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Opinion: A Call for Public Participation in National Budget Processes

Amitabh Mukhopadhyay is the former Auditor General of India and Joint Secretary of the Parliamentary Financial Committee.

NEW DELHI, Sep 9 2015 (IPS) - After forming governments, authorising them to tax us and to spend on our collective needs, do we remain watchful about our money? No, we don’t. Not even when we know governments borrow from money markets on the strength of the tax fund created, often beyond our means to repay. Why?

Because we get little information on budget formulation, approval and implementation, governments keep them under a veil of secrecy. A government budget is a major macroeconomic intervention in the ever-widening circulation of goods, services, technologies and money in the economy.

Public finances can become more buoyant if the confidence of taxpayers and donors in the efficiency and effectiveness of government spending is raised.

Sensitiveness of various sections of public opinion to what and who is taxed along with for whom benefits accrue from the spending matters to governments. While the rich and powerful are consulted by government and even get privileged ‘leaks’ on the coming budget facilitating their jostling and huckstering to get maximum tax concessions from it, commoners are left to chew on its bare bones.

The Open Budget Partnership (OBP) of NGOs across 102 countries has started making a difference to this Kafkaesque scenario. Advocacy efforts of OBP to enable participation of people in the budget process accented a demand for transparency. The partnership helped to survey budgetary practices of these countries biennially since 2006.

The Open Budget Survey 2015 released this week tells us that though the situation has improved, there are still large gaps in the amount of budget information that governments are sharing. The average OB Index score of the 102 countries surveyed in 2015 is 45 out of 100.

A large majority of the countries assessed — 78 countries, in which 68 percent of the world’s population live — provide insufficient budget information. These have OBI scores ranging from 40 to 60. Interestingly, the Survey says the hydrocarbon revenue-dependent countries (those with scores of 40 or below) performed the worst, though they have higher average incomes than the countries with scores between 40 and 60.

The good news is that increases in budget transparency have been especially robust among some of the countries that provided the least budget information in the past. A significant number of countries have seen dramatic improvements, occasioned by pressure from both inside and outside the country.

The Survey, 2015 also captures the strength of the two formal oversight institutions, the legislature and the supreme audit institution. The results indicate that legislatures of only 36 countries have adequate strength to execute their responsibilities. In the remaining 66 countries, they do not.

This is because these legislatures are either not provided with enough time to review the budget proposal before it has to be passed or, like in 55 countries in the Survey, the legislatures lack the expertise to help them analyse budgets in quick-time. Worse still, in a majority of the 102 countries, after the budget is passed, legislative oversight can be easily skirted by various stratagems of the executive branch.

Apparently, as many as 43 countries, supreme audit institutions tasked to audit government revenues and expenditure are unable to perform their functions adequately due to lack of resources. What is deplorable, however, is that in most countries, the quality assurance systems for supreme audit institution reports fail to exist or are deficient.

In short, we simply can’t rest assured that robust oversight procedures are in place and we needn’t bother personally. The degree to which opportunities for public participation in the budget process are present in different countries varies widely.

Among the countries surveyed in 2015, the average score for participation is an abysmal 25 out of 100. Only 19 out of 102 countries allow the public to testify in both of the two key hearings — one, on the macroeconomic framework of the budget and the second on the individual budgets of administrative units, such as health and education.

Financing the ambitious sustainable development goals which the United Nations will shortly adopt will not be easy. Most observers are sceptical about generating much required additional money from the private sector, through tax reforms, and through a crackdown on illicit financial flows and corruption. Woefully inadequate national budgets and aid would most likely remain the mainstay for implementing the SDGs.

Public finances can become more buoyant if the confidence of taxpayers and donors in the efficiency and effectiveness of government spending is raised. There’s overwhelming evidence from many countries that public participation in the national budget processes makes a difference.

We require governments to create spaces for public participation. Mutually reinforcing engagement of a wide range of actors can build the political will for them to do so. That’s why you and I must step in.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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