Ensuring transparency and public participation in the budget process

Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute

Not known to many is that data show that the Philippines actually has one of the most transparent budgets in the world.

Results of the Open Budget Survey (OBS) 2021 show that Philippines scored 68 out of 100 in budget transparency, placing the country at 19th place out of 120 countries.

Compared to our previous score, we went down eight notches from our ranking in 2019, when we got a score of 76 and ranked 10th. Despite this, we still maintained our over-all lead in the survey in Southeast Asia.

Conducted by the independent group International Budget Partnership (IBP), the Open Budget Survey is considered to be the world’s only independent, comparative, and fact-based research instrument that looks into public budgets.

It measures aspects of governance and accountability through three key aspects: transparency of how public resources are raised and spent, the opportunities for public participation in budget policy decisions, and oversight by independent legislatures and audit institutions.

Transparency measures the ability of the public to be able to access information on how the government raises and spends resources. A score of 61 and above indicates that a country is likely publishing enough material to support informed public debate on the budget.

However, the OBS study also reveals that in terms of public participation — opportunities for the public to engage during the various cycles of the budget process — the Philippines only scored 35 out of 100.

These numbers show that while data on the national budget is available, public participation remains poor.

And then, there is the issue of actually understanding what these numbers and data mean, even though the information is available. This is still a challenge to many civil society organizations, more so, to ordinary Filipinos.

In a speech during the presentation of the OBS Survey results for 2021, IBP’s Open Budget Initiatives Program Officer Suad Hasan highlighted the need for the Philippine government to establish opportunities to engage the public more actively in the budget process and to disclose more and better information on budgets, debt, and fiscal risks.

Consequently, in the recent Pilipinas Conference organized by the Stratbase ADR Institute, Budget Secretary Amenah Pangandaman pushed for open government and digitalization, saying these will pave the way to more energized citizen participation in governance.

Among the Department of Budget and Management’s priorities is to establish a Civil Society Organizations (CSO) Desk that will serve as one of the avenues to build the capacities of CSOs to enable more meaningful engagement and participation in the budget process.

The DBM is also pushing for a Budget and Treasury Management System that will enable efficiency and transparency in the government’s financial transactions. It will, eventually, allow the public to know in real-time how the national budget is being utilized.

The agency is also reviving Project DIME: Digital Imaging Monitoring Evaluation, where the public will be able to see, also in real-time, how much of the government projects in their areas have been completed and how long it will take to finish the project.

Moreover, La Salle Institute of Governance senior fellow Prof. Francisco Magno, who serves as the OBS independent expert for the Philippines, also recognized the importance of digitalization for budget transparency, as it can provide the public with important, comprehensive, and timely information in just a few clicks.

Stratbase fully supports the government’s efforts to ensure more meaningful public participation in the budget process.

These reforms are happening at a time when having a transparent, accountable, and responsive budget is most important. Survey data show that Filipinos are struggling with the increase in the prices of basic commodities, given that the pandemic is still in our midst.

The national budget, funded by taxpayers’ money, is the government’s most powerful tool that can help alleviate the lives of ordinary Filipinos. It can provide healthcare to the sick, jobs to those who are looking for sources of livelihood, and education and skills to those who want a better future.

Furthermore, financial institutions, investors, researchers, and many policy stakeholders agree that having open budget systems and practices will not only ensure efficiency in public spending, but these are necessary to hold the government accountable in its management of public funds.

Filipinos work hard to earn money to provide for the needs of their family. A big part of their earnings goes to the government in the form of value-added tax when they buy basic commodities and as personal income tax from their monthly salary.

This is why when government officials steal, they are stealing the hard-earned money of ordinary Filipinos. Instead of helping those in need, corruption leads to higher costs and reduced access to services, including health and education.

A recent Pulse Asia survey showed that 36% of Filipinos believe that controlling corruption will benefit the country’s economic recovery and development, while 22% believe it will improve the plight of ordinary citizens.

With the President’s recent signing into law of the P5.268 trillion General Appropriations Act for 2023, there is a need to ensure that public funds are allocated properly and are responsive to the needs of the people.

There is a need to institutionalize data transparency and meaningful citizen participation in the budget process.

Finally, we citizens must hold our leaders accountable for how they use the people’s funds.

This article was originally published in BusinessWorld.

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