BUKIT Gasing assemblyman Rajiv Rishyakaran recently organised the Budget 2016 Preparation Dialogue in PJ Live Arts centre, which attracted about 40 participants.
The dialogue was a success in setting the trend for public budget feedback.
Out of 13 areas of budgetary concerns, the top four were CCTVs in public areas; road maintenance and repairs; efficiency, transparency, and accountability of the Petaling Jaya Municipal Council (MBPJ) enforcement system; and waste management education.
Another good point was that the dialogue was organised early, just as preparation for MBPJ’s 2016 budget starts.
MBPJ may be the only council to organise public budget dialogues and it is to be commended for carrying on this tradition.
Last year, MBPJ’s budget dialogue was held on Sept 23, and the Coalition of Good Governance issued a press statement a day before the dialogue. The opening paragraphs of the statement had said stakeholders were concerned that the budget consultation meetings in previous years had not met its objectives.
The statement went on to list some of the reasons for the failure, including lack of sufficient notice to the stakeholders; lack of financial information given; and the lack of a clear explanation on the budget’s theme and action plans to achieve it.
The problems occurred because the process of preparing the city council’s budget did not follow established proven practices.
When it come to preparing a budget, two important aspects:
1. Participative Budgeting (Engagement of the public and good feedback before preparing the draft budget); and
2. Budget Monitoring (Regular monthly monitoring of the proposed income and expenditure).
The 2014 dialogue was slightly more successful as the then deputy mayor Puasa Md Taib adopted a more open approach and released more financial data during the dialogue itself.
He had also reassured stakeholders that in 2015, there would be a public mid-year budget review, which we expect to be held in late July or early August.
While residents were broken up into thematic groups and given a limited time to debate their needs, this manner of organisation is really a ‘red herring’, creating the impression that residents were contributing towards the budget process when actually it was just a public relations exercise with residents not really appreciating the impact that the budget would have on their well-being.
One particular group organised itself into a Budget Process grouping to expound on the importance of getting the budget process right and Puasa was kind enough to provide the opportunity for the group to share its findings.
The group highlighted that there were budget processes that were fundamentally wrong, including:
1. Budget estimates based on incremental budgets instead of zero-based budgets.
This means that many of the development or operational budgets are based on rough estimates with no breakdown of the anticipated projects that residents and assemblymen feel are important for their constituencies.
As a result, at the start of every year when fresh budgets are available for spending, many projects are delayed or even cancelled as heads of various departments try to negotiate priorities and councillors try to win cooperation to get their projects started first.
This is both an unhealthy and unproductive practice; and
2. Flawed monitoring processes. The budget monitoring committee pushed by former MBPJ councillor Derek Fernandez was well accepted by the then Petaling Jaya mayor Datuk Mohamad Roslan Sakiman.
Without the independent presence of residents sitting on the committee, MBPJ was perceived to be non-accountable and non-transparent. Former mayor Datin Alinah Ahmad, meanwhile, refused to institutionalise this budget monitoring committee and, with a promise to the board of councillors, took it upon herself to monitor budget spending.
History has shown that she failed in that promise and MBPJ is now saddled with more than RM300mil in unspent money in its reserves.
Unlike corporate companies, the holding of these reserves is immoral as it translates to the city council collecting money from the public that it is unable to spend.
At the budget meeting last year, it was revealed that the development budget for 2013 was only 16% of MBPJ’s total budget, yet only 35% of the estimated amount had been spent.
In 2014, at the time of the public dialogue, only 3% of development budget, which was 16% of the total budget, had been spent.
When budgets are not spent consistently over the months, there is a temptation for over-spending at the year-end to compensate for the inactivity of the earlier months.
With the momentum created by the budget dialogue organised by Rajiv, a sense of optimism is in the air that the official 2015 MBPJ budget dialogue will be more impactful and more people-centric. The process that will be taken will hopefully involve better public participation.
The presence of new mayor Mohd Azizi Mohd Zain and deputy mayor Johary Anuar gives hope that a transition to a more people-centric MBPJ may be possible and expectations are high that they can steer MBPJ away from the traditional method of measuring activities to one that measures the positive impacts that MBPJ has on its residents.
It all starts with the formulation of the 2016 budget as this is the instrument that details all action plans for 2016.
Jeffrey FK Phang is an assistant professor at Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman and serves as a cluster research head for ‘Sustainable Township’ in the Centre for Sustainable Development and Corporate Social Responsibility.