By Abubakar Jimoh
As the involvement of citizens in political process is fundamental part of democracy, constituents’ participation in local governance helps ordinary citizens to assess their own needs and participate in local project planning and budget monitoring.
It is evident across the globe that constituents’ participation can help governments to be more accountable and responsive, improve the people’s perception of governmental performance and democratic dividend the constituents receive from the government.
Meanwhile, attaining citizens-inspired local governance in the words of Prof. Ben C. Osisioma of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, “involves effective management of public resources in a manner that guarantees sustainable development in an atmosphere of due process and rule of law, free from wastage and corruption. The goal is to guarantee a people’s right to health, adequate housing, sufficient food and fibre provision, quality education, fair justice and personal security.”
While Prof. Osisioma agrees that good governance is rooted in quality institutions, informed and adequately motivated citizenry, and structures and processes that endure, he did not conceal the fact that budget and audit tools are critical to the process, and within the requirements of accountability framework can bring the so-called dividends of democracy to the constituents.
It is no more news that the endemic socio-economic problems as well as poor budgetary and economic policies implementation has led to wasteful spending, misplaced priority and mismanagement of capital projects in various parts of the country. Constituents’ participation in the monitoring of budget implementation has been recommended to prompt accountability of public funds and ameliorate mismanagement.
In order to promote citizen participation in budget implementation, transparency of government information is paramount, as well as the inclusion of members into decision-making from constituencies whose concerns are being addressed. Transparency of budget information involves public availability of eight different budget documents by the government, including the pre-budget statement, the executive’s budget proposal, the enacted budget, the citizens’ budget, in-year reports, mid-year review, year-end report and the audit report.
For instance, Brazil has promoted constituents’ participation through a number of mechanisms such as Participatory Budget and the establishment of public policy councils. This has helped Brazil in decentralization and participatory budgeting, leading to appreciable shift in more resources to the grassroots, and increased local revenue.
Center for Victims of Torture would observe citizens’ participation from human rights perspective, when it states, “Civil and political rights, including freedom of expression and access to information, which are at the basis of political participation, are human rights in themselves. Citizens’ participation requires trust, belief and wholeness-trust in their co-participants, belief that participation can make a difference, and feeling socially included.”
The Centre however, advised that to ensure strong participation of citizens in local governance, citizens need to understand and want to exercise their right to participate in local political issues.
“They need to feel confident and know where and how to participate, while local institutions should be prepared to facilitate the citizen participation. Engaging citizens in local governance improves accountability and the ability of local authorities to solve problems, creates more inclusive and cohesive communities, and increases the number and quality of initiatives made by communities. One way to increase awareness and to empower citizens to have a voice is through increased access to technology and in particular social media,” it added.
Exploring social media
One way to increase awareness and empower constituents to have a voice is through increased access to technology and in particular social media. National Democratic Institute (NDI) has recommended related developmental interventions to consider citizens and civil society capacity building in advocacy skill, online videos, and other tactics and interventions that they can use to hold governments to account. These it observes will provide tools and insights, and opens spaces for debate and dialogue that can help citizens strengthen their ability to effectively engage in political processes, bring about socio-political change, and improve transparency.
Creating active Facebook or Twitter handle by the governments at all levels, especially in local language to raise citizens’ voices on governance will enhance indiscriminate citizens’ participation and keep the governments informed of citizens’ expectations and perceptions of its projects and policies. Twitter will allow real time access by anyone who registers with the site to send messages of up to 140 characters at a time and read the posts of others.
According to Harvard Kennedy School of Media and Public Policy, as at 2014, twitter has 218 million active users sharing 500 million tweets per day—messages that briefly convey thoughts, opinions, pictures, and links to further information. Without doubt, twitter has gained acceptance among the general public as a method of communicating quickly and easily.
It noted: “Government is considered transparent when the public can see how decisions are being made. Beyond simple transparency, government can become interactive when the public has ways of participating in decision-making as it occurs. Twitter can be deployed for both purposes, as exemplified by innovations tried from 2010 to 2013 by the Texas Senate Committee on Business and Commerce.
“Legislators also are known to use Twitter to express opinions and share information with the public. Some legislators and legislative offices also receive information via Twitter and avail themselves of statistical and analytical information regarding the reach of any particular tweet.”
Opinion survey and formal wall approach
To understand constituents’ perceptions and feedbacks on government’s programmes and policies, Government Finance Officers Association of the United States (GFOA) has recommended the use of new forms of public involvement surveys, focus groups, neighbourhood councils, and Citizen Relationship Management systems, among others as inputs to decisions about service levels and preferences, community priorities, and organizational performance.
Government can explore common methods for soliciting information from constituencies such as: surveys (either in person or via mail, phone, or Internet), focus groups, interviews, comment (or point of service cards), public meetings (such as public hearings, Town Hall meetings, and community vision sessions), and interactive priority setting tools.
Information provision to enhance constituents’ participation can take different forms including the use of newsletters, public notices in community media, public hearings, public reports (Budgets-in-Brief, Popular Annual Financial Reports, or performance reports), web sites, individual or group emails, phone calls, and in-person contact.
As recommends by GFOA, to ensure effective and well implemented constituents’ participation processes, governments should consider in designing their efforts, purposes for involving the public; assurances that they are getting the public’s perspective rather than only that of a small number of highly vocal special interest groups; approaches to eliciting public participation and the points in the planning-budgeting-performance management; information that the process will be incorporated into decision making; communication to the people regarding how the information collected will be and was used; and buy-in from top government officials.
In Pakistan, formal wall approach to drive constituents’ participation has been adopted, as some participatory projects are targeted at building the capacity of teacher training institutions to teach good governance, human rights, gender and youth development and empowerment, and the positive role of media in promoting these concepts with the hope of producing a core of teachers capable of teaching these values to high school students.
CSOs and Budget Tracking
By tracking budgets throughout their implementation, civil society groups can support the constituents in holding government accountable through appropriate assessment to understand whether public resources are being judiciously utilised.
The budget execution process takes five basic steps: monies are released to various line ministries (or departments/agencies) as per the approved budget; agencies initiate expenditures directly or by procuring goods and services; payments are made for these expenditures; expenditure transactions are recorded in accounting books; and in-year reports are produced throughout the year, culminating at the end of the year with the closure of the accounting books and the production of year-end reports.
In a publication titled ‘Our money, Our responsibility: A Citizens’ Guide to Monitoring Government Expenditures’, Vivek Ramkumar observes that if a government makes an honest effort to implement the budget as it is formulated in the budget law, important questions often remain about the specifics of spending. In this case, by engaging with the budget throughout its implementation, civil society can identify lapses and make appropriate advocacy interventions.
To avoid unnecessary diversion of funds, civil society must continuously monitor expenditures as they are incurred to ensure that budgets are implemented for their intended purposes.
For example, Uganda Debt Network (UDN), a coalition of advocacy organizations and individuals united to coordinate a national debt relief campaign, is well known for its success in a community based monitoring and evaluation system including monitoring expenditures incurred by the government from the savings it realized from debt relief. To monitor government programs from the district level down to the village level, UDN established a Community Based Monitoring and Evaluation System (CBMES). UDN was reportedly using the system in eight districts and approximately 47 sub-counties.
As reported by Ramkumar, while implementing CBMES, UDN considered 11 critical steps such as selecting target districts and sub-counties; holding preliminary meetings at the district level to build support for CBMES among district authorities and mobilize key organizations and individuals; meeting with local communities to introduce the CBMES concept, elicit community responses, and mobilize participants; selecting monitors (about 80-100) from local communities; training selected monitors; developing community indicators and an information management and action system, and formulate proposals on the use of monitoring to demand action at different governmental levels; monitoring community-level projects and activities; compiling findings gathered by monitors at the sub-county level; holding a sub-county debriefing with local authorities, identify issues to be brought to higher level authorities, and appoint representatives to the district-level committee; compiling findings gathered by monitors at the district level; holding a one-day district feedback workshop facilitated by UDN to discuss the outcomes of the monitoring effort, current challenges, and follow-up activities. Using the CBMES, UDN has successfully monitored several government programs at the local level and used the information it generated to conduct advocacy at the national level.
From the foregoing, related experiences from different parts of the world have revealed that budget accountability is driven by indiscriminate inclusion and participation of the constituents. The approach Nigerian governments may consider as they prepare to implement 2016 Appropriation Act, rather than maintaining needless secrecy in processes of budget execution.