty of having to go through and understand the budget terms and numbers may have been addressed to a certain extent through infographics and narratives.

Recently, I came across “Project DIME,” touted by DBM to be a “game-changing project” because it will supposedly monitor the quality of an agency’s spending and implementation of high-value projects using images from drones, radars and satellites. This is certainly a welcome innovation, scoring higher points for DBM. But, after the dust has settled, my initial questions are will the public have access to this and how tamper-proof is this system?

I was reminded of the smoke-emission test results of my friend’s car. While he had been using the same car the entire day, that anti-pollution test apparently was being conducted, complete with images of the car with matching plate number — the wonders of technology indeed. When these things magically happen, the purported transparency only becomes complicit to the furtherance of corruption.

Politics is, as it is often described, the art of compromise. And this could not be truer than in passing the budget. The word “horse trading” comes to mind prominently during this political exercise. Year in and out, members of Congress, in the exercise of their collective power of the purse, maneuver and out-maneuver each other in introducing insertions — sometimes called initiatives to sound more altruistic — that would fund their pet projects. I think it would be very interesting to the people if a ready list of these changes — and who introduced them — were to be released to the public.

By now, it is a certainty that we will operate under a reenacted budget in 2019 — for how long, nobody knows just yet. I think the more important questions to get answers to are why was there delay in the passing of the budget in the first place? While this scenario has happened several times in the past, what are the reasons this time? Perhaps, the better question is who are the reasons?

Not naming names just would not cut it anymore.



This article was originally posted in BusinessWorld.

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