Parliament must influence budget process reforms

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The Ministry of Finance has embarked on a programme to revamp the national budget process in the country.

The programme is aimed at strengthening the crafting of the budget and the execution of public programmes funded from the fiscus, including efficient and effective accounting for the collection and use of public resources.

While these developments are long overdue and most welcome, Parliament must significantly influence these reforms given that it has a constitutional mandate to pass the budget in order for Treasury to spend the money.

For a long time, Parliament has been advocating for an overhaul of the budget process in Zimbabwe with minimal success.

Previous ministers largely continued with a business as usual approach despite numerous meetings/workshops between the Budget Committee and the Ministry of Finance to dialogue on the issue.

The current minister must be applauded for coming up with the Public Finance Management Act which has tried to strengthen the role of portfolio committees in monitoring budget implementation through scrutinising monthly and quarterly reports submitted by ministries to their respective committees.

Although not yet fully happening, at least we have legal provisions in place and it is up to the committees themselves to push for their enforcement.

The Public Finance Management Act is however very weak on the role of Parliament in the budget formulation process. The only reference to the role of Parliament in budget formulation is Section 28 (5).

The Section says the minister may, through the appropriate portfolio committee of Parliament (in this case Budget and Finance Committee), “seek the views of Parliament in the preparation and formulation of the budget for which purpose the appropriate portfolio committee shall conduct hearings to elicit the opinions of as many stakeholders in the national budget process”.

The inclusion of “may” means the minister is not obliged to seek the views of Parliament. This significantly weakens the role of Parliament during the process of priority setting and allocating resources accordingly.

This section must be amended in order to compel the minister to consult Parliament through the Budget Committee and provide adequate funding for the committee to conduct nation-wide public hearings.

And the consultation and hearings must be conducted much earlier so that it is not a mere academic exercise.

Last year, the Budget Committee went about conducting hearings in August/September, about six weeks before the national budget was tabled in Parliament.

Surely, this was far too late and explains why Parliament was unable to influence the pattern of expenditure distribution and collection of revenue.

I would also like to mention that it is a futile exercise for Parliament to conduct public hearings on the budget without engaging the Minister of Finance during the process of setting priorities.

The Budget Policy Framework or strategy paper guides budget distribution.

Budget reforms currently underway must have provisions to allow Parliament to make an input into the Budget Policy Framework.

In other words, a draft budget strategy paper must be tabled in Parliament and referred to the Parliamentary Budget Committee.

The Budget Committee must then be given enough time to consult stakeholders for their input and come up with its own report for tabling in the House.

The report must then be subjected to thorough debate and fine tuned where necessary before being adopted by the House and submitted to the minister who will in turn use it to finalise his budget strategy paper for tabling in Cabinet.

Some people may argue that such an approach will result in Parliament usurping the role of the Executive in budget crafting.

Not at all, this is best practice to strengthen the consultative mechanism between the Executive, Parliament and the general public in the budget formulation process.

Some countries nearer home have adopted such a model.

In Uganda and Kenya, the Minister of Finance is required by law to submit the budget policy framework at least three months before tabling of the estimates of expenditure in Parliament.

This allows enough time for Parliament to debate and influence priority setting and resource allocation patterns.

What is important to highlight is that the work of Parliament at this stage is opened up fully to public participation. This is called open budgeting.

The 2010 survey covered 94 countries of which seven were in sub-Saharan Africa. South Africa came first among the countries surveyed, meaning that it scored highly in terms of the comprehensiveness of information provided on the budget, the extent of effective oversight provided by Parliament and the Audit Office as well as the opportunities available to the public to participate in national budget decision making processes.

One of the main reasons why South Africa has done well in this regard is the existence of the National Economic Development and Labour Council, which is a legally constituted mechanism to promote dialogue between key players, civic society, labour, business and the government.

The Zimbabwe Parliament and interested civic organisations can learn a lot from the IBP Open Budget Survey. Let us see the reforms coming up with a strong policy and legal framework on the budget process that that is enforced.

John Makamure is executive director of the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust writing in his personal capacity. Feedback: john.makamure@gmail.com