Bridging the Gap between Opening Budgets and Transforming Lives

By IBP, essays from the 2014 Annual Report— Jul 10, 2015

This post appears as an essay in our 2014 Annual Report.

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IBP’s tagline is “Open Budgets. Transform Lives.” We believe that if citizens have access to budget information and opportunities to participate in the budget process, they can better engage with their governments and hold them accountable for their management of public resources. This, in turn, can lead to better budgeting and better service delivery that improves lives.

Our country work tests this theory by providing deep and sustained support to specific CSO efforts to influence  government budgets in three pilot countries: South Africa, Kenya, and India. We are learning much about bridging the gap between open budgets and transforming lives from our early work in South Africa. We examine this here.

In South Africa Communities Connect with Budgets to Improve Services

Credit: Lindsay Mgbor/DFID
Credit: Lindsay Mgbor/DFID

The IBP country strategy in South Africa provides support to two campaigns: the Social Justice Coalition’s (SJC) efforts to improve the provision of sanitation in informal settlements in the Western Cape province; and Equal Education’s campaign to improve the delivery of school infrastructure in the Eastern Cape province. Our work over the last year shows that the IBP formula of working through open budgets to transform lives may well be feasible in South Africa, but there is much to learn about how this works in practice.

First, citizens, particularly poor citizens, are generally not animated by budget data. They only become interested in budget transparency when it can tell them something that has a direct bearing on their lives, such as sanitation or school infrastructure; in which case it becomes a powerful tool in their quest to transform their lives. For example, budget information showing that the Cape Town government spends less than a quarter of what it ought to on sanitation in informal settlements has become powerful evidence to support both a court case against the city and a submission to the finance committee of the city council on the draft budget for 2015/16.

Often the Information That Is available Is Not the Information You Need

Such experience has led us to conclude that budget transparency should not be defined from the perspective of government, but rather from the perspective of citizens seeking to hold government to account. For this reason, we commissioned a “bottom-up” Open Budget Survey. Rather than starting with global best practices on what information governments should release, as the Open Budget Survey does, our bottom-up survey begins by asking what budget information citizens need to hold government to account for a specific issue. It sought to describe all the public finance decisions and processes that affect a specific service, from tax collection to buying doors for toilets and everything in between. Next, the bottom-up survey listed all the budget information that is produced by government about each of these decisions and processes. Lastly, it indicated how much of this information is published.

We completed two bottom-up surveys, one for sanitation and one for school infrastructure. Both showed that proactive government budget transparency provides some, but not all, of the information citizens need to hold government to account. For example, the government makes data that shows that grants for school infrastructure are underspent publically available, but it does not indicate how much money independent contractors get to provide infrastructure at a specific school.  The bottom-up Open Budget Survey is a tool that can produce evidence on information gaps that can be important in negotiating with government budget transparency that is more useful for citizens.

The South African government, led by the National Treasury, has built an international reputation for budget transparency. Indeed, the Treasury publishes budget data and reports that are world class. However, our work in South Africa is uncovering glaring gaps in these data, especially with regard to service delivery within subnational governments. The challenge in South Africa is to spread the same high standards of budget transparency adhered to by the National Treasury to service delivery departments and subnational governments. For this reason, IBP and others have initiated a discussion with Treasury that aims – as a first step – to encourage the publication of specific budget information about service delivery that is already produced by departments and subnational governments. Citizen-led initiatives, such as the bottom-up Open Budget Survey referred to above, will help define exactly which kinds of information should be published.

Can’t Have Accountability Without the “Secret Sauce”

A second important lesson emerging from our work in South Africa is that a lack of citizen participation cannot be legislated away. Meaningful engagement with government is of critical importance to our campaigns, and South Africa has extensive legislation and policies to guide and enforce citizen participation in the budget process, especially at local government level.

But local governments and legislatures tend to implement the letter rather than the spirit of this legislation. For example, local governments issue written calls for written submissions. Unsurprisingly, they only receive submissions from business interests with the ability to respond in this way. This satisfies the letter  of the participation clauses  of the Municipal Systems  Act. Beyond that, though, very little is done to encourage participation by poor and marginalized communities – exactly those communities meant to be protected by the spirit of the legislation.

A related problem is that government-initiated participation in South Africa focuses almost exclusively on the formulation rather than the implementation phase of the budget process. However, South Africa already outspends most middle-income developing countries on social services. The real challenges to “transforming lives” in South Africa have to do with the quality of that expenditure. Yet South Africa’s progressive constitution and elaborate legal frameworks say nothing about citizen participation in the implementation and audit phases of the budget. To support citizen efforts to connect open budgets and transformed lives in South Africa, government reform needs to focus on mechanisms of citizen engagement in the implementation and audit phases of the budget process.

“Budget transparency should not be defined from the perspective of government, but rather from the perspective of citizens seeking to hold government to account.”

A third early finding from our South African experience is that, while targeted access to specific budget information can help to transform lives, the “secret sauce” is still citizens and  the institutions that organize them and aggregate their interests. It is only because the SJC came into being that ordinary citizens have managed to keep consistent (six years now) and effective pressure on sanitation issues in Cape Town. While IBP may have provided analysis and advocacy support to the SJC secretariat, it is the SJC that has trained 60 community activists who are each busy training large numbers of local residents on the nuts and bolts of the city’s sanitation budget and service delivery mechanisms. This growing number of trained residents will be able to monitor and put pressure on the contractors and area managers who provide the services at the local level where sanitation service delivery is broken.

In addition to their ability to organize local residents and aggregate their issues, CSOs also play a critical role in building the vertical and horizontal linkages needed for these campaigns to ultimately succeed. The nascent relationship of Equal Education with the Provincial Parliamentary Finance Committee, and the SJC-initiated investigation of sanitation in Cape Town by the Human Rights Commission, may turn out to be of critical importance to the success of these campaigns.

It is still too early in our South Africa work to comment on the implications for our overall theory of change. But, if we are able to convince the South African government to expand the publication of subnational budget and service delivery data and open formal spaces for nongovernment actors to monitor budget implementation, our partners could be in a very powerful position to improve the quality of life of the poorest citizens. Whatever the outcome, we will learn much over the next four years about the connection between open budgets and transforming lives.

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