How Chadchart’s team is lifting lid on Bangkok’s murky multibillion-baht budget

Although Bangkok Governor Chadchart Sittipunt has vowed to revolutionize the city’s budgeting process, significant change is on hold as the budget plan for next year has already been prepared under his predecessor.

The 79-billion-baht draft budget plan for Bangkok was drawn up before Chadchart took the helm of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) late last month following a landslide election victory. The 79 billion baht in the budget plan is due to be spent in fiscal year 2023, which begins on October 1 this year.

The Bangkok Metropolitan Council (BMC) – which functions as the capital’s parliament, scrutinizing and voting on draft legislation – will hear the first reading of the budget draft on July 6 and 7.

Fixed expenditures stand in the way

Of the 79 billion baht the BMA will seek for its operations in fiscal 2023, the highest proportion – 28.64 billion baht – will cover the wages of the city’s workforce. BMA operations account for 14.18 billion baht, followed by investments (13.29 billion baht), and subsidies (5.2 billion baht). “Other expenses” total 13.64 billion baht, while 3.95 billion baht goes to the central budget.

While the budget allocation seems straightforward enough at first glance, a closer look reveals that most of it will in fact be spent on existing projects. In the current fiscal year 2022, 126 projects come under long-term budget commitments worth a whopping 98.71 billion baht. In the next fiscal year, these projects will gobble up an even larger chunk of the budget.

“For example, there are six or seven ongoing waste-disposal projects. Budgets for these projects are locked in for nearly 10 years,” said Deputy Bangkok Governor Chakkaphan Phewngam.

Chakkaphan knows plenty about Bangkok waste-disposal projects, having overseen them after being appointed as deputy city governor by Chadchart’s predecessor Aswin Kwanmuang in 2016.

However, he resigned just three years later amid rumors he had refused to approve a 13-billion-baht garbage-incinerator project amid transparency concerns, choosing to step down instead.

While the investment budget of 13.29 billion baht for the fiscal year 2023 seems huge, only about 1.69 billion baht will be available for new initiatives, as existing projects take up the rest.

“I also found that 5 billion baht is earmarked for [expense] repayments,” Chadchart commented after poring over the budget plan. “To me, nearly 40 percent for personal expenses is also too high.”

Chadchart and his team’s big chance of reallocating the budget will come in the second and third readings of the budget plan if it becomes clear that some existing projects don’t need all their requested budget for the fiscal year 2023.

“This way, we may get an extra several billion baht to fund our new projects,” Chakkaphan explained.

If BMC approves the draft budget plan in principle, it will set up an ad-hoc committee and two subcommittees to prepare relevant draft regulations and documents. The second and third readings will follow. The budget plan is expected to gain final approval by August 20.

BMC chairman Wirat Minchainant said his council might reduce the budget requested for various items in the draft plan during the first reading. If so, BMA executives will then be able to present new projects requesting budget – though only urgent projects will be approved.

During his election campaign, Chadchart pledged 216 policies to improve life in Bangkok. All are small in scale because they were designed to complement or link up major projects and infrastructure that already exist – for example, the transport network. So, many of these “micro-projects” can be achieved with a relatively small budget.

Zero-based budgeting

Chadchart has pledged to introduce zero-based budgeting (ZBB) for the BMA. Conceived and implemented successfully by Peter Pyhrr at a US company in the 1960s, ZZB has since drawn interest from companies and governments across the globe.

ZBB is a finance approach that involves developing a new budget from scratch every time (starting from “zero”), versus starting with the previous period’s budget and adjusting it as needed. It is therefore highly flexible and can suit changing situations better. Every time a budget is planned, everything starts anew to ensure the budget will be spent most efficiently.

Two former academics in Chadchart’s team – Deputy Bangkok Governor Asst Prof Tavida Kamolvej and Chadchart’s advisor Dr Kessara Thanyalakpark – said that although ZBB might not be integral to preparations of the 2023 budget plan, it would be integrated to an extent.

“We will use ZBB in some projects,” Tavida commented.

She explained that in recent years, BMA has leaned on the Planning-Programming-Budgeting System (PPBS), which focuses on identifying objectives and the actions to achieve them. As a result, Bangkok planners may not be familiar with the ZBB concept yet.

“But it’s time to review our approach,” Tavida said. “PPBS should be effective for long-term projects and it helps with continuity. In contrast, the absence of systematic evaluation often means relevant authorities just repeat old projects without seriously reviewing their efficiency and cost-efficiency.”

Kessara said she had already raised the topic of ZBB at her meeting with the BMA budget and finance departments, to push the concept forward.

“We don’t expect total ZZB immediately, but at least there should be enough ZBB at BMA from now on,” she emphasized. “Apply the concept for the better future of everyone.”

Revolutionary touch

While Chadchart is limited in what he can do to change budget management for the upcoming fiscal year, he has already successfully pushed for some clear changes. For example, BMC deliberation of the capital’s budget plan will be broadcast live for the first time ever.

Also, the draft budget plan for fiscal 2023 has been released online for the public to scrutinize.

Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn, who contested the gubernatorial election for Move Forward Party, said Chadchart and BMC should work together in making BMA budget planning a public issue.

“Put a public spotlight on budgeting so the public knows what is going on,” he urged.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk

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