DID you know that the national budget will be released in November and include possible changes to tax rates and public investment from January 1, 2013? Do you know what the national budget means to you?
The budget and how public money is spent are important topics for all citizens. By understanding how the national budget works you can understand why, for example, you might pay more or less income tax on January 1, or why some bus routes have lovely new buses and why the potholes on one road are being fixed but not on others.
Why the budget process is important to you
Fiji's national budget includes decisions on a wide range of issues, including education, health care and taxes, that significantly affect people's lives.
The national budget also shows how money is spent on the government's priority areas, for example, the 2012 National Budget focuses on the government's three key objectives - empowering Fijians, modernising the nation, and strengthening the economy.
Another important aspect of the national budget is that it states where the government earns its revenue, such as through income and company taxes, VAT and fees.
Fiji's national annual budget is usually announced in November - it must be made on or before November 30 according to the Financial Management Act 2004. The announcement can sometimes be met with much apprehension as citizens, taxpayers, business operators and overseas investors wonder what the government priorities will be in the following year. Will my son's school be offering Form 7 classes next year? Is the planned upgrade of my local hospital going to happen? Is money going to be spent on upgrading Queens Road? What will the budget mean for my business? The national budget strongly affects all of us, but it's sometimes hard to get interested or involved. The government has made efforts to encourage greater participation by citizens in the budget process. But how many of you can raise your hand and say "I helped to build my country's budget" or "With my community, I was able to make sure that funding for a new primary school in our village is included in the 2013 national budget"?
Once the budget is developed and announced it's then critical that citizens can question how the government actually spent public money throughout the year. For example, it may be a good start if the new primary school is built in your village, but is there ongoing funding so that the school has a qualified teacher? If the new school building remains unused, you are allowed to ask your government why this is the case.
To be able to participate in the budget process you need information on how the budget is developed and implemented. To do this you need key budget documents, prepared by the Ministry of Finance. Sometimes these aren't available. To hold the government accountable for public money, government processes and documents need to be accessible and transparent. Government transparency means that:
* government decision making follows rules and regulations, is fair and open
* information on rules, plans, processes, policies, decisions and actions is available and accessible to those who will be affected
*enough information is provided, is accessible and is easily understood
There are a number of key documents that the Open Budget Initiative (an international research and advocacy programme) outline that citizens need to be fully involved in the budget process, which includes holding the government answerable for money spent. Let's look at two critical documents that should be made available immediately.
Draft Budget Estimate - or Executive Budget Proposal (EBP)
One of the first documents developed by the Ministry of Finance is the Draft Budget Estimate. It includes the policies and priorities of the next budget year. This document is not currently published or made available to citizens, which limits the ability of citizens, civil society organisations (CSOs) and the private sector to have any input in the initial planning of the budget.
To ensure transparency of the budget process the Draft Budget Estimate should be published immediately.
"Best practice" requires that a body that is independent from the government issues an annual Audit Report covering all government activities. In Fiji, the Auditor General has an obligation, under the State Services Decree 2009, to inspect, audit and report on the use of public money, but the Auditor General's reports on the use of public money have been unavailable since 2005. The Office of the Auditor General has been producing audit reports internally but has stated that the "audit reports will not be made public until parliament reconvenes and tables the reports" (reported in the last newsletter of Bulago, volume 3 - issue 3, July 2008).
To allow for greater citizen participation in the budget process the Auditor General's reports on the use of government money should be published immediately.
Interested in your national budget?
If you are interested in how public money is spent, talk to government representatives and offices in your province or division. Ask them what budget information is available. If the information isn't available in a language you know well, ask them why. Generally, Fiji's budget documents are only released in English. Neighbouring Pacific Island countries release official budget information in a number of local languages, for example Vanuatu releases its budget policy statements in English, Bislama and French. Ask your government representative for budget information in the language that you know best.
* This article is the first in a series on budget transparency. Information on other budget documents and action you can take to ensure budget transparency will be provided in the next article. The third article will examine how public money is budgeted and spent on youth-related matters. For further details, contact Albert Cerelala, FSPI, email@example.com.