Matter for us all

Working on a personal budget, according to the article, requires time and patience, which is not too bad for most of us. What about a national budget? Many might say that's definitely not for all of us. However, the article says different. Picture: FILE

Working on a personal budget, according to the article, requires time and patience, which is not too bad for most of us. What about a national budget? Many might say that's definitely not for all of us. However, the article says different. Picture: FILE

FIGURING out a personal budget requires time and patience. One has to allocate according to things one prioritises, account for any sudden emergencies and have enough left over to pay for debts.

Now imagine that on a national level. Budget talk can sometimes get technical and those intimidated by this information often adopt a cavalier attitude; leave it to the experts, to the economists, the policy makers and to people who deal with money, why does it have to concern me or you?

It does when you really think about it, if you want to alleviate or end poverty, you need to care about national budgets. Think about taxes and development and then think about how budgets are measured for their effectiveness.

Open Budget Index

This brings us to the Open Budget Index which is the world’s only independent, comparative measure of central government budget transparency.

The index assigns countries covered by the Open Budget Survey, a transparency score on a 100-point scale using a subset of questions that assess the amount and timeliness of budget information that governments make publicly available in eight key budget documents in accordance with international good practice standards.

The eight key budget documents are; the pre-budget statement, executive budget proposal, in-year report, mid-year review, audit report, citizens’ budget, year-end report and lastly the enacted budget.

Each country is then given a score between 0 and 100 that determines its ranking.

A senior research fellow at the Open Budget Initiative, Paolo de Renzo, wrote: “Public budgets are the blueprints for how the government will raise and spend public funds needed for policies and programs that will translate its priorities into action. They are the government’s most powerful tool to meet the needs and priorities of a country and its people.”1

Fiji represents a complex case of changing transparency practices, where an increased overall Open Budget Index score is in tension with declining transparency and oversight in specific areas.

Since first starting to participate in the Open Budget Survey (OBS) in 2008, Fiji has made progress in its overall score on the Open Budget Index, although its history of publishing key budget documents has been irregular.

In 2016, Fiji published the executive budget proposal online for the first time. Publishing this key budget document largely explains the increase in Fiji’s score on the Open Budget Index from 15 in 2015 to 41 in 2017.

The Citizens’ Constitutional Forum (CCF) has been involved in the survey working with the International Budget Partnership (IBP). The survey measures three components of the budget process which are budget transparency, budget participation and budget oversight.

The survey is done every two years and uses internationally accepted criteria developed by multilateral organisations from sources such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the International Organisation of Supreme Audit Institutions (INTOSAI) and the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency (GIFT). The survey uses documented evidence to measure the extent to which governments publicise eight key budget documents set by international standards for budget transparency.

It is positive to note that the online publishing of the executive budget proposal, commonly known as the budget estimates in Fiji, is part of the country’s commitment to transparency and accessibility of budget information.

The government publishes additional supporting documents to the Executive Budget Proposal on new and continuing programs on the Ministry of Economy’s website.

After the close of the data collection period for the recent round of the OBS, the progressive step taken by the Auditor-General’s office was the publishing of the Audit Report online, including three reports from previous years. After the survey period as well, Fiji produced the Citizens’ Budget in the form of Budget Highlights with allocations for various ministries.

Transparency alone is inadequate for improving governance.

Public participation in budget processes is vital to understanding the positive outcomes associated with greater budget transparency. The questions that evaluated participation in the OBS 2017 were reviewed to align them with the GIFT’s new principles on public participation, which now serves as the basis for widely accepted norms on public participation in national budget processes.

Fiji scored 15/100 in public participation, moving up five points from the 2015 survey round. This is an indication that Fiji provides limited opportunities for the public to engage in the budget process. Fiji can improve on participation in its budget process through piloting mechanisms for members of the public and government officials to exchange views on national budget matters during the monitoring of the implementation of the budget.

The onus is also on citizens and communities to get informed and make the effort to attend the national budget consultations. Active citizenry means making budget submissions to the 2018-2019 National Budget. Therefore, it is important for all Fijians to participate in the national budget consultations organised by the Ministry of Economy.

The third component of the Open Budget Survey is budget oversight which examines the role that legislators, supreme audit institutions and independent fiscal institutions play in the budget process and the extent to which they are able to provide effective oversight of the budget.

Fiji scored 15/100 in the latest survey and this reflects that the legislature provides weak oversight during the planning stage of the budget cycle and no oversight during the implementation stage of the budget cycle. The main barriers to effective legislative oversight are that a pre-budget debate by the legislature does not take place. Legislative committees do not examine and publish reports on their analyses of the executive budget proposal online.

To make budget oversight more effective in Fiji, it should be ensured that legislative committees examine and publish reports on their analysis of the executive budget proposal online. In practice, the legislature should be consulted before funds are shifted between administrative units away from what is specified in the enacted budget during the budget year, the spending of any unanticipated revenue and reducing spending due to revenue shortfalls.

The 2017 Open Budget Survey findings released in 115 countries across the world early this year reveals that 89 countries failed to provide sufficient information to the public about the budget.2 This information covers the choices governments are making in terms of prioritising spending on areas of development, whether they are actually spending what they committed to spend in their approved budgets and whether any funds have been mismanaged.

1 Why are open budgets important? — www.publishwhatyoufund.org/why-are-open-budgets-important/

2 www.internationalbudget.org

* The views expressed are not of this newspaper.

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