What should citizen participation in the budget process look like?

May 19, 2011 | Budget Transparency | 10 comments

The IBP and the civil society budget movement has been advocating for budget transparency since time began. But of course budget transparency has little or no democratic value if it is not accompanied by meaningful citizen participation in the budget process. Just as most countries think that they are democracies, most countries also think that their budget process is participative. And of course this is not true.

So what are the requirements for meaningful participation in the government budget process? I brainstorm a few ideas below, but it would be great to hear what you think.

You will also notice that some of the ideas below are specific to participation in the budget process while others speak to participation in governance more broadly.  Government budget decisions display a series of distinctive features that need to be reflected in the way in which participation in it happens. The budget process is time-bound, ongoing etc.

 Here is what I think participation in the budget process should look like:

  1. It should be comprehensive. Only allowing participation in the capital budget or some other small corner of the budget is not good enough. All government funds are public resources and should therefore be decided on through participative processes. That is just what democracy is.
  2. There should be participation in every phase of the budget process. Influencing allocations without being able to monitor how those allocations are spent is of little value. Or excluding participation in the fiscal and macro-economic frameworks that determine the size of the purse, can limit participation in allocation and spending processes severely.
  3. It should be accompanied by the timely release of information about the proposed government budget choice or activity as well as the information on which it is based. If citizens don’t know what government wants to do and why, they can’t participate meaningfully.
  4. It should happen before government has made the decision or performed the action.
  5. Government should be obliged to proactively facilitate participation. Simply sticking an invitation for written submission in the government gazette is not good enough.
  6. Government should be required to explain how it responded to the decisions and recommendations that emerged from participation and why. Government should not be allowed to smile politely and ignore these.
  7. There should be a mechanism of redress. When you feel that justice has been denied in court, you can appeal. If you feel that the process of participation has been disrespected or ignored, you should likewise be able to seek redress.

 Here are three harder questions that I have been wondering about:

  1. What about the legislature? Most legislatures are ineffective vehicles of participation in the budget process. Many citizens groups have lost patience with legislatures and are trying to influence the executive directly. But elected representatives and legislatures are still one of the primary avenues of democracy. How should citizens and citizens organizations respond to this challenge? Should we give up on legislatures and participate as best we can by other avenues? Or should we assist and put pressure on legislatures to perform their proper legislative and oversight roles with regard to the budget process? Or both?
  2. And what if we disagree with the legislature? What if the legislature starts voting large salaries and slush funds for itself like the Kenyan and other legislatures? What if citizens and legislatures don’t want the same things with regard to the budget? How to handle this clash of parallel mechanisms of participation?
  3. Who should participate? Trevor Manuel once referred to South African CSOs as one man and a fax machine. Clearly there is something wrong with the disproportionate access to power and participation that the intellectual and economic elite has. Engagement with Chambers of Commerce, five small donor funded CSOs and a few church groups can’t be taken as the sum total of participation in the budget process. BUT: Governments normally use the discussion about CSO representivity to exclude voices and limit budget participation. Not a good thing to my mind. So how should we balance the need for inclusiveness with the obvious imperative of representivity?

 What do you think? What does meaningful citizen participation in the budget process look like?


  1. Enrique Mendizabal

    How does it work in the UK, or in Sweden? or in the US?

    It should, it should, it should..

    Yes but what comes first? Projects to demand citizen participation or a system that works. Made up of institutions that work. The more we focus on getting people to participate and less on the institutions that are responsible for conducting open and transparent process -that allow people to participate IF THEY WANT TO- then the less likely that we will eve get those ‘should’ outlined in the article.

    Why spend some much money (negligible per person) encouraging poor people (with no mathematical skills and too busy trying to survive) when we could have a huge impact strengthening the media industry -that after all is the first line of scrutiny of budgets in developed countries and who are much much better at communicating with their publics that NGOs that speak in buzzwords?

    Why not strengthen all political parties so that they may demand -and argue- transparency or better allocations? And that they may strengthen their links to citizens?


    By focusing on NGO driven solutions and asking the institutions to run before they can crawl we are just undermining their capacity to develop into their own context relevant shape and ensure all those ‘should’ you mention.

    • Albert van Zyl

      Thanks for your comments Enrique. A few questions for you:
      – Most media in developing countries is pretty weak and controlled by the state or strong private sector interests. Political parties in most states seem to be woefully disconnected from the electorate. Do you think it would be easier to fix their problems than facilitating robust citizen engagement?
      – We don’t need to choose between strengthening media/political parties and public participation, do we? Don’t we need all of these for a vibrant democracy?
      – Who decides if citizens are ‘ready’ to engage? Who would have said Tunisians and Egyptians were ready to drive social change?


      • vuyo nhongo

        your ideas are very good and i have made them as a reference to a paper i intend to submit for my studies however from my experience in the local authority public participation is just a formality to enable higher offices who approve our budgets to do so i wish what youi put forward could be put into practice .Quite a good presentation

  2. Simon Burall

    Interesting post. What isn’t clear to me is how much you raise here is from theory and how much from the years of emerging practice around participatory budgeting?

    A lot of what you raise here are good practice points for any public participation process whether it be about the budget or any other policy process. Here for example are some principles we published a couple of years ago that resonate with what you are saying. http://www.involve.org.uk/deliberative-public-engagement-nine-principles/

    In particular you raise the critical question of elected representatives and what their role is. In many contexts there are reasons to be sceptical about them. However, building a system that bypasses them would appear to risk the very democracy we need to build and maintain.


    • Albert van Zyl

      Thanks for the link Simon, very useful. The post is draws on a fair bit of practice, but a lot of it is based on ‘shoulds’ that not many government respect yet.

  3. Doug Hadden

    There could be some other issues to consider including:

    – government responsibility in explaining budgets and budget information in a simple and clear basis
    – need for machine-readable content to enable citizens and civil society to analyze
    – need for summary information with drill-down for those interested or knowledgeable
    – presenting budget execution data quickly prior to being audited
    – publicized budget calendar so everyone is aware of the steps

    The legislature questions are difficult, compounded by methods of budget confidentiality in many countries, such as Canada. Discussions prior to tabling the budget can be transparent or not, but it is illegal for public servants to disclose any thinking on the budget prior to release.

    The notion of proactive government outreach was one of the underlying themes at the International Consortium on Governmental Financial Management conference this week. (Presentations from International Budget Partnership, Revenue Watch, OECD)

    • Albert van Zyl

      Thanks Doug. I think your point about the need for the publication of a budget calendar is critical to participation.

  4. Sarah Barnett

    Thanks Albert- another interesting post. I think Doug’s point about making budget information understandable is a really valid one. This isn’t just limited to budgets of course but churning out information to tick the transparency box isn’t enough to ensure participation. I have been working with some CSOs in one context which rated quite highly on the Open Budget Survey but few people I spoke knew it was available and, once they did know it was there, they weren’t sure how to work with to the information.

    In response to Enrique’s post, I suppose we do have to be realistic about the level of engagement we can expect in budget processes even when people do have access to information and high levels of literacy, let alone in contexts where they don’t. I noted that, at the time of the national budget cuts in the UK, the constituency where I live in London was inviting people to come and discuss budget priorities for the local area. I don’t know very many people who went along…

    Sarah Barnett, CAFOD

    • Albert van Zyl

      Thanks for the comment, Sarah. The question about the level of engagement that we can expect is an interesting one. For starters, I would argue that it is the responsibility of a democratically elected government to solicit participation, even when it is not forthcoming. Secondly the Egypt and Tunisia stories were of course fascinating. In both cases there was little to suggest the imminent explosion of political participation. This is not based on anything, but I suspect that people stop participating when they lose faith in the process i.e. when they don’t think their input will make any difference. And the opposite: They start participating when it looks like they may gain something. What do you think?

      • Sarah Barnett

        Thanks Albert. Yes, you pose some interesting if rather challenging questions. And I’m not sure I have many of the answers!

        I think there are some pretty clear practical and structural factors that can promote or hinder participation. At a very basic level, if there is no transparency or space for participation, there is unlikely to be any.

        That said, while the responsibility to create the basic elements of this enabling environment lies with government, I think this is also a shared responsibility. If government is genuinely doing its part, as a minimum citizens have to be prepared to participate when they’re offered the opportunity (and sadly that isn’t always the case).

        But there are a numerous reasons why that could be and this question of what motivates or impedes participation at a personal or community level is unfortunately much less talked-about. (But I think you’re probably right that the level of participation is a fair indicator of how much people think their participation will be valued/effective).

        How to change attitudes around the value of public participation and build trust between citizens and government requires a longer-term vision and investment and, again, I think this is probably a shared responsibility. It’s also hugely contextual.

        This is something I think we could all benefit from thinking more about. We spend a lot of time trying to create the opportunity and capacity for public participation but perhaps less about these more ‘hidden’ issues that might impede it.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Submit a Post

The Open Budgets Blog features content related to transparency, participation, and accountability in government budgeting; civil society budget analysis and advocacy; and public finance management.

Posts are the responsibility of their authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the International Budget Partnership, our donors, or partners.

Submissions can be sent to [email protected]

Related Posts