Achieving a truly transparent and responsive national budget

Mary Joyce Ilas, Communications and Advocacy Manager of the Stratbase Group and Convenor of Democracy Watch Philippines

With a national budget of P5.268 trillion in 2023, Filipinos are definitely interested to know how the government plans to use this much funds.

And according to an international survey on budget transparency, this shouldn’t be too difficult to do. Because the Philippines, as it turns out, is one of the most budget transparent in the world. 

Based on the 2021 Open Budget Survey (OBS), Philippines ranked 19th out of 120 countries in terms of budget transparency. 

This is actually eight notches lower than our previous ranking in 2019, where we placed 10th in the world. 

Still, beating 101 countries amid a pandemic is a commendable feat. 

The OBS, conducted by the International Budget Partnership, is considered to be the world’s only independent, comparative and fact-based research instrument that scrutinizes public budgets. 

The evidence-based survey measures three key aspects including transparency of how public resources are raised and spent, the opportunities for public participation in the budget process, and oversight by independent legislatures and audit institutions. 

Let’s look into each category. 

First, transparency. This category measures the ability of the public to be able to access information on how the government raises and spends resources. It assesses online availability, timeliness and comprehensiveness of eight key budget documents. 

Philippines got a score of 68 out of 100. This means the Philippine government published and made available to the public all eight budget documents, save for the Mid-Year review that was published late. 

A very laudable score despite the repeated questions on hundreds of billions worth of lump sum allocations for infrastructure projects under the Duterte administration’s P4.5 trillion budget of 2021 

Not to mention, the Office of the President then also got an allocation of P4.5 billion for confidential and intelligence funds, the utilization of which cannot be made public as matters of national security are exempted from the right to information.

Much like in 2021, the 2023 national budget once again raises the same questions on budget transparency. 

Hundreds of billions worth of lump sum allocations are still present in the national budget. This includes a P149.7 billion lump sum item under Unprogrammed Appropriations (UA) called Support for Infrastructure Projects and Social Programs or SIPSP.

UAs are funded only when revenue collection exceed targets or when additional grants or foreign funds are generated. Critics claim that items are placed under UA to prevent them from being examined by Congress during budget deliberations. In 2020, reports show that despite low revenue collections, all P122 billion in UAs was still released. 

Similarly, the Office of the President is once again getting an allocation of P4.5 Billion for its confidential and intelligence funds. In addition, even the Department of Education will now be receiving its own confidential and intelligence fund amounting to P150 million. How these funds will be used, again, the public will never know. 

We will be shooting for the stars if we ask government agencies to, in good will, be transparent and let the public know how they used these funds. We can now only rely on our auditing agency to ensure that these billions-worth of funds will be used responsibly and not abused to advance private interests. 

Consequently, the second key aspect that OBS scrutinizes is public participation, where Philippines scored a low 35 out of 100. This indicator measures the opportunities for the public to engage during the various cycles of the budget process. 

While budget documents are available to the public, it is also important to point out that one major challenge is the capacity of civil society organizations (CSOs) or the general public to understand the numbers in these documents. 

There is a need to capacitate CSOs and ordinary Filipinos to help them better understand how the budget process works, how to interpret budget documents, and how to effectively monitor how the budget is being used. 

Moreover, while the public is represented during the budget process by various CSOs, there are times when no follow-up information is given on whether or not proposals by CSOs were actually heard or acted upon. 

There is a need to empower and equip the public with ample knowledge and skills that will encourage them to have a more active and meaningful participation in the budget process. 

The Department of Budget and Management’s push for digitalization is definitely a step in the right direction as automated tracking of transactions can record every disbursement and who is accountable. 

Lastly, the OBS also looked into the aspect of budget oversight, where the Philippines scored 74 out of 100. This indicator examines the role that legislatures and audit institutions provide in the budget process and the extent that they exercise their oversight functions.

A reality in the budget process, however, is a tradition called parliamentary courtesy to a co-equal branch of government, where no members of congress will ask a question to a co-equal branch of government. We always see this whenever the budget of the Office of the President or the Office of the Vice President is passed within minutes in both houses of Congress. 

Furthermore, issues of graft and corruption and patronage politics still continue to compromise oversight functions and the integrity of the national budget. Because let’s be honest, why exercise rigorous oversight when you’re also benefiting from the lack of it? 

A big chunk of the P5.268-trillion budget for 2023 will be coming from the worn out pockets of ordinary Filipinos, who work hard day and night to earn as much as they can for their family. At a time when prices of basic commodities continue to increase, every peso counts. 

The national budget is a powerful tool that can not only pump prime the economy, but more importantly, alleviate the lives of ordinary Filipinos. This is why it is very important to ensure that it is transparent, accountable, and responsive to the needs of the people. 

This article was originally published in philstar Global.

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