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The Heavy Lifting of OGP in the Philippines – no pain, no gain.

Richard Bon Moya |

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There was a man who, one fine day, stood in front of a full length mirror. Could be better, he thought, considering everything he had been through. Some parts still look good, but clearly some extra bulge couldn’t be hidden, even with loose clothing.  He made a decision to shape up and proceeded to change his lifestyle.  One day, he received an invitation to join a gym, the Open Gym Partnership – the trendiest one to date. He thought, why not?

Weigh-in was the first order. Then, he decided how much weight he wanted to lose and on which part of his body he wanted to work. He declared his goals to some friends in the gym for support. (Really, he just wanted them to know how well he was doing.) At regular intervals, he reconciled his self-image with the scale (he hated that machine). Often, he and the scale did not see eye to eye.

For many governments, joining the Open Government Partnership (OGP) is like figuring out whether a gym is the best way to shape up, or if getting in shape is even necessary. In both cases, it begins with a realization that “business as usual” will not do anymore, and then a decision on how best to proceed with the necessary life changes.

At the core of the movement is self-improvement. This is the spirit in which OGP declares that “countries are at different stages in their efforts to promote openness in government, and that each of us pursues an approach consistent with our national priorities and circumstances and the aspirations of our citizens.”

For us in the Philippines, the Aquino administration started with an aspiration – good governance. Transparency and accountability were the requirements of good governance. The Philippines became one of the first eight governments to endorse the Open Government Declaration, creating OGP. So the government weaved the country’s journey to good governance with its participation in OGP.

Staying in good shape is tough. On good days, one feels proud of what has been accomplished. Other days, one feels like one is laboring in vain.  Often, one wonders, was it all worth it?  Worse, some gains get reversed. After five years, three action plans, forty commitments, three independent reporting mechanism (IRM) reports, and a transition to a new government, the Philippines is now at a crossroads once more – to stay the course or to go back to its old habits.

Why join a gym at all?

If the desire is a healthier you, then surely joining a gym is not necessary. The truth is, some do not need to. However, for many of us, going through this journey is better done with peers, in order to encourage and affirm one another, to share lessons and resources, and to hold one another accountable.

OGP declares that partner countries will “foster a global culture of open government that empowers and delivers for citizens, and advances the ideals of open and participatory 21st century government.”

The Aquino administration knew that the road to reform was complex and multi-dimensional. It recognized that building a coalition of equally minded reformers would improve its chances of succeeding.  In OGP, the administration found its reform partners.

Bulking, Progressive Overload and Gains

In the gym, there is a practice of progressively adding more resistance during training exercises as the strength increases. This allows for better results over time.

Similarly, one of the Philippines’ OGP commitments, Bottom Up Budgeting or BuB (also known as Grassroots Participatory Budgeting) gradually expanded its coverage and resource allocation over time. BuB is a game changing initiative that seeks to expand the budget process and make it more inclusive.  It veers away from the culture of patronage, and moves towards empowering the people to work closely with government. BuB engages local communities, civil society organizations (CSOs) and other stakeholders to work with city and municipal governments in proposing projects to be included in the National Budget. Its pilot implementation in 2013 took place in 595 cities and municipalities, with a total budget of P8 billion ($170 million USD). Since then, it has expanded to 1,514 cities and municipalities, and has received a larger allocation of P24.7 billion ($525 million USD) for approximately 16,000 locally-identified projects included in the 2016 National Budget.

The Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency (GIFT) recognized this OGP commitment as one of five Best Practices in Fiscal Transparency from around the world during the OGP Global Summit in Mexico City last year. Likewise, The Philippines was granted the Gold Open Government Award for Grassroots Participatory Budgeting (GPB) at the Open Government Awards in 2014 at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. The country was recognized for its outstanding efforts to deepen citizen engagement in the budget process. Along with Denmark and Montenegro, this was one of three gold awards given out that year, to recognize innovative and citizen-driven initiatives in designing and implementing public policy.

Visible improvements:

RIUGG SummitPrimerPagesGGAC Framework_final.png

While it is true that the Philippine government six years ago embarked on a good governance agenda, of which transparency and accountability were key pillars, joining OGP proved beneficial to its social contract with the Filipino people. The government proposed and implemented new initiatives that otherwise would have been beyond its consciousness.  Open Data, EITI, and participatory budgeting are examples of how it embraced concepts learned in OGP and applied them with gusto, resulting not only in dramatic increases in various indices, but more importantly, building the foundations of a more stable and predictable society. It is not surprising that the Philippines received improved ratings while undergoing implementation of its OGP commitments.

  • WEF global competitiveness rankings – the Philippines jumped from 87th in 2010 to 47th in 2016, one of the highest gainers in that ranking  

  • The Open Data Barometer ranked the Philippines 36th in 2016, up 26 places from 85th in 2010

  • The 2016 Open Budget Survey (OBS) gave the Philippines the highest score for budget transparency in Southeast Asia, and ranked the country 2nd in Asia and 21st in the world for transparent and open budget management

  • The Philippine Extractive Industries Transparency Initiatives (PH-EITI) was honored as one of four recipients of the “EITI International Chair Award” at the opening session of the 7th EITI Global Conference in Lima, Peru on February 24, 2016

More than awards, transparency showed a positive correlation with higher credit ratings and lower borrowing costs. In a troubled global fiscal environment, the Philippines consistently improved its credit rating:

Date Rated

CREDIT AGENCY

RATING

2015 Apr 24

Standard & Poor’s

BBB STABLE

2015 Dec 14

Moody’s

Baa2 STABLE

2015 Sep 24

Fitch

BBB- POSITIVE

 

This has resulted in huge shifts in budget allocation from debt servicing to social services. Some OGP-aligned initiatives are still works in progress, such as open contracting, freedom of information, and open law.

(Note: A more detailed paper on the effects of OGP-related activities to the Philippine governance will be published soon.)

Accountability: The man in the mirror

Openness is not a natural state in any relationship. It’s an acquired behavior, borne out of a need to sustain and maintain a healthy and functional relationship. Trust is its manifestation.

Countries join OGP for varied reasons – some to look open, some to feel open and some to BE open. You really just get what you put in. Much like people going to the gym, attaining your ideal weight or BMI or even keeping to your gym schedule isn’t as important as achieving a healthier lifestyle, and creating a better way to live for yourself and for those who depend on you.

In the end, you do it for yourself. For a better and stronger you. You fudge your commitments or your assessments, you harm no one but yourself.

To open up governance, to be held accountable, is not a favor to civil society, to development partners or to the party. It is an imperative to create a stronger, healthier nation.