Participation in the Budget Process

ngos financial management Budgeting
Wednesday, 16 August, 2006 - 09:34

Losing Touch With Each Other?

A committed township advice office volunteer has recently landed a full time job at an NGO in the city.  She spends long hours in meetings at the office, reading important research reports, downloading documents off the internet to increase her knowledge so that she can improve her performance. Her priorities have shifted. This is not necessarily a negative thing.  She remains supportive of the advice office in principle but they only see her at the occasional fundraiser.

What are they doing to maintain her support and turn her into a resource?

A common cry from organisations representing community interests (herein referred to as civil society organisations or CSOs) is that South Africa’s Government has lost touch with the people. The subtext is that the ANC liberators have lost touch since they have become the Government.  This losing touch could be likened to the scenario of the former advice office volunteer.  What are CSOs doing to maintain the support of former community leaders who take on new priorities? How are CSOs using the Constitutional provisions and other mechanisms that promote participatory governance?

Campaigns and the Budget Process:

This week Participation Junction is hosting a workshop on understanding the budget cycle and budget votes as part of its Proactive on Participation  workshop series.  Very few organisations responded to the invitation to attend, suggesting that CSOs fail to see the connection between their campaigns and the Budget process.  Upon doing follow up, 23 participants confirmed attendance at a workshop that should have been over subscribed.  It is the only workshop of this nature offered in the country - once a year! Needless to say, those in attendance experienced a mind shift in how they see the Budget.

Every year Budget Hearings at Parliament draws very little interest from CSOs.  When national Government Departments report on expenditure and the meeting of delivery targets there is virtually no interest from organisations – very few attend the discussions, make submission to the relevant committee or request the documentation. The same applies at Provincial and Local government level.

Delayed Reaction:

The most significant CSO reaction to Government’s Budget takes place when organisations march to Parliament on National Budget Day.  It is then that they make demands relating to budget allocations.  Of course it is too late then since the budget has been determined, all the information printed and bound and the Minister of Finance’s speech already given to the media (albeit embargoed until his Parliamentary address).

Indeed the budget is a process with National Budget Day as one element of an ongoing cycle that can be seen as consisting of two phases:

The drafting phase (taking place over 12 - 18 months) and the legislative phase (taking three to four  months).

The following diagrams show the process as it unfolds:

The budget is informed by various consultations and plans drawn up at all spheres of government, making the process accessible to CSOs in many ways, from the IDP planning process up to the Budget Hearings at national Parliament.

Before it Leaves the Station...:

Usually CSO participation is hampered by a lack of information.  In the case of the budget, information is available at various stages but is only taken up by a few organisations.  Notwithstanding the fact that there are a couple of NGOs who do a sterling job of budget analysis or run economic literacy workshops, once more CSOs take an active interest in influencing budget they are likely to complain that the information is not user friendly.  Treasury will then be challenged to simplify documents for the use of lay people.

Understanding the Concepts:

The main documents associated with the Budget are tabled on Budget Day.  These are:

  • National Budget Speech;
  • Budget Review;
  • Estimates of National Expenditure;
  • Estimates of National Revenue;
  • People’s Guide to the Budget;
  • Division of Revenue Act (tabled later in Parliament).

In advocacy it is important to identify the roleplayers before deciding who to target with campaigns.  Involved in this cycle are:

  • Treasury and the Reserve Bank who compile the 3 year projections contained in the Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF);
  • Legislatures/Councils who vote on the next year’s budget only;
  • Various Departments who compile Budgets and Strategic Plans;
  • Minister of Finance who clarifies expenditure and motivates for next year’s budget;
  • Executive (at national, provincial or local sphere) who agree on the priorities for Government spending.

Two-Way Street:

For a Government to stay in touch it has to hear from the people.  Hearing and listening are two different things. Listening depends on a willingness on the part of the Government to receive input and also on the part of civil society to effectively bring informed input and feedback. It is necessary for CSOs who seek real change to become more alert, more engaged and more proactive in the context of governance.  The right to engage in governance is in place. There are organisations such as Participation Junction who are able to support effective engagement in governance and then there is Government itself that should be encouraged to deepen such engagement.  It is civil society’s will to do so that needs sharpening.

- Charlene Houston, Participation Junction

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