In a time where our economy is more vulnerable than usual, it is important to reflect on our country's processes of openness and transparency. How much information is the government sharing with the public? Does the public have access to this information, and what can we do with it?
One of the building blocks behind the online budget portal Vulekamali, was South Africa's need to improve on public participation. The website was therefore designed to publish easily accessible data in a user-friendly format, to enable more effective information-sharing, analysis and research. With the support of National Treasury, civil society and the public are encouraged to participate in the budget process. Vulekamali exists to enable citizens to be more informed and empowered.
SA ranks first in budget transparency
For the second time in three years, South Africa - alongside New Zealand - came first in the 2019 Open Budget Index (OBI), which interrogates over 100 countries' commitment to a transparent budget process. The OBI is run by the International Budget Partnership and this year, 117 countries were involved in the process.
But, while we scored high in the category of transparency, our level of public participation still remained relatively low - and this has been the case for quite some time now. This is why, in 2018, Treasury in partnership with civil society coalition IMALI YETHU, launched vulekamali.gov.za. In an attempt to place even more emphasis on being open and expanding this to countrywide accessibility, as well as create opportunities for the public to get involved, the online budget portal was born.
"The goal is to turn data into information and information into insight." - Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard
The global average transparency score was 45 out of 100 and this year, South Africa scored 87 out of 100. This part of the survey measured public access to information on how the government raises and spends public resources. It also assesses the online availability, timelines and comprehensiveness of several key budget documents. A score of 61 or above indicates that a country is likely publishing enough material to support informed public debate on the budget.
Room for improvement
Transparency alone is insufficient for improving governance, which is why South Africa's public participation score of 14 out of 100 indicates that there is room for improvement. This category of the survey assessed the formal opportunities offered to the public for meaningful participation in different stages of the budget process. In South Africa, there are a handful of these opportunities, including pre-budget submissions (during budget formulation by Treasury) and public hearings related to the approval of the annual budget (in Parliament). However, these did not target more vulnerable and underrepresented communities, meaning that a significant part of the population does not really have a say.
The survey also looked at the level of oversight by legislatures and supreme audit institutions play in the budget process. While South Africa scored an adequate 83 out of 100 for Parliament's oversight during the planning and implementation stages, several suggestions to encourage improvement emerged through the survey. These included earlier budget proposal submissions and ensuring that the legislature is consulted early on.
"Rates of progress on open budgeting reform are far too slow to counter mounting frustration with the state of exclusivity and inequality and to make headway on development goals." - 2019 Open Budget Survey
Increasing public participation with Vulekamali
One of Vulekamali's biggest successes has been its ability to reach thousands of citizens, through the portal itself, but also through in-person events. Hackathons, DataQuests and Civic Information events have been held in all nine provinces over the past two years, and the team has engaged directly with more than 2,000 South Africans.
Public participation has increased steadily, with more opportunities for young people to get involved. Through Vulekamali, they have learned about the budget process, conducted analyses of their own and created tools and resources for their communities, to encourage increased access to budget information.
To learn more about how you can use the budget portal, go to vulekamali.gov.za/contact