Whether the local or national budget is prepared in a participatory way or not, citizens will need to get what is in the budget after it has been approved. Whether the budget is demystified or not, the participation of citizens will to a great extent depend on how the budget is communicated to them.
In the process of demystifying the budget bare, local governments need to communicate it to ordinary citizens. The latter have the right to know what the local or national budget contains and how it will affect them. The local governments have the obligation to be transparent in their stewardship roles.
If budget information is not available, it is difficult to discuss relevant issues so that they engage with the budgetary process. Mature civil society organisations can as well communicate the budget to the citizens. This does not preclude the role of councillors who are representatives of the people in the local legislative council. Government officials should also possess strong negotiations, communication, listening and targeting skills.
Members of civil society organisations should always be involved in budget dissemination processes. But they must first of all ensure that the information is well packaged and in a format ideal for the consumption of the citizens.
Various tools and mechanisms can be used to increase public participation in local government issues. In addition to making use of these such as public hearings and surveys, town hall meetings, public forums and city consultations and participatory budgeting can also be used as an innovative tool to achieve the same objective of enhancing civic participation in municipal decision making and the budgeting processes.
Critical questions like who is communicating the budget, to whom, why, how and when have to be answered to the ordinary citizens
Both electronic and print media play a critical role in public communication. During periods of budget approval, both national and local community radio stations are excited with budget issues and would easily feature budget discussion for free. Similarly, sending press releases to media houses can secure free publication.
It is important that media houses have the skills and know-how on local and national budgets, so that they are better placed to facilitate discussions on the budget. civil society organisations can help to build the capacity of journalists in budget analysis and budget advocacy for good governance.
Local Governments can communicate their budgets through; town hall meetings, location specific meetings, issuing pamphlets on the budget and other advocacy material, as well as local print and electronic media.
They should choose the most cost effective approach to ensure wider coverage of the message they want to communicate.
Unlike a local government budget, a national budget draw more public attention than local government budgets due to its sheer size and involvement of political interests (ruling party and opposition alike). It is officially presented in parliament where it is discussed by members.
It is sometimes possible to anticipate the likely magnitude and areas of priority of the forthcoming national budget by inferring from presidential statements, ministerial statements in terms of policies and programmes that are scheduled for implementation. However, such information will more often than not lack specificity.
As a rule, the national budget is communicated by the Minister of Finance through the budget statement (appropriation bill) that is made in parliament. The format, however, favours the elite for instance, members of parliament, donors, and academicians and interest groups.
It is common for the civil society to act as watchdogs to give an alternative view of the budget, for example whether it is pro-poor and prodevelopment, and to create awareness of issues for the benefit of the ordinary citizens through the media.
Authorities always have to expect some feedback on the local budget. Not all priorities identified by citizens are included in the local budget.
The budget cannot possibly cater for all the needs of social groups and budgeting is a difficult balancing act. However, once a budget is approved, the public relations function has to be activated.
The different interest groups within the community have to be given relevant information as to the choices made by the decision makers. If community A was expecting five school projects but only got two, information must be relayed on why the other projects were not approved.
The writer is the Operations Manager with RALGA