July 26, 2017, 2:34 am
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Putting money where the mouth is

Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno has announced that the Duterte administration will be submitting its budget proposal to Congress on the day of the State of the Nation Address, which is a good thing. The 2018 National Expenditure Program (NEP) or the Executive branch’s proposed budget, is in many ways the administration’s first budget that can be attributed completely to their work; after all, there was very little time to change the 2017 NEP, except for the big items like the confidential intelligence fund of the Office of the President, among a few.

Given how complicated the government budget can be, submitting it as early as humanly possible (budget season is a detestable time in many a bureaucrat’s life) means legislators and citizens have more time to scrutinize the thousands of items and corresponding amounts (and raise a howl, if need be) to see how the administration intends to spend the people’s money.

There are several things that can test a government’s commitment to its verbal policies: one is whether it issues an executive or administrative order to put in place measures to support or implement a particular policy. Two, if the policy requires a change in our laws, then the administration can craft its own legislative proposal and submit it as priority bill to Congress, and better, certify it as urgent. Certification powers, of course, is often used sparingly by presidents to conserve political capital with a separate and co-equal branch of government.

Lastly, a test of seriousness can also be seen from the funding an administration allocates to a certain project or program. As we all know, officials can crow incessantly and sprout motherhood statements about popular issues but what matters is that they put funding to make things happen. You’ve only to review the hundreds of unfunded laws whose implementation never got off the ground to see the importance of financial support for any governmental action.

So far the initial information released by DBM indicates increases in most areas, with economic services taking most of the pie (contrasted with 2016, where social services took the lion’s share.) Infrastructure also has the second highest share of the budget, consistent with the launch of the Build! Build! Build! program of the administration. Unfortunately the defense sector has gotten less than a 5% increase, but until the actual NEP is released, we won’t know if it will translate to less funding for the AFP modernization program.

If we go by President Duterte’s words, the drug war is the first (and only, it seems) priority of the administration. Whatever other unannounced priorities there may be can hopefully be found as funded projects in the NEP, such as housing for soldiers, funding to meet the yearly increase in demand for classrooms, scholarship programs, and the like.

It will also be interesting to see if the Duterte administration will retain performance-based budgeting that was started under the previous dispensation. Performance-based budgeting essentially forces the departments to commit to targets and goals, in exchange for the proposed budget they are requesting. It also allows citizens to hold departments accountable to these key indicators, and is basis to call them out for their performance should they fall short of the goals that they set for themselves.

Should they deviate from a performance-based budget, it would also be interesting to see what kind of budget framework they will adopt. To each his own, of course, and I hope any new system adopted will aid citizens not just with understanding the budget better, but to have a more defined approach in holding public servants accountable for their work.

Of course, budget season is also an opportunity for lawmakers to call out cabinet secretaries and agency heads on issues regarding program implementation or the wisdom of continuing or expanding a particular program. Hopefully this season will not be any different from past years, when legislators took their oversight functions seriously. It also gives the public a better perspective of how policy is crafted and implemented, as well as insight on the dynamics between the two branches. I, for one, look forward to vigorous debate between members of the legislative and executive branches, lest the former be accused of being subordinate to the latter, owing to the supermajority held by the current administration. One can hope, can he not?
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