[OPINION] Not as good as it seems

The result of the latest Open Budget Survey (OBS) is certainly encouraging for the Philippines. Since the report has come out, the report has been covered by media and has been hailed by the government as an affirmation of its efforts on budget reform.

In a statement, Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno said: "We very proud of what we've accomplished to date. In surpassing our Asian neighbors, we have further cemented our position as a global leader in Open Government. It encourages us to persevere, to do even better, in the years ahead."

The OBS report is best appreciated in context and with the proper nuancing of its details and the implications given the current situation. This is not being captured in the reports and statements to date.

Timeframe of OBS 2017

Spearheaded by the International Budget Partnership (IBP), the OBS started in 2006 and is described as "the world's only independent, comparative assessment of the 3 pillars of public budget accountability: transparency, oversight, and public participation."

The OBS report is "produced by independent budget experts around the world, using internationally-accepted criteria developed by multilateral organizations." 

The 2017 OBS is the 6th round that evaluated 115 countries across 6 continents. For this round, according to the report's methodology, the data collection took place from September 2016 to December 2016.

"Thus, the OBS 2017 assesses only those events, activities, or developments that should have occurred up to 31 December 2016; any actions occurring after this date are not accounted for in the 2017 survey results," reads the Methodology section of the OBS report.

In the Philippines, September 2016 to December 2016 was a transition period. The Duterte administration assumed office on June 30, 2016. This means that the report covers the 3rd to 6th months (4 months) of the new government. During this period, it is safe to assume that the same policies and programs of the previous government were in place, unless they were explicitly zeroed in for scrapping from the onset by new government. 

This is an important detail of the context of the 2017 OBS report. Given this context, the report hardly reflects what has been achieved by the new government. Instead, it covers what has been sustained immediately after the assumption of office of the new government and largely reflects the practices and policies adopted by the immediately preceding government. 

Constant transparency 

The Philippines' 2017 scores in transparency or Open Budget Indicators (OBI) show improvement compared to the country's standing in the last OBS in 2015. The Philippines' score increased to 67 (out of 100) from 64 in 2015. Its score on transparency is the highest in Asia and far higher than the global average of 42. 

However, according to the report, "the Philippines' score of 67 on the 2017 Open Budget Index is largely the same as its score in 2015." This is a detail that is not mentioned in the statements. The Philippine summary of the report did not elaborate on this, but this is likely in account of its methodology and scoring.

The OBS summary report on the Philippines also listed down budget information disclosure practices that started in 2015 that are presumed to have been continued in 2016 and noted an instance when a document (Mid-Year Review) was not made public on time.

Concerning participation score

On participation, the Philippines scored 41 out of 100. This translates to limited opportunities for the public to engage in the budget process. 

This is viewed positively by the Philippine budget department in its statement because "the Philippines ranked first in ASEAN" and the country's score is "3 times the global average at 12... and one of only 4 countries to achieve a moderate score in the category, sharing this distinction with New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom." 

However, in a tweet, the IBP stated that the global trend is bleak: "Amid declining public trust in government and increasing inequality, progress toward global budget transparency has stalled for the first time in a decade." This makes the global average not exactly the best benchmark for comparison. 

This round's score is also below the Philippines' 2015 OBS of 67, which translated to the presence of "adequate" mechanisms for citizen participation in the budget. Though the OBS explains that there has been changes in its methodology and indices on this pillar this round in consideration of other global standards, the drop from 41 to 67 is something that is better underscored.

For the Philippines, more importantly, getting a score that means "limited opportunities to engage the budget process" should merit concern across all sectors, especially from civil society. This is the country that prides itself on mainstreaming participation on all fronts of governance. The immediate previous administration won on the platform of participatory governance and had consistently claimed achievements in advancing and deepening citizen participation through its programs and policies. 

It is not stated in the Philippine summary report, but the question that needs to be asked is whether the Duterte administration's termination of the national participatory budgeting program of the Aquino government, called Bottom-Up-Budgeting (BuB), made a big difference in the score. The scrapping took place during the period the OBS survey was being conducted. Meanwhile, while the participation of the Philippine government in the Open Government Partnership (OGP) was sustained in the transition of 2016, this did not happen without difficulties due to threats of backsliding. Had this been factored in too?

Puzzling findings on accountability

The Philippines' standing on oversight in the 2017 OBS has improved on legislative oversight from limited and weak in 2015 to adequate and limited in 2017. Its score on oversight of the supreme audit institution went down 9 notches from 92 in 2015 to 83 in 2017, though still the same equivalence of "adequate budget oversight." 

This finding seems undramatic, though it is good to understand the reason for the improvement on legislative oversight and the slight decrease of the score of Philippines' supreme budget institution. The Commission on Audit (COA) has sustained its Citizen Participatory Audit, hence it is puzzling why the score went down.

Finally, this part on the summary must be an error: "The head of the institution is appointed by the legislature or judiciary and cannot be removed without legislative or judicial approval, which bolsters its independence." In the Philippines, the COA chairperson is appointed by the President as per the 1987 Constitution. In fact, this has been raised as one institutional flaw that poses potential danger to the independence and autonomy of COA.

Communication, communication

We have seen the impact of international recognition in legitimizing reforms undertaken by governments. This is a double-edge sword; it may or may not be beneficial to a country's effort to open government and deepen democracy

The usual danger is oversimplification in communicating the key findings of an international assessment, especially in the case of indices that rank countries according to numerical scores. The devil is in the details, yet the details of the context are often left hidden, buried in the loudness of numbers that say very little, hence can easily be misrepresented, even manipulated, by whoever is presenting the figures. 

A critical question needs to be raised: shouldn't it be the responsibility of international bodies doing global assessments and rankings to ensure that their findings are communicated properly and that the conclusions of their research are not misrepresented in a way that is detrimental to the very reason they are doing what they do? Ranking may motivate better performance from governments. Or, real status of government performance can be muddled by bad communication. – Rappler.com

Joy Aceron is convenor-director of Government Watch (G-Watch), a social accountability program. She is also an advisor and research fellow of the Accountability Research Center  based at the American University, Washington DC, and currently the national researcher for the Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) of the Open Government Partnership (OGP).