Towards the end of December, budgetary reappropriations, ie moving budgets from underspent heads to other account heads, will take place. Although there are some elementary efforts to include citizens in the budget-making process in Pakistan, there is no such avenue available when it comes to budget re-appropriations.
Globally, avenues for citizens’ empowerment and listening to their voice in policymaking are being explored and implemented with reasonable success. However, public participation in more technical areas like budget-making, ensuring transparency in the process and more importantly holding governments accountable, is a nascent exercise.
Despite some preliminary efforts, the concept of public participation in budget-making has not taken root in Pakistan as subsequent governments have disenfranchised people from using this right of participation. Referring to the Open Budget Survey 2015, Pakistan scored a poor 10 points out of 100 on public participation in the budget process. Pakistan’s score is the lowest in South Asia.
Budgets should have more input from citizens.
The governments of KP and Punjab have started developing ‘citizens’ budgets’ aimed at providing citizens, civil society and parliamentarians with non-technical and easy-to-grasp information about budgets. Despite being a first step towards enabling public participation, one may wonder about the benefits of going through these documents.
Questions like ‘what’s in it for me?’, ‘would knowing the budgetary allocations do me any good?’ etc are not unheard of when citizens debate these documents. Merely providing comprehensible data will not suffice unless citizens are provided avenues for participation in the process. It would be relevant to see how various countries are providing opportunities to their citizens for participating during the budget cycle.
A number of countries have started realising the potential of participatory budgeting (the process of providing a chance to the community to prioritise the spending of public budgets) and now allow for citizens’ input. Apart from developed countries, some developing countries also encourage citizens.
Mexico has a federal law of budget and fiscal responsibility which, among other provisions, calls for promoting mechanisms for citizen participation in tracking public expenditure and publishing budget information which is transparent and accessible to the public. It also seeks promotion of participation of beneficiary communities in the planning, implementation, control, monitoring and evaluation of projects to be undertaken.
In South Africa, a planning commission comprising government and non-government representatives was established to set long-term priorities until 2030. These priorities feed into short-term plans and budgets. In South Korea, the process of public participation and seeking input on wasteful spending and budget misappropriations has resulted in revenue increases of around $11bn and expenditure savings of around $2bn.
In Kenya, the constitution and statutory laws allow for participation of citizens and civil society during the budget formulation and approval process. The Philippines has adopted a mixed approach to public participation by introducing the grass-roots participatory budgeting concept through which poverty reduction action teams are created comprising an equal number of government and non-government representatives, and consultations with CSOs.
There are also a number of examples where local governments are promoting public participation in the budget process. In Porto Alegre, Brazil, since 1989, citizens can voluntarily contribute to budgetary decision-making and their decisions have a strong impact on the spending of municipal budgets. In La Plata, Argentina, since 2008, the engagement of citizens in the allocation of city budgets is ensured through face-to-face deliberations and some innovative channels. In Rosario, Argentina, since 2002, over 4,000 residents discuss the city’s budget-spending ideas at neighbourhood assemblies.
The potential for citizens’ participation during the complete budget cycle is thus being acknowledged across the globe with an aim to promote transparency and accountability during the process and ensure the best value for money. In Pakistan, public participation during the budget cycle has a long way to go. Despite some initiatives to provide easy public access to information, citizens do not have any incentive to participate in the budget process. Neither does their input have any impact on the government’s budgetary decisions, nor are there mechanisms to hold governments accountable for its priorities.
It is time the federal and provincial governments took steps to ensure citizens’ involvement in the budget process, not only at the planning level but also when it comes to monitoring the implementation of these documents. This can be ensured by establishing reliable mechanisms like public hearings, social audits, surveys and focus groups where public perspectives on budget matters are heard and concerns duly entertained.
The writer is a research fellow at the Institute of Social and Policy Sciences, Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, December 9th, 2015