A budget is a vital instrument that a government uses to describe the direction of policy, cost implications of its programmes and possible sources of revenue during a particular fiscal year. It mainly reflects revenues and expenditures.
For a long time, budgets have remained technical documents accessible only to a handful of people, mainly technocrats. To most people, there is a sense of mystery about national and local budgets; how they are designed to meet their needs; how they could be used as a source of information and for lobbying and advocacy purposes. There are many expectations about a budget which could be good or bad. To some citizens, a budget is synonymous with readily available cash at the disposal of the central government or local authorities to meet their felt needs and aspirations. When a disaster strikes, citizens are often left to wonder why the duty bearers or service providers fail to meet those needs urgently, despite having a budget.
Enlightened citizens would like to have answers to the following questions: why should governments be limited by a budget in their expenditure decisions. Is it necessary to prepare a budget every year? Should citizens be bothered with local government and national budgets? Citizens pay taxes but do not always understand why. More importantly, they do not know that as tax payers, they are not objects of pity but holders of rights and therefore have an oversight role to play. To that end, it is their responsibility to hold service providers accountable.
It is important therefore to demystify the budget to the citizens so that they have a clear understanding of what a government budget is and why they have to be involved in the budgetary process. Budgets are not difficult to understand. The problem is that they are coded in a particular way and this has to be explained to foster its understanding. Without that, the uninitiated reader will remain rather apprehensive about budgetary information. Some other people tend to be alienated as far as figures are concerned. It is their budget and they will always shy away from crunching. And for a long time, technocrats have made people believe that budget information was so complex to understand that it was restricted to a selected few.
Local governments should be involved in demystification of the budget and prove that after all, they are easy to understand. A budget should be geared towards strengthening citizens’ understanding about them and their contribution thereafter. Budget demystification is an attempt to simplify the budget information for the good of the citizens so that there is increased ownership of government policies, projects and programmes. It serves to build consensus around the development direction and priorities of government; and to ensure the sustainability of effort, and the prevalence of accountability and good governance. It calls for a new form of engagement between citizens and the government, a more direct connection between the people and the duty bearers and service providers in their communities.
A common man should be able to understand the local government budgets which are usually couched in a jargon. In most cases, citizens want to know how much of the local budget would be spent on essential services like schools, health facilities, infrastructure, which intervention areas and how their contributions that are usually in kind or monetary terms would be used.
Details about revenues, expenditure and geographical budget should be clearly demonstrated for the common person to understand how resources have been distributed amongst their priority projects. Always questions like which sector got the most resources and the reason behind this need to be clearly explained in a simplistic way for communities to understand what the future holds for them.
They are for instance eager to know which village obtained the lion’s share of the budgetary allocation and the justification f or this. Citizens in a dilemma also need to get simplified budget information. Having such information enables citizens to hold authorities accountable and transparent in the process of budget execution.
Through this, big numbers, complex codification and accounting systems usually wrapped around technical discourses on simple revenue and expenditure plans would be accessible to common people. Besides figures, processes and procedures also need to be simplified for better understanding.
Budget demystification will result into a participatory budgeting process which will in long run produce a clear identification of priorities and allocation of scarce resources. Citizens will identify and orient projects to long lasting economic values for the good of the citizens. Both citizens and local governments will participate and organise how to fundraise for identified projects over and above transfers from the central government and own revenues. Community contributions will be included in the budget as they understand and own the budget. After all, they have enough information about it regarding its preparation and execution.