Posted by Camille Karamaga
Improving the quality of budget documentation lies at the heart of many reforms aimed at enhancing understanding of the content of the budget estimates as well as fostering transparency and accountability. Some budget laws prescribe a minimum set of documents to accompany the budget estimates. These may include, for example, reports on: (i) the medium-term macroeconomic forecast; (ii) fiscal policies and public expenditure trends; (ii) medium-term forecasts of government revenues, expenditures, debt, and the fiscal balance; (iii) medium-term resource ceilings; (iv) government guarantees, contingent liabilities and other fiscal risks; (v) spending on expenditure programs and projects by sector; and (vi) projections of donor aid flows. In countries with a Westminster tradition, the budget speech includes much of this information, but additional documents may be presented to the parliament.
Improving the content and quantity of fiscal information is not the same, however, as improving its quality or transparency. More does not always mean better or clearer. Indeed, it often means the reverse. Governments tend to respond to demands for information from the parliament, financial markets, NGOs and ordinary citizens by producing more and more data, often in unprocessed form. This may get them off the hook of public “accountability”, but places them squarely on another hook, accusations of information overload and obfuscation.
The design of a strategic planning framework, medium-term budget frameworks and program budgets has led to a proliferation of detailed information, performance indicators, and monitoring and evaluation reports. Mountains of annual budget books are produced with separate estimates volumes being prepared by each line ministry. The excessive detail contained in the budget estimates weakens their usefulness as raw material for discussion by parliamentary committees. Nor are they meaningful to the general public. In short, much of the information produced by the government easily becomes a “data cemetery” which contributes little to the decision-making process or enlightened public debate.