"Public accountability can prosper only with a vigilant and involved citizenry."
In a surprise move to obviously stop what was supposed to be a gentleman’s agreement to turn over half of the term to Presidential ally Rep. Lord Allan Velasco, Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, together with his close supporters, railroaded normal proceedings and moved for the immediate approval of the General Appropriations Bill which was supposed to undergo several more hearings. Many congressmen protested that their objections were deliberately muted by the administrator of the online proceedings.
Senators quickly warned that this highly irregular and untimely impasse caused by the raging power play in Congress will definitely result in another re-enacted budget, with hearing schedules already too tight as it is. Exercising his executive powers, President Duterte has called a special session starting tomorrow to finish the budget deliberations.
Most citizens have a very limited understanding of the government’s budget process, entrusting this most important deliverable to government agencies and legislators. The line items in the P4.5-trillion budget now pending in Congress actually reveals the real priorities of the government and what each agency is mandated to implement. For citizens, it shows what programs and projects will actually happen beyond the political narratives. This seemingly opaque and central process of budget preparation and allocation has been subject to suspicions of built-in corruption.
There is actually a credible and independent research platform that assesses how accessible a government’s budget information is to the public, how its citizens are given the opportunity to participate in the national budget process, and the role of budget oversight institutions and auditors. This was the focus of discussions in the most recent Stratbase ADR Institute’s virtual town hall discussion on the 2019 Open Budget Survey (OBS) by the International Budget Partnership and how the Philippines performed under its internationally accepted criteria.
On a scale of 100, the 2019 report gave the Philippines a score of 76 in Transparency (above global average of 45), 74 in Budget Oversight, and 31 in Public participation (above global average of 14). The Philippines beat its ASEAN neighbors ranking highest in Transparency and Public Participation.
Senate Committee on Finance Chairperson, Sen. Edgardo “Sonny” Angara said that the Senate has tried to do its part in furthering transparency and accountability through live streams of budget committee and plenary deliberations, and availability of public documents in hard and soft copies to promote understanding of the budget and greater accountability.
“There has been incremental advances over the years, but 76 over a hundred shows there are 24 points more for improvement. So let’s discuss how we can get those 24 points and move up the ladder,” Angara said.
Dr. Francisco A. Magno, Stratbase ADRI fellow and OBS Country Expert of International Budget Partnership, presented the survey results and said that it’s very difficult to show the relationship between transparency and corruption. The results certainly provide opportunities and windows for the public to scrutinize official spending, and become a guide for planning purposes and for budget review.
Commission on Audit Chairperson Atty. Michael G. Aguinaldo said: “Obviously, the greater the transparency, the lesser chances of corruption, because you have many eyes watching, so there are greater chances of being caught, and they aren’t afraid of penalties, they are afraid of getting caught.”
He adds that the more transparent you are, the more chances you’re going to get caught. This might then discourage you from engaging in deviant behavior.
A good point that Commissioner Aguinaldo presented is engaging in partnerships for Citizen Participatory Audit as a strategy for reform founded on the premise that public accountability can prosper only with a vigilant and involved citizenry.
Department of Budget Management (DBM) Secretary Wendel E. Avisado said that part of their agenda is to create an Inter-Agency Task Force on Fiscal Openness and to re-establish the CSO Desk to ensure that the national government keeps its commitment in actively disclosing relevant fiscal data as well as in implementing and sustaining effective fiscal transparency initiatives.
On the urgency of deploying digital solutions in government processes to ensure transparency and accountability, Secretary Avisado said that the Department of Information and Communications Technology’s budget for the National Broadband Program has been increased 200 percent and the free wi-fi program by 91 percent. The Medium-Term Information and Communications Technology Harmonization program was also allocated P21 billion to support ICT sustainability expenses, ICT support for financial inclusion and other ICT expenses under governance.
Stratbase ADRI President Prof. Dindo Manhit warns: “With such a large budget and pandemic response funds, the current level of transparency and accountability creates a threat. This issue builds upon the issue of weak institutional bureaucratic mechanisms.”
“It is only with the critical engagement and scrutiny across sectors, including civil society, business, and the academe, that we can mitigate the threat corruption poses to our democratic processes,” Manhit said.