Decentralized Budget Transparency?

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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.

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


Carlene van der Westhuizen

Head Research, IBP South Africa, International Budget Parnership

Carlene van der Westhuizen joined the International Budget Partnership in May 2016 after working as a consultant for IBP since October 2014. Based in the Cape Town office, she works as the head of research for IBP’s Catalyst Program in South Africa.  From 2005 to 2013 she worked as a Senior Researcher at the Development Policy Research Unit, based at the University of Cape Town. She also previously worked as a Researcher at IDASA’s Budget Information Service and the Western Cape Trade and Investment Promotion Agency (Wesgro). She holds an MA in Economics from the University of Stellenbosch.

Albert van Zyl

Country Manager, South Africa , International Budget Parnership

Albert van Zyl is the International Budget Partnership’s (IBP) South Africa Country Manager. van Zyl joined IBP in 2005 from South Africa where he established and managed the macroeconomic analysis and budget offices in the Western Cape Treasury. Before that he worked at the Budget Information Service (BIS) at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa) and directed it from 2000-2002. Most recently he worked as IBP’s Director of Strategy and Learning. Van Zyl holds MA degrees in Politics, Philosophy, and Economy from the Universities of Stellenbosch and Bordeaux, France. He has been published on a range of public finance issues including CSO oversight of budgets, fiscal policy, social service finance, budget transparency, and subnational finance.

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