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SA’s budget still transparent, but devil is in lack of details

Date Released: Thu, 10 September 2015 09:03 +0200

THE newly released Open Budget index for 2015 is widely seen as the global measure for national budget transparency, so it is an important achievement for SA to have remained one of the top performers.

This biennial survey is the only independent, comparative survey of budget transparency, citizen participation and independent oversight institutions in the budgeting process in the world. Each country covered by the survey receives a score of between zero and 100 based on the amount and timeliness of budget information that the government makes publicly available.

In this round of the survey, SA achieved a score of 86 — enough to earn it the third spot in the rankings. This matters because research shows that budget transparency makes a positive contribution to a country’s access to more favourable credit ratings, the quality of service delivery and a range of other governance indicators.

Yet many readers may find this high score on the index surprising. Recent episodes such as the publicly funded upgrades to President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla residence and questions about nuclear procurement do not augur well for budget transparency. To understand the apparent discrepancy between the index score and the public’s everyday experience when dealing with government finances, we need to look more closely at what the Open Budget index does and does not measure.

Closer examination shows that the high score is the result of the government publishing high-level national documents but, when you get down to the service delivery level, these documents do not include the specific detailed information that the public needs to hold the government to account.

The index largely measures the publication and contents of national budget documents such as the Estimates of National Expenditure and auditor-general reports. These documents can tell us, for example, how much money the police budget will provide to police stations through its visible policing programme, or how much the Department of Basic Education is putting into school building through its school infrastructure programme. The documents do not, however, give the information that is needed for the public to meaningfully and regularly monitor service delivery and raise questions about problems. You cannot, for example, find out from the Estimates of National Expenditure, provincial budget documents, or any other government publication, how much money is allocated to an individual police station or school.

In much the same way, the Open Budget index does not assess the transparency of procurement. This clearly limits the public’s ability to monitor service delivery and engage with the government over mismanagement, discrepancies or other issues.

For instance, Axolile Notywala of the Social Justice Coalition, which has been investigating the budgeting for, and actual spending on, sanitation in Cape Town’s informal settlements, says: "We have not been able to get budget information telling us how much the government allocates for bulk and on-site infrastructure needed for communal flush toilets in Khayelitsha’s informal settlements. The city’s budget does not show these specifics."

Equal Education’s Daniel Linde says the organisation’s efforts to monitor school construction in the Eastern Cape have been frustrated because "the information in provincial budgets is not accurate, and it is difficult to access contracts with service providers that show what they are meant to build at a specific school. Budgets don’t reflect specific infrastructure projects."

Daniel McLaren of the Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute says of the institute’s work on financing the right to food: "We knew the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries had launched a Zero Hunger Campaign to some fanfare in 2012, but when we looked at the annual reports and budget documents, we couldn’t find any budget allocations for the programme. Even after making contact with the department, we couldn’t find out what had been spent on Zero Hunger, by whom, and what, if anything, the programme had achieved."

The Rural Health Advocacy Project’s Daygan Eager says the project’s ability to monitor spending on rural health services is limited because "budget information in the public domain is not disaggregated to facility level. We can see what is being spent in a district on primary healthcare or hospital services, for example, but we can’t tell what is being spent at specific clinics or district hospitals. This makes it difficult to determine if the cause of poor service delivery is underfunding, poor expenditure management or factors not related to the facility’s budget at all."

Thus, though SA receives top marks on its central budget transparency, it falls short when it comes to providing the detailed information needed for the public to hold the government to account. We encourage SA to follow the example of other countries that have taken the next step in budget transparency by providing information at human scale.

Look at India, where biweekly wage rolls are published online that show the wages paid to individual workers through its multibillion-dollar National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. In rural villages across Rajasthan, where internet penetration is weak, the government paints the budget details and payments for individual infrastructure projects, such as schools and wells, on administrative buildings.

Brazil’s Fiscal Responsibility Law stipulates that all levels of government have to set up online transparency portals where they publish daily updates for many kinds of budget information. Through the portals, people have access to information on individual transactions by all government departments, for both revenue collection and expenditure, as well as information about individual public servants, including their function, salary and so on.

In the US, a number of state governments have begun publishing "chequebook"-level data on their websites with detailed information on individual payments made to employees and vendors.

SA and the Treasury led the way in budget transparency globally long before the Open Budget index came into existence. Since then, many other countries have started pushing the envelope on transparency and, as a result, people in those countries are better positioned to engage their governments on the spending on and delivery of services. We urge the South African government to follow suit. It already produces all the necessary information for internal use, but does not publish it.

For SA to resume its rightful place in the budget transparency vanguard, key departments such as the Treasury must redouble their leadership efforts to ensure national and provincial departments, state-owned entities and municipalities follow their good example of transparent budgets.

• Van Zyl is with the International Budget Partnership. Kruuse is with the Public Service Accountability Monitor

Source: BusinessDay Live : http://www.bdlive.co.za/opinion/2015/09/10/sas-budget-still-transparent-but-devil-is-in-lack-of-details

Source:Business Day Live