In 2009 Centar za zastupanje građanskih interesa (CPI Foundation) conducted a survey on budget literacy in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The results were alarming: 95 percent of the respondents had little or no knowledge of how the government was spending public money.
Given the complexities of budgeting in the country, it is unsurprising that public would struggle with keeping informed. There are 14 separate central government budgets, each controlled by a different parliament and a different ministry of finance. A collective Euro 4.72 billion (9.28 billion KM) is spent through these budgets each year, but public money is rarely discussed in terms of the total amount available to the state.
For the CPI Foundation, which works to publish budget data and analysis that is accessible to citizens and relevent to their needs, addressing the low levels of budget literacy in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been an urgent challenge. We needed to divise a way to focus people’s attention on the importance of budgets that was simple and accessible to those with little knowledge of public finance.
Counting Public Spending…in Public
To capture the public’s attention, and underline the importance of budgets, we decided to install a digital counter displaying how much public money the government is spending. Located on a busy street at the heart of the capital Sarajevo, the counter gives a second-by-second update of expenditure across all central budgets in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The counter doesn’t display budget information in real-time, but rather total annual expenditure averaged for each second of the year. Its effect, however, has been powerful. In the time it takes a passer by to complete their shopping, hundreds of thousands of Euro are shown to have passed through government coffers. Many are surprised at the scale of public spending; when interviewed by the media organization Balkan Insight, a street vendor pointed to the counter and shouted “Look at this! They spend almost a million KM [Euro 500 thousand] an hour!”
Bosnian media now uses the counter as a backdrop to all their stories related to public finance and it is frequently featured on national primetime news. Crucially, the counter serves as a constant reminder of the importance of public finance issues and helps to position the CPI foundations as a go to source for information on budgets.
Making the Most of the Counter
Getting the project off the ground wasn’t easy. It took us over a year to obtain the urban planning permissions necesary for us to install the counter in the public square. The display itself had to be tailor made by local electronic companies and must to be recalibrated each year using publicly available data from the government and international financial institutions.
Yet the effort has paid off. The counter continually provides opportunities for us to engage the wider public on budget issues. For example, in April this year we issued a press release saying “From the beginning of the year the counter has already enumerated 3 billion [KM], how much have you, as a citizen, benefited from that?” Simililarly, at the start of each year we issue a press release with the photo of the counter along with commentary on public spending in the country during the year.
An Entry Point to Learning More About Budgets
While it is important people understand what resources are available to the government, total spending only tells part of the country’s budget story. Yet by keeping the information on display simple and easy for everyone can understand, the counter has been the perfect entry point for people to learn more.
CPI Foundation is the only organization in Bosnia and Herzegovina that provides the public with access to the budgetary and extra budgetary information across different levels of government. Our research and analysis is relevent to the lives of everyone living in the country. By grabbing people’s attention and using the media in strategic ways, we have sparked conversations that go far beyond simple expenditure. We have also shown government decision makers that civil society and the public are interested in budgets and care about how public money is spent.