Technology as a catalyst for budget transparency and accountability

Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute

As the country ushers in the dawn of the new normal, its leader’s actions in anticipation of health, economic, and social concerns will be essential to advancing fast and equitable solutions. With the 2021 national budget in mind, transparent and inclusive fiscal management will be crucial for our nation’s recovery moving forward.

Inasmuch as the budget process directly illustrates which sectors in society get the funding for their programs and projects, it is inherently political. For this reason, Filipinos must have access to reliable information on how public funds are allocated and spent and have ample opportunity to contribute to policy decisions that affect their future.

In this respect, digitalization is vital in making the process less political insofar as it can increase transparency and accountability.

The Stratbase ADR Institute, in partnership with the International Budget Partnership (IBP) and the La Salle Institute of Governance, recently hosted a virtual town hall discussion that tackled the 2019 Open Budget Survey results. During the discussion, Secretary Wendel Avisado of the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) highlighted the agency’s improvements, which enabled fiscal transparency in the Philippines. It was further stated that the country had been a champion of fiscal transparency as recognized by the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency (GIFT) and the Open Government Partnership (OGP) that both promote the same values espoused by the Open Budget Survey.

Of primary importance were the programs about accelerating digital transformation and process refinement within their ranks, as these endeavors ensure proper utilization of finances during the pandemic. Moving forward, the DBM has put its hopes on two marquee bills, which are the Budget Modernization bill and the People’s Participation in the National Budget Process bill that will institutionalize civil participation in the budget process.

Michael Aguinaldo, Chairperson of the Commission on Audit (CoA), also further reiterated the importance of reinforcing the Open Budget Survey’s ideals by advancing transparency and accountability measures that focus on accelerating IT digitalization and support to enhance quality assurance and service delivery. Strategic plans of action were laid out in the town hall meeting by the CoA chair to rationalize internal policies and structure while bolstering the organization’s inclusivity agenda by bridging strategic partnerships with civil society and other stakeholders.

Senate Committee on Finance Chairperson Sonny Angara also mentioned that the Philippines had shown relative improvement across the three pillars of transparency, public participation, and budget oversight and has scored higher than the global average in all categories. Senator Angara also added that the Senate has tried to do its part in furthering transparency by making budget deliberations available live online, while budget documents are made available to the public for download. It is through initiatives such as these done by the Philippine Senate that public institutions can harness technology to increase transparency and accountability.

The next step perhaps is to further increase collaboration with the public in the budget process. Doing so will allow the government to finetune budget allocation in direct accordance with citizens’ needs. However, to truly open the budget discussion demands streamlining internal processes and including civil society’s diverse voices requires further technological transformation. Hence, digitalization should be one of our top priorities towards recovery as a nation.

While the country is still in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, inequity has shown in various facets of society that prevent the public from full immersion and inclusion in government processes and services. Budgeting is one of the primary functions of government that has long been overlooked. However, as we now step into a new era of governance in a post-pandemic society, it will play a significant role.

In this sense, technology serves as the bridge that will link the government, civil society, and the general public to the budget management discourse. Technology is already being used to give stakeholders access to critical information. Through social media, we’ve seen how it has become a platform to strengthen citizens’ voices. Blockchain technology, on the other, promises to provide stakeholders with transparent and tamper-proof records, essential in the fight against corruption.

The Philippines’ good performance in the latest Open Budget Survey should serve as the foundation upon which transparency mechanisms should be institutionalized and anti-corruption innovations should be built. The government should institutionalize public participation mechanisms through legislation and policies that ensure that citizens and civil society groups can contribute to the policy process free of political interference.

Furthermore, the government should prioritize its digital transformation because these tools can bring even more openness to the budget process. More than that, however, it will also allow civil society and the general public to be harnessed as proactive stewards of good governance, improving democratic governance as a whole.

This article was originally published in BusinessWorld.

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