What should citizen participation in the budget process look like?

The IBP and the civil society budget movement has been advocating for budget transparency since time began. But of course budget transparency has little or no democratic value if it is not accompanied by meaningful citizen participation in the budget process. Just as most countries think that they are democracies, most countries also think that their budget process is participative. And of course this is not true.

So what are the requirements for meaningful participation in the government budget process? I brainstorm a few ideas below, but it would be great to hear what you think.

You will also notice that some of the ideas below are specific to participation in the budget process while others speak to participation in governance more broadly.  Government budget decisions display a series of distinctive features that need to be reflected in the way in which participation in it happens. The budget process is time-bound, ongoing etc.

 Here is what I think participation in the budget process should look like:

  1. It should be comprehensive. Only allowing participation in the capital budget or some other small corner of the budget is not good enough. All government funds are public resources and should therefore be decided on through participative processes. That is just what democracy is.
  2. There should be participation in every phase of the budget process. Influencing allocations without being able to monitor how those allocations are spent is of little value. Or excluding participation in the fiscal and macro-economic frameworks that determine the size of the purse, can limit participation in allocation and spending processes severely.
  3. It should be accompanied by the timely release of information about the proposed government budget choice or activity as well as the information on which it is based. If citizens don’t know what government wants to do and why, they can’t participate meaningfully.
  4. It should happen before government has made the decision or performed the action.
  5. Government should be obliged to proactively facilitate participation. Simply sticking an invitation for written submission in the government gazette is not good enough.
  6. Government should be required to explain how it responded to the decisions and recommendations that emerged from participation and why. Government should not be allowed to smile politely and ignore these.
  7. There should be a mechanism of redress. When you feel that justice has been denied in court, you can appeal. If you feel that the process of participation has been disrespected or ignored, you should likewise be able to seek redress.

 Here are three harder questions that I have been wondering about:

  1. What about the legislature? Most legislatures are ineffective vehicles of participation in the budget process. Many citizens groups have lost patience with legislatures and are trying to influence the executive directly. But elected representatives and legislatures are still one of the primary avenues of democracy. How should citizens and citizens organizations respond to this challenge? Should we give up on legislatures and participate as best we can by other avenues? Or should we assist and put pressure on legislatures to perform their proper legislative and oversight roles with regard to the budget process? Or both?
  2. And what if we disagree with the legislature? What if the legislature starts voting large salaries and slush funds for itself like the Kenyan and other legislatures? What if citizens and legislatures don’t want the same things with regard to the budget? How to handle this clash of parallel mechanisms of participation?
  3. Who should participate? Trevor Manuel once referred to South African CSOs as one man and a fax machine. Clearly there is something wrong with the disproportionate access to power and participation that the intellectual and economic elite has. Engagement with Chambers of Commerce, five small donor funded CSOs and a few church groups can’t be taken as the sum total of participation in the budget process. BUT: Governments normally use the discussion about CSO representivity to exclude voices and limit budget participation. Not a good thing to my mind. So how should we balance the need for inclusiveness with the obvious imperative of representivity?

 What do you think? What does meaningful citizen participation in the budget process look like?

About this insight
Related topics & Initiatives
Related Countries & Regions