26 May 2012

Budget Transparency and Accountability

 by Shigemi Muramatsu

“Where does our money go??!”This question is often asked by citizens who work hard to pay their taxes while struggling to meet their financial responsibilities such as expenses for food, water, shelter, school and so on. Individuals pay taxes, whether directly and indirectly, to the government. It is a mandatory expense needed to finance the government’s projects. Therefore, citizens who pay taxes expect that in return, these projects should be generally favorable to them.  They also want to be informed on how their money is being spent in a manner that they can easily understand. 
The People’s Budget and the Budget ng Bayan website is, therefore, a good start in aiming for transparency and accountability.  With the use of the most available and suitable media nowadays, citizens can get up-to-date information straight from the source.

Based on what I have heard during the launch, the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) tries to gather immediate feedback on the media materials, and considers them right away in producing the next issue.  This year’s People’s Budget will be produced in three languages—English, Tagalog, Bisaya—to reach out to more people. On the other hand, the website is a channel for receiving feedback, updates, and requests for the People’s Budget’s copy. It also explains the budget in simpler terms compared to other sites that use very technical language.  In aiming for transparency and citizen engagement, creating a venue for two-way communication and minimizing barriers should be the top consideration.

However, I cannot say that in the second year of the People’s Budget, the publication has reached its potential as an effective material.  To give my honest opinion, first and foremost, the material is not ‘user-friendly’, content-wise. They might have improved the word choices, but I think they are not enough. In other words, a lot of terms are not ‘layman-ized’ or sufficiently discussed. Some acronyms are also not expounded and discussed for the benefit of ordinary citizens.  Since a big number of Filipinos are concerned about the budget, accurate assumptions on their level of knowledge and understanding of the topic is essential. Since this is only the second year of the publication, I think we cannot assume that everyone knows much about Philippine budget or at least have read about it.

The many graphs are colorful and helpful in popularizing information. However, most of the graphs are not translated into something less technical. Colors and icons were just added but the information remains technical.

Lastly, the mode of distribution, accessibility, and availability of the copies is an area that should be studied. Who can get access these copies and how they can access these is important, since this is the whole point of producing the material. Most of the time, printouts are just distributed to those who are assumed to be knowledgeable about the People’s Budget, like LGUs, CSOs, and other government officials/agencies. Usually, these publications from the government do not reach concerned audiences, such as those who are in the far-flung areas and students. I, for one, would not have any idea of the People’s Budget if I did not attend the launch.  How much more other people without equipment to keep themselves updated?

I would highly suggest that the department enhance distribution of the publication, as well as information dissemination and awareness of the website. Otherwise, the publication will not be read and the website will not be visited, defeating the purpose of the project. Also, more effective content, and pre-testing before mass distribution is highly suggested. No one would know the audience’s level of knowledge and appreciation, but them.
From the perspective of a budget monitor, the People’s Budget and the Budget ng Bayan website is an intelligent way of engaging the people and keeping them informed of the National Government’s finances.  In the past, this information was considered to be highly technical and involved solely people who were knowledgeable in   finance, economics, and management. Opening these details to ordinary citizens is a sign that the government recognizes the citizens’ capacity to contribute ideas and share their concerns and the sectors they represent. In other words, this kind of project minimizes selectiveness in terms of exposure to necessary information.

The author is a fourth year Development Communications student at the University of the Philippines Los BaƱos.  She is currently interning with ANSA-EAP.

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