Decentralized Budget Transparency?

Feb 16, 2017 | Budget Transparency | 2 comments

By <a href="" target="_blank">Carlene van de Westhuizen and Albert van Zyl, International Budget Partnership South Africa</a>
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In a recent paper, IBP’s Paolo de Renzio and Massimo Mastruzzi of the Work Bank confirmed that there is a great demand from civil society organizations (CSOs) across the developing world for better and more organized budget data. De Renzio and Mastruzzi also concluded that ample opportunities exist for governments to publish such data and facilitate its uptake by CSOs. Some of the specific suggestions from CSOs on how governments should go about this include making more budget information available at lower levels of government, as well as at the facility level. One of the questions that the paper left us with was who in government could respond to this demand. There is a tendency to assume that budget information is centralized and can be provided by the national Ministry of Finance. Some exploratory work done by IBP South Africa suggests that sources of budget information — specifically the information needed by CSOs for analyzing budgets and monitoring implementation on the ground — can be more decentralized than one might expect. Our investigation also suggests the need for CSOs to employ more refined tactics for accessing the information that they need.

funding basic education in south africa
Credit: Flickr / DFID

CSOs in South Africa confirmed de Renzio and Mastruzzi’s findings and have expressed a similar need for disaggregated budget data to be able to, for example, monitor the budgeting for and expenditure on the delivery of such services as basic education. But in South Africa’s quasi-federal system, CSOs have in many cases struggled to find out whether the data they need is being produced or published, in which format, and by whom. Through conversations with these CSOs, IBP South Africa collected a range of education-related budget information requests. The requests included a breakdown of transfers to individual schools; the budgets for and actual spending on educators and other personnel by individual school; and budgets for and actual spending on school infrastructure by project or school.

Following this IBP South Africa commissioned Cornerstone Economic Research to assess the availability of the disaggregated budget data identified by the CSOs. The resulting report responds to the specific information requests, indicating where information can be found (in cases in which it is publicly available) or who in government is likely to be able to provide the information. In South Africa the provision of basic education is mostly a provincial (subnational) responsibility, but provincial finances are overseen by national government so one would expect such information to be available nationally. Cornerstone found, however, that in the majority of cases the information needed by CSOs is both produced and held by provincial education departments.

The report raises interesting questions around with whom CSOs should engage when advocating for more detailed and relevant budget data. A central finance ministry — which in many countries is the government department responsible for maintaining a central budget data repository — may be able to provide more detailed budget data for national departments, but might not be best placed to enable access to more detailed subnational budget data.

The report’s findings also indicate that there may be more access points to budget information than we often assume. In addition to national departments, provincial and local governments often hold essential data that may not be easily accessible from national governments. Data at subnational level, however, can be fragmented, as departments from different provinces or local governments may collect data in different formats or at different levels of detail. This lack of standard approaches to data collection make it much harder to compare data on the same sector or issue across subnational governments. Subnational governments typically also have less capacity, which impacts on the quality of the data they collect.

Recent shifts in the South African political landscape have had an important bearing on this issue as well. Over the last few elections, minority political parties have claimed an ever larger piece of the electoral pie, resulting in one provincial government and many local governments being under the control of minority parties. In other cases, the need to form coalitions and wins by only slim majorities have made the majority ANC less secure than before. These developments have multiplied the openings that CSOs can use to access budget information. Where a national government department may be closed to such requests, an opposition- or coalition-controlled subnational government is sometimes more cooperative.

Further Reading


  1. Charlie Martial Ngounou

    I agree that we need to be strategic enough to search and find easier ways of collecting budgets reports and data. In Cameroon, with the various constraints in the collection of these data, we just noticed that there is an unexplored opportunity so far, and yet an impressive one that we could use. It is worth noticing that local governments are very reluctant to provide budget reports, not to speak of disaggregated data. So at AfroLeadership, we are increasingly getting in touch with Divisional Officers, the supervisory authorities of local governments, who are in charge of approving budget voted at the start of the year, as well as budget reports at the end of fiscal year. They can summon local governments to deposit not only budget reports at their desk, but probably also disaggregated data. So we hope this new net will improve our data collection capacity. AfroLeadership, CSO.

  2. Albert van Zyl

    That is fascinating Charlie! So the decentralization of budget transparency goes even further than local governments down into the bureaucracy. Nice work. Albert


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