15 Dec Where’s the data?

Written by Bart Robertson Published in Economy Read 2776 times

Engaging the public in the budget debate

dState and regional MPs will early next year begin scrutinising and finalising the budgets to be integrated into the Union budget and approved by the Union parliament on April 1.

Budget scrutiny is improving, albeit at a slow and uneven pace throughout the country. But the most important scrutiny of the budget, by the public, is noticeably absent from the process. Public access to government financial information remains extremely limited. This has stifled public discourse on the subject and minimised the ability of the public to adequately vet the budget.

The Washington-based International Budget Partnership is a global organisation that assesses the inclusiveness of government budgets. It has identified eight key budget documents that governments should make available to the public to promote greater financial transparency.

Document Exists in Myanmar Available to the public in Myanmar
Pre-budget statement
No
No
Executive's budget proposal
Yes
No
Enacted budget
Yes
Yes
Citizens budget
No
No
In-year reports
Yes (internal use only)
No
Audit reports
Yes
No
Mid-Year review
Yes
No
End-Year report
Yes
No

President U Thein Sein mentioned these same eight documents in a speech in 2013, stating their importance to government fiscal transparency and urging that they be made available to the public. At present, the only widely available Myanmar government financial document on this list is the enacted budget, which has been published in state-run media each year since fiscal 2011/12. While this is a positive step that provides some degree of fiscal transparency, publishing the enacted budget only serves to inform civil society and the wider population what has already been decided, rather than actively engage them in the budgeting process. Documents such as the pre-budget statement and the executive’s budget proposal allow for more proactive participation. These documents outline government policy goals and link them to budgeting, thereby providing the rationale for the budget’s composition.

A budget is of little use if not followed. In-year reports allow citizens to compare actual spending and revenue with budget forecasts and audit reports help to illustrate the overall state of public financial management. Perhaps the most import document in the list is the ‘citizens budget’, a document the Ministry of Finace has commited to also try to develop in the coming fiscal year, and which uses simple language to explain a government’s plans, revenues, and spending. It is an effective tool for drawing the wider public, and not only financial experts, into the debate. In some countries, civil society groups help governments prepare this document.

Six of the eight documents on the IBP’s list exist in Myanmar, although they are intended for internal purposes only. Publishing and making them widely available to the public would require little effort on the government’s part and provide quick wins in the short-term.

A survey conducted by Myanmar Egress in 2013 and involving 2,800 respondents found that only about two percent had basic budget knowledge with the rest having limited or no knowledge. The survey also found that 60 percent of respondents said they had never discussed the budget and that three percent reported discussing it with an MP. A general lack of discussion about a budget does not necessarily denote an apathetic citizenry; it rather indicates a lack of information to promote public discussion on the topic. The Myanmar Egress survey found that 88 percent of respondents said the public should be educated about the budget.

It is both intuitively logical and empirically proven that government budgets are more responsible to the needs of the public when citizens play an active role in the budget process. A prerequisite for active, public scrutiny of a budget is that civil society organisations and the wider population have open and timely access to government financial information. Improving access to information through the release of key government financial documents can be a catalyst that leads, in order, to greater public knowledge, greater public engagement, and a government budget that is more aligned with the needs and demands of citizens.

Bart Robertson is an independent development consultant This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


This Article first appeared in the December 11, 2014 edition of Mizzima Weekly.

Mizzima Business Weekly is available in print in Yangon through Innwa Bookstore and through online subscription at www.mzineplus.com

Last modified on Monday, 15 December 2014 11:12