Impressions from Parliament

This week South Africans got a glimpse into the state of South Africa’s finances and how it will affect their pocket when Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba delivered his budget speech in Parliament. Some have since labelled the budget as a “betrayal” and an “insult” to the poor. This backlash raises interesting questions on the level of public input in the budget. Very few ordinary South Africans get proper insight into the budgetary process or meaningfully participate in what is often a very complex process. This was highlighted recently in the Open Budget Survey 2017 showing South Africa may lead on budget transparency but disappoints in fostering public participation in the budget process.

The Open Budget Survey (OBS) is the only independent and global cross-country measure of national budget transparency. In the OBS 2017, 115 countries were assessed, up from the 109 countries that participated in 2015.

Efficient, effective and accountable public budgets depend upon transparency, public participation and budget oversight. South Africa scored 89 out of 100 for budget transparency, 24 out of 100 for public participation and 85 out of 100 for budget oversight during OBS 2017.

Given public protests around inadequate funding of tertiary education; and growing concerns that considerable public resources in South Africa are being used for improper private gain, the latest OBS results strongly suggest that far greater effort is needed to enable the public to participate in decisions informing budget allocations. We also need to create effective mechanisms to better track spending of public budgets. Responsibility for improving public participation rests of course upon a range of parties, including the executive, elected members of Parliament, the Auditor-General, public servants, civil society and the public more broadly.

While South Africa’s OBS score for budget transparency is impressive, the survey does not assess the user friendliness of budget documents produced by the Finance Ministry and National Treasury. Thankfully these organs of state appreciate that the material that they produce is not being used as extensively and effectively as it could be by the public. National Treasury has therefore committed to taking various steps to support improved public participation in budget processes. One such commitment is to develop, in collaboration with civil society, an online budget portal, recently named Vulekamali, which will provide budget data in more accessible formats.

Vulekamali will also support Parliament’s oversight role, where historically, many of South Africa’s parliamentary committees have displayed a superficial understanding of budget documents and how they can be used to better hold duty bearers accountable.

The OBS 2017 recommends that South Africa needs to improve in the following ways:

  • Holding parliamentary hearings on the formulation of the annual budget where the public can testify;
  • Providing more information on revenues and macroeconomic forecasts;
  • Providing mechanisms to exchange views during the monitoring of budget implementation;
  • Establishing formal mechanisms for the public to assist the Auditor-General in formulating its audit program and in participation in relevant audit investigations.

To improve accountability for budget implementation and monitoring by civil society, future Open Budget Survey’s should include additional questions that determine the extent to which governments provide budget information at facility and geospatial levels. If the Vulekamali portal can provide this kind of detailed budget information (much of which is already produced by government but not made publicly available) it will enable more efficient, effective and accountable delivery of public services.

*Jay Kruuse is director of the Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM).

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Funding of shelters for abused women is still uncertain post-budget


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