Efforts to influence government budget policies and practices can be a powerful way to address social and development issues like poverty or inequality. Effective budget advocacy draws on a variety of skills, tools, and tactics to gather the appropriate evidence to support your position, identify or design options for policies that can address the problem at hand, develop and deliver a compelling message, and build support and participation. Although budget advocacy uses many of the same skills, tools, and tactics as other types of advocacy, it also requires some that are unique to efforts to influence public budgets. Civil society organizations (CSOs) that seek to engage in budget advocacy will need to either have these skills within the organization, develop them, or form a coalition with a group that has them. The following is not an exhaustive list, and most advocates will pick and choose from these based on their particular objectives and the context in which they are operating.
Skills and Tools
General Advocacy: In all advocacy efforts, the ability to assess the policy and political environment is critical to crafting an effective strategy. If advocates are able to evaluate existing policies and laws that pertain to their issue, they will be able to develop more sound proposals and stronger arguments for them. Advocates also need the ability to assess their campaign’s progress and make changes as necessary.
Budget Advocacy: In addition to general analytical skills, budget advocates need to have, or have access to, the ability to analyze budget data, to increase their chances of influencing budget policies and outcomes. To develop and execute an advocacy strategy that makes maximum use of the evidence generated by their budget analysis, advocates also need to understand their country’s budget process. They need a general sense of how the budget addresses the needs and priorities of the country (i.e., what is funded through the budget, what the options are for generating resources, constraints in what can be done in the budget, etc.), and a grasp on formal and informal conventions (i.e., what the rules are for making decisions on the budget). They also need to know the laws and procedures the country has established for accessing budget information, and the scope of the information that the government produces and makes available to the public.
In far too many countries, the government does not provide access to the information that advocates need to identify the factors behind the problems they want to address, craft thoughtful policy solutions, and generate evidence to support their positions. In many such cases, CSOs have been able to generate useful evidence by monitoring what the government is currently doing with funds that have been budgeted for different purposes. For example, through the Ask Your Government! initiative 100 CSOs launched an ambitious effort to document public access to budget information in 80 countries. The core question behind the effort was: What happens when citizens ask their government for specific budget information relating to key international development commitments to which the government is a signatory? Citizens used official channels to request information from government agencies. Many went to great lengths to insist that governments make the required information available, often visiting ministry offices on multiple occasions.
Another example is the work of the Civil Society Coalition for Quality Basic Education (CSCQBE) in Malawi that wanted to know why increased budget allocations were not leading to higher quality education. Suspecting that funds were being siphoned off by corrupt officials, the CSCQBE used tracking surveys to provide independent data on the use of education funds, which civil society could use to advocate for greater and more effective education funding.
Tool for Budget Analysis: The Open Budget Survey
The Open Budget Survey (OBS) is a particularly useful advocacy tool for CSOs who seek to influence budget practices, processes, and institutions in their countries, particularly in those with closed, opaque, and unaccountable public finance systems. The findings of the OBS can support arguments for making budget information publicly available and accessible, including meaningful opportunities for public participation in budget processes, and strengthening the roles and capacities of the legislature and supreme audit institution.
General Advocacy: All advocates need the ability to get their messages across to their target audiences effectively. Because most advocacy initiatives will target various audiences, with very different interests and needs. At any point they may need to speak to a journalist, write a letter to the editor, deliver a speech at a rally, or meet with a group of legislators. Thus advocates need to be able to adjust how they present their message so that it reinforces, or at least acknowledges, these different interests and is compelling to these different audiences. An essential part of this is to know how much detail to include, or to leave out, with any given listener or audience.
Budget Advocacy: The way that advocates engage their audiences over budget issues is different from how they might engage them over other issues. Budget politics is the terrain of information, evidence, and discussions about limits, trade-offs, and impacts. Budget advocates need to be able to speak in these terms and not shy away from aspects that are either politically difficult or technically complicated. Budget advocates need to support their arguments with sound evidence, gathered from thoughtful analysis of budget information, and they need to be able to present this complex, technical information in accessible and compelling language.
For example, when explaining the need to tie the level of a child support grant to the annual rate of inflation, you could say, “The cumulative X percent change in the consumer price index over the past five years means that inflation has eroded the value of the grant to $XX in real terms.” However, it probably would be more effective to say something like, “When the grant level was set five years ago, it was enough to pay for annual school fees and the heating bill for the year. With the increase in prices since then, the grant now only covers the school fees. Are we asking families to make choices between staying warm and buying food or medicines?”
Because of the inherent aspect of trade-offs in budget work, it is also important to be able to speak in a language of policy options and alternatives. Policymakers have many choices to make in crafting a budget, and effective budget advocacy involves laying out a variety of such options and making clear the implications of each. “If we increase kindergarten spending by 5 percent we will cut the number of children left out from 1 million to 900,000. If we raise it by 10 percent we can add 200,000 students to those classes.”
General Advocacy: Advocacy at its heart is about interacting with others, either to persuade them to act or to collaborate with them on a shared goal. It can involve conversation, confrontation, and compromise, so advocates need to be able to listen to others, establish effective communication channels, understand others’ positions, and navigate conflicting agendas or approaches.
Budget Advocacy: The need to collaborate is especially true of budget advocacy, because groups with the technical/analytical public finance skills often lack strong advocacy skills—and vice versa for issue-based advocates. In addition, efforts to influence budgets often require including allies from government ministries, the legislature, or the country’s audit institutions, whose interests may lie more in questions of governance than in a particular issue like child nutrition. The different interests in and approaches to engaging in policy processes of these groups and individuals makes collaboration skills a key ingredient for developing strategies and working together to achieve their common objectives. In addition, in budget advocacy different groups with shared values and shared constituencies often find themselves pitted against one another, in an effort to preserve or expand their piece of a limited or even shrinking resource pie. This makes collaboration on efforts to expand public revenues all the more important.
Building a Constituency
General Advocacy: All advocacy initiatives need to build constituencies to have a chance of achieving their objective. A campaign needs both general support for its position and active participation from key organizations and stakeholders. These potential allies can include other CSOs, policymakers, individuals from affected populations or communities, and journalists.
Budget Advocacy: Budget advocacy often has a greater need for active campaign partners (see Collaboration Skills above) and a greater challenge in building support for its objectives. The additional challenge comes from the fact that this type of advocacy seeks to influence public budgets, something that may not automatically inspire passion from many potential coalition partners—or the general public—and something that may be unfamiliar and intimidating, as well. As part of their constituency-building efforts, budget advocates must clearly link their budget policy proposals to the issues the impact people’s lives in direct and personal ways: access to education, basic services, health care, etc. Budget advocates need to create a new level of understanding and comfort among their allies with the budget and its processes.
Because of the roles they play in budget formulation and oversight, key potential allies in budget advocacy initiatives include supportive legislators, especially those serving on budget committees, and staff from the country’s supreme audit institution (sometimes referred to as the Auditor General, or National Audit Office).
Generating Media Coverage
General Advocacy: Engaging the media is a key tactic for advocates to spread their messages to a wide audience and to place pressure on decision makers to act. While rallies and other forms of public meetings allow advocates to control the message, and often get immediate feedback, an article in a widely read newspaper or a segment on a popular radio news program about their issue has the potential to reach a far wider audience. And, because it is being delivered through the filter of the media, often carries more weight (especially with decision makers) than direct campaign communications.
Budget Advocacy: The primary challenge for budget advocacy, especially in countries with less experienced, less resourced media, can be to build the capacity and willingness of journalists to cover budget issues. This can require CSOs engaging in budget advocacy to conduct budget trainings for journalists, be available as a resource on public finance issues, and convey the importance (i.e., “newsworthiness”) of covering the budget. It is important to draw on “new media” outlets as well as traditional media. These can include widely read blogs, social networks like Facebook, and online tools like Twitter.
General Advocacy: Actively engaging legislators, members of the executive, and other decision makers to influence policy decisions, such as establishing a new program, passing a new regulation, or revoking an existing provision, is a commonly used advocacy tactic. It can encompass individual meetings with decision makers, participation on committees to draft proposed legislation, testifying at legislative hearings, and submitting written testimony on proposed policies.
Budget Advocacy: Advocates seeking to influence public budgets also use various lobbying techniques to persuade the executive and legislature at various stages of the budget process. Lobbying in budget advocacy typically involves using evidence from budget analysis to convince decision makers, including submitting written testimony, raising questions about budget assumptions and proposals, and making recommendations. Advocates lobbying to pass or revoke a particular law can generally focus their arguments on the benefits of making the change or the consequences of not doing so. For example, an advocate for childhood immunization might argue, “paying for immunizing children not only improves the health of the child but also can help us avoid the much larger and long-term costs of widespread outbreaks of easily avoidable diseases.”
Budget advocates always need to take the additional step of integrating overarching issues into their arguments, such as how the proposal fits within the budget’s parameters; whether funds will come from new taxes or fees, or from cutting programs; and what impacts might these decisions have on the government’s policy priorities and the economy. Thus the advocate might say, “It would cost the state $XX to immunize every child under five, which is less than half of what we spent on treatment for measles last year. With this savings the government could hire XX health care workers for rural clinics, thus making progress toward its goal of improving access to care in remote areas.”
Civil Society Budget Analysis: Accurate, Accessible, and Timely Products
For applied budget analysis to be successful, it must be accurate and sound (and thereby credible), accessible, and timely.
CSOs must make sure that their budget analysis is sound, particularly to ensure the long-term credibility of the organization. Policymakers and the media are going to place greater weight on an organization’s work if they are confident it is accurate and reliable. It is possible for an NGO report that has newsworthy content to receive attention in the media even if the underlying work is not solid; but over time, future work will receive less attention if an organization’s papers and reports have been inaccurate.
The accessibility of the research is equally important to effective budget work. Groups cannot assume an audience. They often have to build this audience and show the value of budget work. The target audience will typically not be familiar with the details of the policy issue being analyzed, so it is imperative that the products be produced with the needs of this broader audience in mind. This requires that reports be written in clear language, with understandable terms. Jargon should be avoided. The presentation of information and data should be well structured and should follow a helpful format and include illuminating graphics.
The timeliness aspect of research includes both the ability to identify relevant research opportunities at the right point in time and the capacity to release the completed work when it can have the most impact on decision makers. An organization should always keep an eye on the policy process and be able to allocate resources to a specific issue when needed.
Read more about improving the effectiveness of your budget analysis in the IBP’s A Guide to Budget Work for NGOs