Can Access to Budget Information Empower Citizens and Enhance Urban Governance? A Perspective from South Africa

By |2024-01-04T14:59:41+01:00August 31st 2021|Good Governance|

Fiscal transparency and public participation play a vital role in building more democratic spaces and fostering trust between people and their government. However, this requires the fostering of genuine multi-stakeholder collaboration, argues Zukiswa Kota.

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16 includes targets to substantially reduce corruption and bribery, develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions and to ensure responsive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels. This includes ensuring open access to public information to achieve justice and strengthen institutions. Core to this are well-functioning administrative entities, especially at the local government level.

This means for local authorities to raise taxes, allocate social grants, deliver health and education services, generate and distribute electricity, and undertake planning effectively. The outright failure by many South African local governments to do this has sparked many community protests and court challenges. In January 2020, for instance, the High Court in one of South Africa’s nine provinces, the Eastern Cape, handed down a landmark judgement directing the dissolution of Makana Local Municipality’s Council under Section 139 (1)(c) of the Constitution.

According to the applicants (the Unemployed People’s Movement), the municipality breached its Constitutional mandate by failing to deliver basic services. In August 2021, another municipal council in the same province, the O.R. Tambo District Council, was dissolved by the provincial government.

The consequences of deteriorating municipal governance are often felt most acutely by the most vulnerable residents, which in turn deepens inequality and further erodes trust between people and the state. Opaque public budget processes and closed policy-spaces serve to exacerbate such crises. In cases such as Makana and O.R. Tambo (there are sadly many, many others), opacity also serves to protect officials and politicians who misuse or misdirect public funds.

How to Combat Corruption while Empowering People and Boosting Governance?

According to the Global Initiative on Fiscal Transparency (GIFT)), budget transparency has a range of developmental benefits including fostering trust and public accountability. A universal challenge is the inability of governments to link budgets to improved service delivery. Examples include limited or non-existent publication of facility-level and transactional data to enable citizens to see how service delivery units such as schools or hospitals allocate and spend their budgets. GIFT argue that the this is made worse by the lack of international norms on administrative classification of budget information. Opportunities for people to participate in related budget and planning processes are scant.

The same is true in South Africa. The country boasts an impressive array of public finance legislation and constitutional provisions that support openness and participation in public affairs. Chapter 7 of the Constitution mandates all municipalities to operate in a democratic and accountable manner. Section 153(a), for instance, obliges every municipality to;

“…structure and manage its administration and planning processes to give priority to the basic needs of the community and to promote the social and economic development of the community”

To achieve this, public administrations need to open up governance processes to include citizen input. But even at the national level, the Open Budget Survey indicates that South Africa’s track record of opening up public budget spaces is dismal at 24 out of a possible 100.

Section 73(1) (a) and (c) of the Municipal Systems Act further compels municipalities to prioritise residents’ basic needs. Yet, sub-standard service delivery, lack of transparency, opaque decision-making, and limited public participation opportunities are all part of the governance failures that characterise too many South African municipalities. The most recent Auditor-General municipal audit outcomes highlight the importance of openness:

“The reporting by municipalities on their performance was even worse than their financial reporting. It is not surprising that citizens experience poor service delivery from municipalities if not even a quarter of them could provide us with quality performance reports to audit. Even after addressing our findings, just under half of the municipalities still published performance information that was unreliable or had little relevance to what they had promised to do in their strategic planning documents.”

It is for this reason that organisations such as the Public Service Accountability Monitor and coalitions like Imali Yethu have prioritised open data and fiscal transparency interventions to support governance improvements in partnership with public institutions. This has included the co-creation of open budget portals such as Vulekamali, South Africa’s first national and provincial open budget data portal. At the local government level, the availability of data via a portal like Municipal Money constitutes a vital opportunity for civic actors and residents to track how cities and municipalities are using public funds.

What are TAP Interventions and How Can They Improve People’s Lives?

Transparency, accountability, and public participation (TAP) are vital tools in efforts to combat misuse or wastage of limited public funds. TAP interventions are also valuable in fostering links between community needs and government’s responsiveness. There are several ways that the South African government can bolster TAP interventions to improve people’s lives.

Firstly, transparency and access to information alone is insufficient. Open and inclusive multi stakeholder processes such as those championed by the Open Government Partnership are a vital component. Increasing access to information is a precursor to accountable management of public resources. The Department of Public Service and Administration and the Department of Cooperative Government and Traditional Affairs must strengthen their support of open government practices at all levels including in localities that have made commitments to the principles of openness such as Makhanda in the Eastern Cape (the only OGP Local member in South Africa).

Secondly, the role of civic tech and open data platforms such as Municipal Money and Vulekamali should be championed not only to ensure the publication of government planning, and expenditure data but to do so in a manner that is accessible to the vast majority. The National Treasury and all government data custodians must now deepen the granularity of budget data to allow civic actors, oversight entities, and residents to track facilities and services that they care about.

Thirdly, without clear links between budget, performance, and procurement data, tracking possible malfeasance and how funds are actually spent becomes an unnecessarily gargantuan task. Regularly publishing detailed, disaggregated data about what has been done against what was planned and what was spent against what was budgeted for should be a non-negotiable. The publication of information about who was paid to deliver what services is critical. To support this, the Presidency must ensure the finalisation of a robust public procurement bill in which transparency and greater public scrutiny are keystones.

Finally, involving those most affected by public resource management failure in policy-making increases localities’ ability to strengthen their local TAP strategies to ensure limited resources are allocated in socially just and effective ways.

This is an opportunity to harness the power of open government interventions. The importance of TAP strategies remains critical to solving many of these challenges and better ensuring that finite public funds are used in the most effective manner possible and enable the achievement of human development and governance goals.

Zukiswa Kota