Points of View 28th February 2017

Blog by Paul Bradley: It’s about time people were involved in government budget setting

by Ruchir Shah

Written by Paul Bradley, SCVO.

Last week, the Scottish Budget was passed by Parliament. Last-ditch deals were made to secure support for the bill and compromises prevented gridlock. Many conversations between political parties were taking place over how Scotland’s money should be spent, but the most important conversation was the one we were not having: between citizen and state.

It’s indicative of what’s missing across so many aspects of public life. With all the talk of a more consultative and cooperative style – a Scottish approach to government – when will actions match words?

It’s not enough for politicians and policy makers to take these decisions alone – fixing the cracks in society demands people understand the choices that affect them and feel control over those that are made.

Open budgeting will make it more straightforward for those outside of government to understand how and why money is spent

One of the most important roles government must play is to listen. It needs to position itself so that it works with people and communities to remove the barriers and structures that prevent a conversation from taking place. Financial transparency must be a part of that new conversation – a participative and open budget process is needed to give people the agency to make change.

From the formulation of the budget to the actual implementation and evaluation of its success, members of the public should be involved throughout. Enabling people and communities to participate in open budgeting will make it more straightforward for those outside of government to understand how and why money is spent. A clearer view of why certain decisions are made could lead to more support of public spending in Scotland and result in greater confidence and trust.

From changing how budget information is disclosed to providing capacity building programmes and support for citizens to feedback, careful consideration as to how open budgeting can be incorporated into Scotland’s new fiscal framework is required. It’s the only logical way forward. It’s also a smart response to what works elsewhere in the world.

We’d do well to learn lessons from Cincinnati. Each year, citizens are asked to feedback on the proposed budget. As part of that process, government delivers presentations, videos, surveys, public forums and a summary of what fellow citizens would like to see happen. From educational opportunities to enhanced survey tools and public meetings, Cincinnati’s budget process has it all. But examples do exist on a much larger scale that Scotland should explore, from Mexico’s budget transparency portal – a one stop shop for budget information – to Decide Madrid, an online participatory budgeting tool with 60 million euros available for the people of Madrid to spend.

Last year, the Scottish Parliament set up the Budget Review Group with the aim of reviewing the Parliament’s budget process following the devolution of further powers. An easy way forward for the group would be to focus solely on incorporating new powers, but it should take this opportunity to review the entire budget process in Scotland, which is in need of reform.

Real change can only happen if a new model is found that motivates people to get involved. Scotland’s new status as an Open Government Pioneer coupled with the Scottish Government’s commitment to greater financial transparency in its National Action Plan provides us with an opportunity to seriously explore the practice of open budgeting. Now is the the perfect time to think again.

Paul Bradley, Scotland Open Government Coordinator, Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations