Many governments around the world – including South Africa – have generally shown significant improvement in transparency over the past few decades, and have taken to increasingly sharing information on public finances with its constituents. However, very few institutions have moved from mere information-sharing to real citizen engagement.
Grant Thornton International’s 2017 survey entitled Citizen engagement and public financial management notes: “For decades there has been a tendency for governments to design and provide services based on their own internal processes and needs. By contrast, citizen-centric governments put the needs of the people at the centre of everything they do, with the goal of improving efficiency, quality and satisfaction.”
In South Africa, we have become accustomed to a transparent budget process led by national and provincial governments, and this is a good foundation for the kind of citizen engagement required of people-centric governments.
Approximately 89% of the participants in the study believe that fiscal transparency is a basic requirement for citizen engagement, while 78% believe that fiscal transparency greatly increases citizen engagement.
Passive transparency is not enough
Many public finance managers may mistakenly believe that this transparency is adequate, but they have to do more than share the information available to them. In the research, the participants expressed frustration at ‘passive transparency’, with documents posted on a website as a ‘box-ticking exercise’ without any effort to communicate with citizens at large.
As one respondent from El Salvador notes: “People need to be informed about equity and efficiency in what their government does. People need to understand the link between what is spent and what services actually get provided.”
This kind of engagement is not achieved by merely sharing reams of information, often in a format and language that is obscure to those outside of government structures.
A respondent from Canada refers to the significant growth in budget documents: where these were closer to 60 pages in the early 1980s, it has grown to 500 pages in some of the more recent documents. In addition to this, a great deal of the most important information is found deep in the multiple annexes to the budget documents.
He notes: “We’ve made a lot of public financial documents hard to read. If we confuse or overwhelm people, if we obscure the really important information, this undermines accountability.”
Citizen engagement: priority in South Africa?
While the theory behind the need for more active citizen engagement from public finance officers makes sense, the practical reality is that governments in emerging economies often have seemingly far greater challenges, such as skills shortages and service delivery problems, to contend with.
The report notes: “Should governments that are battling with the very fundamentals of accounting, transparency and financial management be directing precious resources towards engaging the public?”
This question is particularly pertinent in South Africa, where we are all too often confronted by reports detailing manifold municipal finance challenges, and where the majority of citizens are experiencing poor service delivery.
The survey concludes that citizen engagement should always be encouraged, as it can be “quick, and it can be cheap – particularly in the era of social media. The main change is in attitudes.”
Rather than creating extra work for financial managers – who are frequently caught up in complicated reporting requirements from higher levels of government – it is worth remembering that citizens do not want information on complex financial principles, ratios or forecasts.
Engaging with citizens is possible with few resources
The reality is that most citizens require basic information about how their taxes are spent, and how each level of government is performing against key objectives and key performance indicators.
One example of engaging with citizens is the way governments in the UK and Australia are showing taxpayers exactly how their funds are used, through easily understandable pie charts in simple language. This kind of information presentation can also go a long way towards removing misconceptions regarding the way taxes are spent.
Some local governments in South Africa are better than others at various levels of citizen engagement, but in order for the country to start working for its citizens more efficiently, everyone should be able to access basic information about their governments, and understand why it is unable to perform or deliver services as desired.
The information is often readily available, but not communicated in equal measure. Some ways to address this include:
- Ascertaining from citizens what kind of information they would like to know about their government, or what sort of questions they have for their government, e.g. ‘Why do we have so few policemen in my neighbourhood, when the national government said it is increasing the budget for police?’
- Creating basic templates with standard information that each level of government should be able to report on to their citizens, e.g. pie charts showing government revenue levels, and what this is spent on, compared year-on-year; charts comparing different key areas of expenditure per year; and a simple graph showing the biggest single projects or priorities for each government; and
- Ensuring this information is easily understandable, and proactively widely shared with citizens – not merely posted on a website, without communication.
Citizen engagement is undoubtedly positive for the taxpayers who know what their government is doing, as well for public officials, who become more accountable. Some 85% of the survey participants agree that when citizens are more engaged, governments feel more pressure to be transparent about public financial management.
Importantly, 72% of the respondents in emerging and developing economies believe that citizen engagement helps combat corruption in their countries, while 83% agreed that fiscal transparency helps combat corruption.
The report finds that there is strong incentive to move citizen engagement higher up the agenda for financial managers: “Some say that financial practitioners in government can lose sight of their true purpose – serving citizens and communities – by getting caught up in processes, departmental agendas and government bureaucracy.”
Public finance managers who are truly engaged with the citizens they serve can contribute significantly to improving service delivery in South Africa.