Where Do Your Taxes Go?
Don’t you want to know what the government is doing with your taxes? How does it allocate public funds? The right to this information and to be involved in deciding how public money is spent is crucial for a healthy democracy.
In South Africa, reformers and civil society actors are working to increase transparency in their government by making its expenditures publicly accessible. But often the information that the government made public was static and not easily digestible to the average person. Citizens also felt like they had little access to and involvement in the budgetary process. For example, organizations that were affected by budgetary cuts found that administrative barriers were put in their way when they wished to get in touch with government officials.
The government needed to make budget data and information not only available, but accessible. That way, the people most affected by the budget decisions could use this data to contribute ideas on how they should be made. For the government to be accountable, it had to work for its people. And those people, in turn, needed the opportunity to access their government processes to have any chance of improving them.
Going Digital; Vulekamali
South Africa’s 2016-2018 action plan includes the goal of deepening its commitment to open budgeting. To do this, it had to get digital.
First, the government committed to creating a portal that would be more accessible and increase citizen participation. The National Treasury partnered with the civil society coalition, IMALI YETHU, to develop the Vulekamali web portal, whose name loosely means “open money”. The portal houses both national and local department budgetary information and actual expenditures for programs and subprograms.
In terms of access to information, the public can easily choose to view budgets for specific periods, they can find information about the budgeting process, and details of what the Treasury and different departments are busy with at different times of the year.
The project also focuses on teaching citizens how to best use the data. It provides valuable learning resources on the budget process, and even holds Civic Information Drives to explain how to use the Vulekamali portal.
Alongside the portal, The National Treasury and civil society actors also have held hackathons and “Data Quests,” with the goal of promoting the use of the data to advance social change. The hackathons encourage developers, students, entrepreneurs, and data experts to use the data to create solutions to social issues.
It is one thing to get the data, it is another thing entirely to be able to understand it. When you know what it means, you’re more likely to analyze and scrutinize. By both providing data and empowering people to understand it and subsequently participate in the decision-making process, the South African government gave itself another check and balance and took a step forward in its efforts to become more accountable.
Open Budgets Facilitating Citizen Suggestions
Some civil society stakeholders claim that Vulekamali had transformed the way the Treasury presents budget data, with a strong effort made to understand and respond to the needs of data users.
However, civil society views vary a bit in their reviews. In regards to the portal, some said they still had to rely on intermediaries who could advocate on behalf of others who weren’t equipped to understand the budgets. In this case, the accessibility did not change as much as the project might have hoped. Nonetheless, citizens have already been using the portal to create proposals for more housing, equal opportunities for women, and road maintenance and infrastructure.
Moving forward, it is clear that strong working relationships have been established between government and civil society, which had significant value for civic participation. By making budgetary data more accessible to the general public — and showing and encouraging citizens how to use it — the government has become more accountable to the people it governs. More trust with civil society will increase the government’s ability to work on solutions that better serve the community as a whole.