By Luisa Maria Jacinta C. Jocson, Reporter

THE Philippines placed 19th out of 120 countries in the Open Budget survey, which gauges the transparency of government spending, falling nine places from the previous survey in 2019.

“The survey assesses transparency of how public resources are raised and spent; opportunities for participation in budget policy decisions; and oversight by independent legislatures and audit institutions,” Suad Hasan, program officer of the Open Budget Initiative, said in a virtual briefing on Thursday.

In terms of transparency, the Philippines earned a grade of 68 out of 100.

Transparency measures the ability of the public to access information on how the government raises and spends resources. It assesses the availability, timeliness and comprehensiveness of budget documents.

“A transparency score of 61 or above indicates a country is likely publishing enough material to support informed public debate on the budget. The Philippines has a score of 68; we are above this performance standard,” Francisco A. Magno, who teaches development studies and political science at De La Salle University, said.

“The Philippines is no longer in the top 10, but we all understand that the country has been champion in the region. There are some really clear and simple measures that would put it back in the top ten performers,” Ms. Hasan said.

Mr. Magno said that the government failed to publish on time its mid-year budget review, one of the eight budget documents assessed under the transparency criteria.

“We should prioritize publishing the mid-year review on time and in terms of content and provide more detailed information in the year-end report,” he added.

The Philippines scored 35 out of 100 in the public participation indicator, which gauges the opportunities for the public to engage during the various cycles of the budget process.

“We scored 35, but we are still better than others. We are the leader in Southeast Asia, ahead of Malaysia at 26,” Mr. Magno said.

He recommended that the government expand mechanisms during budget formulation and implementation to engage civil society organizations or members of the public who wishes to participate in the process.

He also added that Congress should allow any member of the public to testify during its budget proposal hearings and audit report hearings.

The pandemic impacted the public participation mechanisms of governments, Ms. Hasan said.

“While we note as far as transparency is concerned, there was little impact (from) the pandemic, which could be attributed to digitalization and resilience; this has not happened in participation,” she said.

“In-person participation spaces were impacted by the pandemic,” she added, noting that digital spaces for participation should be pushed to take advantage of the region’s high level of internet penetration.

In the budget oversight category, the Philippines scored 74 out of 100. The indicator examines the role that legislatures and audit institutions provide in the budget process and the extent that they exercise oversight.

“To improve further oversight, the legislature should debate budget policy before the executive budget proposal is tabled and approved. It’s also important for offices to be active in this process of studying the budget so policy can be studied and discussed even before approval,” Mr. Magno said.

Ms. Hasan noted that important gaps remain worldwide.

“No country in the survey meets the minimum standards for adequate accountability on all three measures,” she said.

“Only eight countries out of 120 have formal channels to engage with underserved communities in the budget process. This was seriously compromised in the pandemic,” she added.

In a pre-recorded message, Budget Secretary Amenah F. Pangandaman said the government is working on further digitalizing the budget process.

“In all previous budget engagements, in all the reforms the DBM has initiated, and in all fiscal policies formulated, we have always underscored the importance of having an open budget system, one that is transparent, fosters public participation, and has adequate budget oversight from the legislative and audit institutions,” Ms. Pangandaman said.

“We hope to fast-track our initiatives to digitize government processes and transactions through the implementation of the Integrated Financial Management Information System, as well as the enactment of the Progressive Budgeting for Better and Modernized Governance Bill, which shall institutionalize the Cash Budgeting System,” she added.