Keeping it real: sub-national budget transparency

By Flickr user Toban Black

Given the increasing importance and power of decentralised government in terms of resource allocation and service provision, it’s always been quite striking to me how little research is available on sub-national budget transparency. There are a number of resources and how-to guides available for those wanting to do budget monitoring work or public expenditure tracking, but I’ve just never found very much by way of policy or academic analysis.

This was certainly the experience of one of our Sri Lankan partners, the Law and Society Trust. They found so little consolidated information available about sub-national budgets that they put together a briefing paper to try and help citizens understand at least the basic process of how provincial and local budgets are allocated, proposed and approved.

That’s why I was so pleased to see the research recently published by the International Budget Partnership (IBP) with a focus on sub-national budgets and why transparency at local level is just as (if not more) important than at national level.

A number of CAFOD’s partners are engaged in budget monitoring work. Some of this is focused on national level budget processes, but for most of the partners we work with and the communities they serve, they’re much more interested in what is happening at regional or local level. The reality is that local budgeting and spending is likely to have a much more immediate and tangible impact in people’s lives than what happens at national level.

My experience has been that most people are only able to engage in discussions about national budget issues at a very conceptual level e.g. comparative spending between Defence and Education. But I’ve found that if you tell someone that their local council budget has been cut and so plans for the new school in x village is being scrapped, they’re much more motivated to participate in budget advocacy and are able to engage in discussions at a much more detailed level.

This isn’t necessarily self-interest. It just makes sense that people would know more about their immediate context and the needs/peculiarities of their own community. We’re also naturally talking about smaller, more easily understandable, numbers rather than working in millions or (worse) in percentages which mean very little to your average Joe/Jolene.  

Of course, local budgets still have an inextricable link with the national budget i.e. if the central budget is cut, there will be less money for local budgets too. But for the same reason, what can we ever really say about the national budget without looking at how it is allocated and spent locally, and what impact that has in people’s lives?

The IBP research is helpful in showing that there are often huge discrepancies between how transparent a country is at national level and local level realities.

“South Africa, which ranks as the number one country in the most recent Open Budget Index (OBI, 2010), would most likely obtain much worse rankings for its provinces. Assessments of subnational transparency are important in order to paint a more complete picture of public disclosure of budget information in a country.”

While the importance of sub-national budget transparency probably isn’t news to most of us, the IBP research is really helpful in drawing together evidence from across 10 country case studies and proposes some key principles for guiding any analysis of sub-national transparency.

Most importantly, sub-national budget transparency isn’t going to happen by itself. It requires commitment and investment to build local structures and processes for accountability and transparency to the same degree as we would expect at national level.

How transparency advocates can effectively build this into their future work is definitely some food for thought.

2 Responses to “Keeping it real: sub-national budget transparency”

  1. Owen Barder Says:

    Thanks Sarah. You are right that the evidence suggests that accountability is more effective at sub-national and local levels, because that it the level at which policy can be tested against people’s personal experiences.

    I was not sure what you meant by the final sentence. Transparency advocates have been on this for a while. In the case of aid transparency (which is only a small part of overall resource transparency) there is a big effort to get agreement on sub national geo-coding, traceability to local level, and publication of transaction-level details – all in recognition of precisely the point you are making.

  2. Sarah Barnett Says:

    Hi Owen, thanks for the comment and for sharing how there is already a strong focus on the sub-national within the aid transparency debate. I didn’t mean to imply with my final sentence that no one is looking at this at all. I meant it as more of a general call to make sure we are capturing the importance of sub-national realities in national/international level advocacy on transparency.

    When I was recently in Asia, the partners I was working with were really shocked to see the Open Budget Index rankings for their country, as they felt it did not correspond in any way to their experience at local level (and that particular country had scored quite well for having a ‘citizens’ budget’).

    I think this is a really important issue so it’s good to hear (read) that some are already moving in this direction.

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