Trying to follow how the government is spending its COVID-19 response budget can be a frustrating, confusing affair, tracking how much money goes where, and if it’s affecting change at all. It doesn’t help that the government website on COVID-19, while transparent, is not the easiest to read and navigate.
Ken Abante knows this frustration well. Some of Abante’s relatives are medical frontliners, and when he found out that personal protective equipment wasn’t reaching them as quickly as needed, he decided that standing idly by while socially distanced just wasn’t an option. “I thought perhaps there could be a clearer way of explaining this to the public,” says Abante, “and since I had been in the finance department before, I felt that I could also lend a hand in that respect.”
Abante currently works as a policy researcher at Ateneo De Manila University, but he used to be the chief of staff for the strategy, economics, and results group of the Department of Finance—which makes him equipped for projects that involve policy intervention analysis and sleuthing where money goes. Rallying friends and volunteers to his side, he created a citizen budget tracker for COVID-19.
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Think of the citizen budget tracker as a master list for how the government is spending money to flatten the curve. It tracks outputs (PPE kits, food, subsidies), expenditures (all the line items cited in the president’s Bayanihan to Heal As One Act, which include the subsidies and forms of aid going to different sectors), all the stuff that the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) and Disaster Response Operations Monitoring and Information Center (DROMIC) are doing.
The tracker even explains the legalese behind the President’s emergency powers. And for lay people (like this writer) who wouldn’t know how to make heads or tails of financial jargon, the budget tracker has a tab that helps define what certain terms like “appropriation” and “disbursement” mean. (For an even easier-to-digest 101 on what the budget tracker is all about, you can check out a paper Abante published on Research Gate, which compares the budget process to watering a garden.)
So how exactly do Abante and his team get their hands on the information? Jahleel An Burao, who is part of the financial reporting team and has a background in microfinance, explained the team’s thorough method of data collection. “We read through major sources of data. Our first point of source is the President's report, that's the main source, because that's what the President sends to the joint oversight committee, and it details all the accomplishments of the national government for the week.”
The group then cross-references that info with other government reports, official data, DROMIC data, and the dashboards of other implementing agencies. That’s a lot of info to go through, but as Burao puts it, “There's so much confusion with the information that's been going on. We're people from finance, and we love clarity.” Fans of clarity might also love this dashboard made by Abante’s team, which neatly visualizes data on how certain cities and municipalities are being helped by the budget.
But even with access to the above-mentioned information, Abante is still trying find and access more pieces of pertinent data, such as local government cash positions. There also seems to be a gap in the reports regarding how much of the budget is going into funding the police enforcing quarantine. So the team is reaching out to as many people as they can, from senators and congressmen to civil society groups, in order to thoroughly analyze and report how far the budget is going.
But even if we get to follow the money, you may ask, What’s the point?
Well, following the money means being able to smartly point out to government what areas they might be neglecting, and which people they might be forgetting. Abante cites people who might have no official birth certificates and don’t quite qualify for certain subsidies, and families under the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program, as just a few of those neglected by the response budget. And because of the existence of the government tracker, Abante and his team—and all of us, really—are in a better position to say that the government needs to step it up with the spending.
As of writing this, the government has spent around 20 percent of its response budget. So no complaints about how much money the government has allotted, but Abante advocates spending faster. Why? “The reason why we need to spend faster is because people are already hungry,” Abante simply states. Flattening the curve is one thing, but what about the people who’ve been hit the hardest financially in this pandemic? “I think national government has put up a framework in which it will lift the quarantine on certain areas,” Abante says. “But especially for those areas that will continue to be in quarantine, what can daily wage earners actually expect from government?”
A lot, to be honest. Because while a lot of donations from citizens and big conglomerates might make life easier for some people, according to Abante, government spending is what’s really going to save medical frontliners and low income families a heck of a lot of trouble. “Money from the private sector kind of runs out. The truth is, only government has the scale to be able to spend,” Abante says. “But the trade-off with scale is that it takes long for the systems to be put in place. That's why the place for volunteerism is to try to figure out where the holes in the process are, and to make sure to remind government and say, hey these are the sectors that we've worked in, these are the people that we're probably forgetting about, and that's where we should reflect adequate policy interventions.” That’s what’s the budget tracker is basically doing—looking for gaps in the budget strategy, and holding the government accountable.