This month, Kenya released its first ever Citizens Budget. The Citizens Budget is a summary of the budget using non-technical language. According to international good practice, it is considered to be one of the eight key budget documents that governments should release throughout the fiscal year. Kenya’s version, Budget Highlights 2011-2012: Citizen’s Guide, is a 6-page document that is easy to read and filled with data, charts and short summaries of spending priorities.
The government is to be congratulated for taking this important step in making the budget accessible to a wider audience. The standards for what a Citizens Budget should include are evolving rapidly, and Kenya’s efforts will contribute to global debate about what a Citizens Budget is, and what it should be. In this first effort, the Kenyan government gets a number of things right. There are, however, also places where a subsequent version could be improved.
On the positive side of the ledger, the document contains useful pie charts breaking down revenue sources, a simple table on macroeconomic indicators projected through 2013-14, and an extremely helpful bubble diagram (p. 5) that provides both visual and raw numerical information about spending priorities. The document also focuses directly on some of the key concerns of citizens, and the ways in which government is trying to address these issues: food insecurity, youth unemployment, social protection, and infrastructure investment for faster economic growth.
Where could the document be strengthened? The Citizen’s Guide is full of numbers, but they are not well contextualized. For example, when confronted with a bullet point indicating that, say, “KSh 13.3 bn for social safety net” is going to be spent, we will immediately ask the following questions: how does this compare to last year, how many people is it intended to serve, and what exactly is the social safety net? But we will not find answers to these questions here, nor any direction about where to look for them. There are of course limits to what can appear in a short document, but there may be value in having fewer numbers with more context, and a few more pages of text.
It is also the case that the numbers are sometimes more confusing than revealing: according to page 4, KSh 23.1 bn is being spent on labour-intensive public works programmes targeted at youth and defined as “pro-poor spending”; but on page 1, only KSh 1.6 billion in total is going for “labour intensive public works programmes,” plus skills development and internships, with no explicit youth or pro-poor focus. How is it possible that the pro-poor, pro-youth component of 1.6 billion is equal to 23.1 billion? There may be a good explanation for this, but it is not in the document.
A Citizen’s Guide need not answer every question a citizen has about the budget; it should provide enough information to help citizens ask good questions and find what they need in the actual budget or budget-related documentation. To this end, the document could also be clearer in other ways. For example, the first page reports on spending by sectors, but these sectors are not necessarily recognizable to ordinary citizens. A person looking for health or education spending has to know to look at page 5 and follow the connecting lines in the bubble map to find out that these things fall under Human Resources Development. The document should instead invite citizens who are looking for information about health or education to easily determine in which sector they fall.
Finally, one of the hardest things for governments to do is to convey the fact that they have limited resources, and therefore have to make hard choices about what to fund this year, and what will have to wait. The Citizen’s Guide would be one place to make the case that government has deliberated these trade-offs carefully, and to present its justifications for its decisions. To this end, the next version of Kenya’s Citizen’s Guide could start with a narrative explaining the government’s key priorities –given the macroeconomic context– and highlight changes over time. This would ease the layperson into a document that currently starts with no narrative and a barrage of figures.
Much of what should be in a Citizens Budget is in Kenya’s maiden attempt. The Ministry of Finance must also be recognized for its efforts to put out more information in this transitional year, as the government struggles to adapt to a shifting budget process prescribed by the new constitution. Next year’s Citizen’s Guide will be even stronger if it contains more narrative, more context, and a better explanation of government plans to ensure full implementation of the budget.