Bottom-up budgeting: Moving up, but long way to go

After rejecting citizen groups' proposals for the budget, regional officials asked citizen leaders to sign an alternative list the officials themselves drafted

Sixto Donato C. MacasaetAround two weeks ago (third week of March 2013), I was at a regional workshop of civil society organizations (CSOs) to evaluate the Bottom-Up Budgeting (BUB) process for the year 2014. 

Guided by Joint Memorandum Circular (JMC) No. 3, series of 2012, the BUB process has been undertaken in more than 1,200 municipalities and cities since December 2012. 

In the early part of the session, most of the CSO leaders happily shared their experiences, proudly saying that many local CSOs actively participated in the process and were successful in getting most of their identified local anti-poverty projects prioritized for the BUB. 

However, their happy voices soon turned alarmed and angry. Through texts and calls from other CSO leaders from their provinces, they learned about the plight of their projects.

Regional officials take over BUB proposals

At the regional “technical validation” session, the CSO leaders were informed by regional government officials that their identified BUB projects had been rejected. They needed to approve and sign new lists of projects prepared by the regional officials. Otherwise, their municipality or city would lose the funds allocated under the BUB. 

While some leaders refused to sign the prepared documents, many felt pressured and signed. The CSO leaders at the regional workshop resolved to call the attention of the Regional Poverty Reduction Action Team (RPRAT) to correct this problem, but also could not help but feel frustrated. As one said, “Binastos nila ang mga LPRAT (Local Poverty Reduction Action Team).” (They insulted the LPRAT.)

BUB is a significant reform initiative of the government. It combines into one process the development potential of government openness, people empowerment and localized poverty reduction. 

It also has a built-in incentive since each town/city that is qualified for the BUB will receive from P15 million to P50 million for anti-poverty projects in 2014. The BUB was first undertaken in early 2012 for the 2013 government budget.

However, as the CSO leaders at that regional workshop will readily attest, the bottom-up process still has a long way to go. What are needed to keep the process going and to ensure improvement along the way?

The need to internalize BUB

First, it is clear that more time is needed for the process.  

For BUB 2013, the JMC was issued in early March 2012, just one month before the deadline for the Local Poverty Reduction Action Plans (LPRAPs). For BUB 2014, the JMC was issued in late December 2012, leaving barely two months for the local LPRAP process. The lack of time led to many half-baked activities and plans, and numerous shortcuts.

It is also clear that the values and principles of BUB still need to be internalized by many government officials, and even by CSO leaders. 

In the region cited above, it may be that the officials had valid technical or other reasons for rejecting the LPRAT-identified projects, but it should have been “natural” for them to explain these to the LPRATs and ask them to identify new projects through a participatory process. 

It should also have been “automatic” for the CSO leaders to refuse to sign the new list of projects and say that they need to consult the whole LPRAT first.

Ironically, the BUB initiative is a reform initiated from above by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) and other National Government Agencies (NGA’s). It is driven by JMCs/ guidelines issued by the Department Secretaries. 

It will take time for the reform to be taken to heart by many local government officials and local and regional officials of NGAs. 

For now, while there are already many reform champions in the various levels of government, many others just “comply” with the guidelines. Internalizing the values and principles of participatory bottom-up and poverty focused budgeting will take time and effort. 

In the meantime, government would need to ensure effective monitoring and feedback mechanisms and continuously adjust and clarify its guidelines to cover common practices (and mis-practices) in the field. The government officials at the local and regional levels would also need to be continuously informed and better trained on the BUB process and related skills.

Empowering CSO leaders

On the other hand, CSOs need to support and communicate with each other more effectively at the local, regional and national levels. Again referring back to the case cited above, it would have been vital for the CSO leaders to have had a clear communication system to clarify if their local government units (LGUs) would indeed lose the BUB budget should they not sign the new lists. 

The CSO leaders present at the validation session should also have felt confident that they had a network of supportive (and vigilant) CSOs behind them as they mustered the courage to refuse to sign. 

The CSO leaders should also be well informed about the guidelines and have the skills needed to constructively but firmly engage the various government agencies, making sure that the BUB guidelines are followed both in its letter and spirit.

After hearing from their colleagues, the CSO leaders at the regional workshop called the Vice Chairperson for the Basic Sectors of the National Anti-Poverty Commission who quickly assured them that this was against the guidelines and advised them to inform the RPRAT. They then called the local CSO leaders to update them, made plans to report to the RPRAT and went back to our evaluation workshop. 

This then is also needed – reform leaders within the government and the CSOs who can swiftly and reliably act as bridges to ensure the two-way flow of information and support. These reform leaders are needed to push the reform process forward and overcome the many hindrances and frustrations which will be encountered along the way.

So we can successfully and sustainably move up in good governance and equitable development, we need:

▪ Effective monitoring and feedback systems;

▪ Updated and appropriate government guidelines which are communicated;

▪ Well, strong and capable CSO networks;

▪ Reform leaders who act as bridges; and

▪ The internalization by all stakeholders of the principles and values of BUB – Rappler.com

Sixto Donato “Dodo” C. Macasaet is the Executive Director of Caucus of Development NGO Networks (CODE-NGO).

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