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September 26, 2014

The Devil Is In The Details

By Jake Crisologo

If you tried to add the number of pages of the 2015 National Expenditure Program (NEP), the accompanying Budget Expenditures and Sources of Financing (BESF), and Staffing Summary, you’d get around 4,870. This sum does not include the pages for the Table of Contents and the extra cover pages per section in these documents.

It’s kinda like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, only less magical unless you get a kick out of numbers and codes. But it is essentially a story too; the written draft of a  plan or plot that concerns us all Filipinos.

They are budget documents, and they are not the only ones out there.

In a rough definition, the NEP is a proposed budget made by the Executive, which is submitted for the approval of the Legislative, after which we’d have the General Appropriations Act, our basic budget law for the coming year. A more polished one would cover definitions on “expenditure programs”, “appropriations”, and the like. I admit that I still get mixed up with all these words that often mean the same as my basic understanding
of what constitutes a “budget.”

The BESF is made up of numerous tables: from macroeconomic parameters considered by the government in crafting the budget, to tax revenues, to the capital outlay of projects, etc. The Staffing Summary has details on the salaries of government officials and employees. Many of the terms I scarcely understand on the initial reading. There’s a glossary, but piecing
it all together would still be a monumental task for anyone.

I know for a fact that most of the people I know in my life do not know what the heck is inside these books, and I guess it isn’t unfair to say that most Filipinos don’t know either.

I’m quoting Leonardo DiCaprio, one of my favorite actors, in his United Nations speech on climate change when I say that I am not speaking “as an expert, but as a concerned citizen” as I write this article.

For a little over a year now, I’ve been with Social Watch Philippines, one of the civil society organizations fighting for greater transparency and accountability in public finance. In a country plagued with scandal in this field, in all its political and socio-economic dimensions, “public finance” still means so frustratingly little to the general public.

But I get it. Not only are there volumes upon volumes of data to look at, making any sound analysis on the details requires a lot of studying in the whole structural component of budget. Add the inherent politics in government and the even that structure falls apart. Case in point, the Executive and Legislative made moves to reduce the powers of the Supreme Court because they crossed swords on the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP).

There are academics now making theses out of the DAP. Many have been made on the Pork Barrel, a popular yet misunderstood term for legislators dipping their fingers in the Executive role of budget implementation. Some people don’t get why this is wrong, but understanding comes eventually; the eventuality of corruption affects and offends us all, except maybe the
corrupt.

But really, who amongst us of the non-academics, the common man, and the dust of life bleeding against the Philippine landscape, has the capacity to swallow all of these issues and come out bright, unscathed and unpoisoned?

In the first place, how hard is it really to go through the budget?

We did a little experiment. To help a certain legislator look into the budget of their district, I went over some of the 4,870 pages of budget documents we have in the office. All these documents are supposedly in the Department of Budget and Management website, with the farce it calls “transparency” to placate a monstrously angry yet uninformed public.

devil-in-the-detailsMy assignment was essentially simple: I isolated items under the region, district and municipalities of the particular province we were looking into under certain agencies. I then put everything in Excel Sheets.

The font size of these documents is tolerable enough, though going through each page and understanding each line may blind you if you go through it all at once. But regardless of the aching physical task of going through tables, project numbers and allocations, and listing them down, a terrifying realization came to me: I couldn’t understand the majority of what I was writing down.

Some items were obvious enough, like the road projects from one point to another. I pretty much understand what capital outlay, personnel expenditures, and maintenance and other operating expenses mean in the basic sense. The projects under the Department of Health were easy enough to understand too, like having cheaper medicine and clinics in regions. But
I couldn’t make sense of the amounts because I don’t know how much each project should cost in the first place, so how do I reasonably judge that? How do I look for anomalies?

The conclusion was obvious: I couldn’t judge the budget just by looking at these documents alone. The devil was there in a multitude of details that could have been written in Tolkien’s Elvish and it wouldn’t have made a difference—I was lost. I had no context to work with.

However, I don’t think we’re all lost just yet because I was too stupid to make sense of it all. I might not know how to assess the reasonable cost for road projects, or health services and schools, but I know that there are people who do and can.

I know that there are people who are looking into these things, like the organizations and individuals in the Alternative Budget Initiative, which is coordinated by Social Watch Philippines. But even the scope of ABI does not reach into every fine point in the budget. ABI focuses on the social development sectors, like health, education, environment, agriculture and social protection, but it has yet to have direct coordination with people looking into the budget for public works, the sciences, and industries, like tourism, which I am personally fond of.

Analysing the budget in all its fine points along the whole picture it is monumental and virtually impossible for one person. But it’s feasible when more people are involved and efficiently organized to look into specific aspects of it. It’s a war against ignorance. And wars, of collective significance, are rarely fought alone.

What did I learn though, when I went looking for items, aside from the sheer amount of what I do not know?

One thing is that it is fascinating through all the tedious details, and strange in some respect.

In the NEP volumes, the degree of detail greatly varied per department. This can initially be observed with the number of pages for each, like with the Department of Public Works and Highways at over 600 pages. Most projects under DPWH are also detailed to the extent of approximate municipal coverage, depending on which areas are traversed by the projects.

Most of the projects of the other agencies I looked into, the departments of health, education, social welfare and development, and agriculture, were regionally allocated. Some had very general labels too, like items “for the implementation of various projects with Local Government Units.” There were no details at the provincial level and municipal level. If they’re not there, where do we look then?

Though I had the printed documents, I also checked the DBM website when I was gathering data. It was strange that the NEP details for DPWH consisted of only 35 pages. If I were paranoid, I would say that DBM is secretly watching me and before I could make a big deal about it, they might have gone through the tech bit and fixed.

I checked again and now all the pages are there.

But like what I wrote above, these are not the only budget documents we have. Budgets at the local level, the annexes and project descriptions with the more intricate details, I argue, should be developed, implemented and monitored by locals. This is the essence of participatory public finance, where citizens play an active role in funding for their collective interests. Locals should also be given the avenues to develop their capacity to understand the budget process, and not be victimized by political systems of patronage and exploitations of the corrupt. Even if there is no corruption, knowledge of the budget also means that we can spend for the right things WITH efficiency.

We should not only be looking at what is detailed, but we should also look for what is not. Where are the lumps in the budget? How do excise them? On that note, how do we exorcise the devil in the details?

The capacity to look into the budget and understand it is one that is acquired. As laborious as the process is, I believe that it is nonetheless significant. The people should demand to be educated and know that they should be granted the dignity of knowing that they deserve better, and that volumes upon volumes of data can be meaningful in changing lives.

 

 

Jake Crisologo is a research assistant at Social Watch Philippines. This article was originally written for the group and ManilaSpeak was given permission by the author to publish it.

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