HomeOpinion & AnalysisBudget consultations: Answer to local authorities’ transparency

Budget consultations: Answer to local authorities’ transparency

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Participatory budgeting system, if correctly implemented, can be an effective deterrent to fraud and corrupt behavior in local authorities.

Local government refers to the provision and maintenance of public services and infrastructure at local levels. This is achieved through the use of funds generated from local communities, in addition to royalties, loans and grants from central government and other sources.

Local governance infers the establishment and participation of democratically-elected representative structures that identify with the needs and priorities of the grassroots. For this system to be deemed efficient and effective, transparency and accountability should play an integral part in decision-making processes in order to provide quality services.

Of late, media outlets have been awash with reportage of acts of corruption and maladministration within the majority of local authorities. It is evident that the fundamental values of professionalism and ethics are not observed by local authorities.

The epidemic nature of corruption and its manifestations in local authorities have been largely attributed to a number of shortcomings, which include factors such as political patronage, budget abuse, absence of adequate monitoring that has loopholes and opportunities for fraud and clandestine criminality.

Politically-exposed persons have been cited as directly influencing council decisions for personal expediency and working under an illusion of invincibility because of such political connections.

However, one of the most outstanding but less regarded factor, is the existence of a weak society that has resigned itself to the periphery of active citizen participation.

An active citizenry is not only necessary for demanding services, but also serves as an important gatekeeper in questioning acts of financial abuse and stopping an unmitigated slide into autocracy.

Budget consultations as part of participatory budgeting system is one standard that can promote local democracy and inculcate civic interest and participation in local governance. Involvement of stakeholders also promotes accountability and transparency in public finance management.

Participatory budget consultations proffer an opportunity for stakeholders to formulate influence and evaluate council budgets. Here, stakeholders include the general public who have a direct or indirect dependency or benefit from council services.

Such general public includes residents and ratepayers, businesses, churches, schools, clinics, traditional leaders and civil society organisations and other public institutions. Zimbabwe’s participatory budgeting system is a legislative creature established by the Urban Councils Act Chapter 29:15 of 1995.

This then means that local authorities are guided and legally bound to follow and implement the dictates of this Act of Parliament. By virtue of “legislative sire”, the Legislature is bound to unwaveringly exercise diligent oversight on the implementation of such pieces of legislation.

Section 288(i) of the Urban Councils Act implores that: “Before the expiry of any financial year, the finance committee shall draw up and present for the approval of the council estimates in such detail as the council may require of the income and expenditure on revenue and capital accounts of the council for the succeeding financial year. When the estimates presented in terms of subsection (1) have been approved by the council and signed by the mayor or chairman of the council, as the case may be, the council shall ensure that — (a) copies of the estimates are forthwith made available for inspection by the public.”

The Act stipulates that all local government budget proposals are to be published in three issues of any newspaper so as to give the public a chance to analyse the budget that will direct public finance spending in the forthcoming financial year.

It, therefore, implies that non-implementation or flouting of the public consulting standards is at variance with the dictates of the participatory budget system standards as enunciated in the Urban Councils Act especially as far as its aspirations of promoting transparency and accountability in public finance are concerned.

For this budget consultative system to be a success, effective communication and effective community engagement are important elements of the participatory budget system’s anatomy.

In Zimbabwe, a number of local authorities have exhibited reluctance and failed to effectively implement this noble statutory requirement. Many local authorities are currently finalising budget estimates to be forwarded to the Local Government minister for approval, but stakeholders complain about how local authorities officials crowd-out contributions and demands from citizens.

Community priorities and attempts to influence council decisions are ignored or deemed not in tandem with broader local government objectives. Meanwhile stakeholders continue to raise complaints over non-performance of councils and poor service delivery.

While councillors represent communities in local council meetings, most councillors are largely uninformed, and do not appreciate budget-making processes and lack the critical analytical prowess to interrogate budget estimates.

Generally, due to the brutal political and harsh economic challenges bedevilling the country, a large section of society remains poorly mobilised and resigned to passivity and, therefore, socially excluded from participating in local governance.

One of the reasons why citizens fail to demand transparency and accountability from local authorities is the shrinking of democratic space and politicisation of local governance issues.

Zimbabweans live in an environment that is politically charged and unpredictable to an extent that collectivism and freedom of expression cannot be guaranteed.

Citizen mobilisation is often taken as plying politics of opposition, hence publicly criticising public spending is shunned. Public officials generally do not take kindly to even professional criticism, and thus such negative disposition has a strong negative bearing on civic engagement.

As citizens shun participating in local council programmes, council officials, with ease continue to flout tender procedures and abuse of public funds. By not getting involved, citizens cede their right to influence council decisions and, therefore, lose the opportunity to restrain corrupt appetites within councils.

By not participating in budget consultations, citizens give room and opportunity to those with vested interests and political muscle to control council deliberations thereby allowing individuals to benefit from public resources.

Failure to monitor council spending results in possibly creating an imperfect correspondence between funds spent and services delivered.
Contextual factors that affect effective implementation of participatory budget systems are varied and these open-up opportunity for corruption and skewed service priorities. Sometimes council staff are not keen to implement budget consultations and in most cases would rather alter or shorten the process where they can. Usually the time allocated for consultations is brief and not enough for citizens to fully appreciate financial matters which are usually a preserve of experts.

Council staff may also fail to adequately plan and budget for consultations. Local councils need to have political will and invest in staff specialized skills necessary in executing budget consultations. Dealing with various stakeholder interests requires a given philosophical and psychological approach as ultimately the success of budget consultations is attributable to dispositions and caliber of personnel involved in the cycle – from public outreach consultations, monitoring of public spending to evaluation.

Another factor – militating against corruption eradication in councils is the challenge of capacity on the existing ethics architecture to fight corruption in local government. Council staff needs to undergo ethics training in order to raise ethics consciousness and build skills of identifying ethics dilemmas.

Local anti-corruption work can complement, support and even supersede national level initiatives. An internal audit function within council when resourced and empowered can root out corruption and fraud and improve on weaknesses. The judicial framework for local government is set out in key principal Acts governing local authorities such the Urban Councils Act (Chapter 29:15) and the Rural District Councils Act (Chapter 29:16).

Local authorities therefore owe their existence to the regulating statutes and central government that define their powers, responsibilities, limitations and functions. Through the legislature (people representatives) can effect any desired amendments to the functions of local authorities. Through the doctrine of Ultra Vires (beyond sanctioned powers), local authorities and their operations are only confined to the specifics stipulated in the statutes and therefore any local authority that does anything not specifically outlined by the statutes will be acting ultra vires, thus acting beyond their powers.

Wanton non-adherence to specified procedures and prescribed standards is intransigent behavior. Local authorities are ultimately accountable to communities for the effective and efficient use of all public funds. Whilst there are conscious efforts by central government that councils satisfy financial diligence requirement, the Exchequer has perennially unearthed unrestrained financial indiscipline and fraudulent practices against principles of public finance management, all this against intermittent and poor service delivery.

However, councils have often been rendered dysfunctional due to continued political contestations between the country’s two main political parties as they wrestle for control of local authorities. The ruling Zanu Pf party which is in charge of local government has the locus of directing policy and often wields power in the recruitment of senior management staff in councils.

Ultimately, it is the party (Zanu Pf) that controls the local government purse. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) which collected the majority of local authority seats especially in the urban areas automatically wields political staunch but lacks direct access to development and administrative funds.

Participatory budgeting has 8 ingredients as its internal policy anatomy:

1. Effective community engagement

2. Adequate resources

3. Money

4. Sound leadership

5. Effective communication

6. Sound planning

7. Learning

8. Support.

The key is inclusiveness in participation and buy-in (bottom up approaches). Without the above, a council is deemed undemocratic, unresponsive to public demands and therefore a closed system.

Such a scenario is an inhospitable environment where stakeholders are not consulted resulting in an imperfect correspondence between policies and services actually delivered.

What should be in the budget?

 Budgeted income and expenditure for the previous year

 Actual income and expenditure for the previous year as indicators to show whether there was a match between revenue and expenditure, and guide Council in arriving at reasonable estimates in the budget year

 Budgeted income and expenditure for the new year

 A list of the number of staff employed by the Council in each department, to eliminate redundant and ghost workers

 Notes to explain big changes or other unclear issues.

Advantages of consultations

– Council staff gets the opportunity to inform and explain to stakeholders the financial position for the year

– Stakeholders have opportunity to make decisions on spending priorities and negotiate on distribution of public resources

– Help in needs identification

– The basis of revenue and expenditure is interrogated

– Stakeholders get to know and influence how resources will be spent and understand constraints for the fiscal year

– Revenue and expenditure forecasts make residents acquaint with potential limitations

– Helps to adjust the implementation plan especially where contextual variables dictate otherwise

– Provides supplementary information in order to authenticate how budgets are being implemented

– Enables council to be aware of the political calculus of the interests and groups competing for scarce resources

– Stakeholders are given opportunity to analyze, critique or make objections to the budget

Disadvantages of not consulting

– Budget implementation will not be responsive to stakeholder priorities

– There will be no clear or accurate consistent information

– Objectives remain murky

– There will be distortions in transferring policy information which results in conflicted interpretation

– Not consulting creates deficiencies and bureaucratic malaise

Citizens should demand and be given power to influence decisions of local councils. Whilst there are legal instruments that govern and encourage citizen participation in governance issues, the reality on the ground reflects otherwise.

As an argument, it can be noted that through the Urban Councils Act, the Minister of Local Government is vested with power to approve local authority budgets, rescind resolutions/decisions of council appoint commissioners to act as councilors – such powers though deemed excessive have not been used to either control or curb corruption.

The Ministry of Local Government is currently headed by Minister July Moyo who is one of Africa’s renowned local government practitioners, and one would ordinarily expect that Zimbabwe’s local governance structures would benefit from the Minister’s experience and exposure.

Many local authority executives are therefore naturally forced to do acts that appease their master the Minister and have often been inclined to hide behind the Minister’s name when questioned of corrupt behaviour. Through section 313 of the Urban Councils Act, the Minister “may give directions on matters of policy”, and section 314 empowers the Minister right to reverse, suspend, rescind resolutions, decisions etc.

Impliedly, the Minister can use his powers to censure errant individuals in councils. Citizens can petition the Minister to consider objections to council budgets that do not respond to popular community aspirations. Stakeholders can also petition the Minister to investigate corrupt council employees and equally so citizens take such reports to the Zimbabwe Anti-corruption Commission, the Zimbabwe Republic Police or other independent institutions. Citizens should be self-motivated in ensuring that there is congruency between budgets and actual services rendered.

Non-participation and abrogation of right to participate in governance issues creates an environment that accentuates and incentivize corruption. In local authorities the scope for corruption has been compounded by the relative absence of a sustained and effective checks and balance system.

Informed and organized citizen groups provide a unique opportunity for anticorruption advocacy at the local level. Citizen scan help promote integrity and foster moral rectitude by continually monitoring spending habits of local authorities.

Analysing budget estimates can help citizens monitor if council budget estimates are in tandem with budget policy guidelines provided by local government, for example, percentage increases, ration between recurrent expenditure and Capital development Expenditure, Expenditure on workers’ salaries and allowances versus the total budget.

For instance, the bulk of council revenue should not go to salaries. Having a bloated wage bill will be irrational and against the development spirit of local governance. Councils should concentrate on their primary focus of effectively and efficiently providing services and infrastructural development.

Abuse of public resources results in substantial failure and non-fulfillment of set targets. Persistent failure to realize the best value out of public resources is therefore a legislative cause of concern and interest for citizens and their calls for intervention will be predicated on the need to safeguard their revenue contributions against mismanagement and fraud.

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