Budget transparency improves citizen participation

Professor Kishore Mahbubani raises an important point about transparency in the national Budget process ("The enduring ideas of Lee Kuan Yew"; March 12).

For six years, the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) has submitted recommendations in response to the Government's annual Budget consultation exercise.

The process would be more fruitful with greater and more consistent sharing of relevant government data.

The International Budget Partnership (IBP), an advocacy group that promotes open budgeting by governments, compiles an Open Budget Index tracking the budget transparency of over 100 countries. Singapore is not included in this index, but if we benchmark ourselves against the best practices recommended by IBP, it is clear that there is significant room for improvement.

For example, IBP recommends that governments release a pre-Budget statement, setting out the Budget strategy for the coming year or two years. This statement can include data such as projections of revenue and expenditure as well as policy goals.

As this is a starting point for the next year's Budget, it should be released by the fourth or fifth month of the current Budget year. This would give the public and Parliament ample time to consider the statement, debate its directions and give meaningful feedback. It would also leave time for the feedback to be incorporated in the Budget formulation.

Singapore does not release any pre-Budget statement, so citizen feedback is not as responsive to the Government's intended strategies.

Nor is there publication of a mid-year review or year-end report, comparing actual Budget execution to the enacted Budget. This stands in contrast to countries like South Africa and the Philippines.

Moreover, it is doubtful that the one month between the closing of the consultation period (Feb 26 this year) and the Budget announcement in Parliament (this Thursday) leaves the Government much time to fully digest and absorb feedback.

At the moment, information on the impact of spending, the take-up of policies and other measures of the Budget's effectiveness is available only piecemeal.

Data may become available at the discretion of government agencies or through the unsystematic process of parliamentary questions.

This haphazardness and opacity lowers the quality of citizen participation in policy deliberation.

By improving the timeliness, predictability and granularity of information, the Government can empower citizens to give constructive, evidence-based feedback, and also build society's collective trust in the mechanisms of government.

Jolene Tan (Ms) Senior Manager Programmes and Communications Association of Women for Action and Research

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2016, with the headline 'Budget transparency improves citizen participation'. Print Edition | Subscribe