Civil society advocates are often lambasted for speaking only in order to criticise governments, but remaining silent when governments have done something positive.
In fact, this is common behaviour around the globe and across sectors: When we are unhappy with the service we have received anywhere, we are quick to criticise and make demands. When we are happy, we may forget to say so.
Nevertheless, I believe it is important that we are equally vocal when the government has done the right thing, and so I want to applaud Kenya’s National Treasury this week for what I have elsewhere termed the “radical” steps taken to improve budget transparency this year.
To recall, last year, Treasury released a Programme-Based Budget for the first time. The presentation was sufficiently opaque that it was rejected by parliament, and Treasury ultimately released the old line-item budget presentation (though much too late to be of any use to the public).
Faced with this scenario, Treasury could have taken the easy road this year; they could have simply released the same shoddy PBB but also released the line-item budget at the Government Printers on April 30. We would have complained about the PBB, but not that much, because the budget books we are all used to would have been available in a timely (if inconvenient and expensive) fashion.
Instead, Treasury took the high road. First, they gave the PBB a substantial makeover, introducing new programmes, sub-programmes, and better targets and indicators than in 2013/14.
While the PBB still falls short of what we can hope for, there is no question that serious time went into revising it to address the criticisms from last year. In addition, the PBB contains a new item, the so-called Delivery Unit, which allows us to link the PBB to the old budget format through the use of common administrative codes. This has restored considerable clarity to the PBB.
Treasury did not stop there, however. They also released the line-item budget online for the first time that I can remember: The full budget books that we usually must pay Ksh3,000-Ksh4,000 for at the Government Printers.
The books are now free to download by anyone, anywhere. Yes, they are still in PDF format, making them hard to analyse, but with optical recognition software, it is possible that we may not have to retype everything that is in them to be able to use them.
We still want to see these figures in Excel, but we must acknowledge that the National Treasury has made a major advance in transparency this year. They have also coupled these documents to a Budget Summary, providing some additional detail on specific budget lines.
Finally, all of this information was made available online within a week of tabling in parliament, allowing the public to read and analyse it prior to the budget hearings in parliament later this month. This has also not been done in the past two years and is a significant advance. So, credit where credit is due.
Are the budget presentations perfect? Far from it. First, the continued release of two different budget presentations raises questions about motivation. We are meant to be moving toward Programme-Based Budgeting.
Is the twin release a transitional move as the PBB is strengthened (a good idea) or is it a permanent fixture to deal with the weaknesses of both presentations (a bad idea)? While the introduction of sub-programmes has improved our understanding of the structure of programmes, most of these lack objectives and some seem more like administrative units than proper sub-programmes.
The new PBB contains many more indicators and targets than last year. Almost all indicators now seem to have targets, which was not the case last year.
While this is welcome, many do not seem well-crafted. The health sector contains an indicator for percentage of births with a skilled attendant, but the targets for the future seem like they have already been surpassed in 2013, if we are to believe other government sources.
There is also an indicator for in-facility maternal deaths with a target of 100 per cent, which defies common sense (we want all mothers who die to die in facilities?)
My biggest complaint is that neither the line-item budget nor the PBB contains adequate information about wages. At a time when the government is pushing an agenda of reducing the wage bill, it is mystifying that the comprehensive data on wages by ministry that used to be in the line-item budget has been eliminated.
The PBB, meanwhile, has only “compensation to employees,” now down to the sub-programme level. However, it is hard to know what kind of employees these are and how much they earn.
In summary, there is more work to be done, but let us recognise how far we have come this year.
Jason Lakin is senior programme officer and research fellow at the International Budget Partnership/ E-mail: [email protected]