Goodbye, Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), a.k.a. congressional pork barrel. After President Aquino’s recent statement on the issue, it has been declared, although in a somewhat nuanced way, that “the PDAF, as we know it, will cease to exist.” Many people had hoped that we could all say “good riddance” to the pork. But from statements coming out of government, it’s clear that legislators will still not be confined to what they are elected to do, which is to make laws, and leave project identification and execution where it belongs: the executive branch. That’s what governors, mayors and barangay chairs are there for, along with regional and local offices of national line agencies, Regional Development Councils (RDCs) and local development councils (LDCs) at various levels.
Professor Randy David points out that lawmakers’ authority over the budget is confined to reviewing the budget proposal submitted by the executive, scrutinizing and debating its general thrusts and priorities and disallowing unjustifiable appropriations. It is not supposed to extend to the level of allocations for specific projects on the ground so as to give them the discretion to allot money for their pet projects, name contractors and suppliers and recommend designated beneficiaries. This is why it somehow rings hollow when the PDAF is rationalized as a way “to enable your representatives to identify projects for your communities that your local government unit cannot afford.” I have yet to find someone who believes “our representatives” to be better equipped to identify appropriate projects for our communities than the above executive officials or bodies, or than the very communities themselves.
David notes what could very well be the real reason the President is reluctant to scrap the PDAF entirely: “(It) is a system explicitly invented to accommodate politicians in their role as patrons… In the absence of a strong political party system, the power to release or to withhold PDAF allotments offers the executive strong leverage in its dealings with Congress.” In the end, the true rationale for PDAF, or any of its past and future variants, is a political rather than substantive one. This need not be taken in a negative light; political support from Congress is, after all, critical to the effectiveness of a good executive trying to push positive reforms.
Political justifications aside, effective resource allocation for priority needs of our communities need not be constrained by the size of the local governments’ internal revenue allotments, such as to necessitate calling on lawmakers to step in. The RDCs are collegial bodies that bring regional line agencies, local executives and non-government representatives together, and are mandated to help prioritize national budget allocations to address regional and local resource gaps. In theory, the RDCs and LDCs should be able to define priority needs at the grassroots and their attendant budgetary requirements much better than any politician can. In actual practice, however, I’ve heard RDC members express frustration that their respective budget prioritization exercises over the years were of little consequence, set aside by administrations with a propensity for top-down governance. Meanwhile, LDCs are seldom convened and mobilized, especially where local executives are not keen to share governance responsibilities with their true “bosses.”
Still, these do not justify pulling in lawmakers to do something they are not meant to do. We now have a government that appears widely trusted to set things right. If anything, what the President and the executive branch needs to do with greater vigor is to ensure that these mechanisms for participatory governance are made to work the way they should. And one critical aspect of this is participatory budgeting, which government is now pursuing through the Bottom-Up-Budgeting (BUB) approach.
Brazil is widely cited for pioneering this, with the first full participatory budgeting process developed in the city of Porto Alegre, starting in 1989. The process happens annually, starting with a series of neighborhood, regional and citywide assemblies, where residents and elected budget delegates identify and vote on spending priorities for implementation. Around 50,000 residents from diverse economic and political backgrounds (out of 1.5 million city inhabitants) now take part in the city’s participatory budgeting process, with the number consistently growing. The mechanism has since spread to more than 140 municipalities in Brazil, hundreds of Latin American cities and dozens of cities in Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America. International approaches vary according to local contexts, but adhere to the basic Porto Alegre model.
Here at home, the Department of Budget and Management has worked with the National Anti-Poverty Commission, the Department of Interior and Local Government and the Department of Social Welfare and Development to put BUB into action. In Joint Memorandum Circular No. 3-2012, the four agencies adopt BUB as the mechanism to ensure inclusion of funding requirements for the development needs of some 1,233 focus cities and municipalities in the budget proposals of relevant national agencies. The process invokes the collective wisdom of all stakeholders concerned, including and especially those in the communities to be directly affected.
Between giving continued discretion to legislators to identify priority projects, and scaling up the BUB approach nationwide to meet the same objectives, the latter, to my mind, wins hands down. Hello BUB, good riddance PDAF? One can only wish.
* * *