While SA has been praised for having one of the most transparent budgeting processes in the world, there doesn’t seem to be any tools for citizens to track and hold government accountable for its actual spend.
So says Kevin Phillips, MD of idu Software, who notes that the country needs real-time, online and easily understandable and accessible information. “With this greater transparency would come greater accountability and greater faith in the system.”
According to the International Budget Partnership’s Open Budget Survey 2010, for the 94 countries surveyed, the average 2010 score for strength of the legislature on budget transparency was 44 out of 100.
The report states that only 16 countries, including SA, South Korea and Sri Lanka, were considered to have strong legislatures, scoring 67 or higher out of 100. A larger number of countries, 35, were found to have weak legislatures, scoring 33 or less out of 100.
However, Phillips says that although SA got the recognition, it is important to make the distinction between the budget being transparent and the way the money is spent, the spending being transparent, and the information being timeously available to all.
“There seems to be a lack of desire for this to happen and, in some cases, an underlying sentiment that ministers view funds as their money to spend, instead of them being custodians of those funds on behalf of the citizens who have elected them.
“South Africans have become curiously passive about the way our tax money is spent. Perhaps it’s time we became more insistent, and demanded more regular, timely insight into exactly what is going on. If there are reasons why we shouldn’t know, then let our elected representatives tell us what they are.”
Phillips adds that, in the UK in particular, and in some US states like Florida, huge emphasis is placed on transparency and accountability in government, with information such as council meeting minutes and high-level spending figures available online.
“Citizens are able to keep track of government spending through a searchable online database. It is easily accessible and available to all.”
He is also of the view that transparency means daily insight into the fine detail of what’s going on, not a yearly report that arrives 18 months after it’s too late to do anything about the problems.
“Imagine if your local municipality had a Web site where you could see, month by month, exactly how much was being spent on what. Imagine you could compare the spending on water services versus international travel. Imagine you could spot exactly who wasn’t spending their budget until nearly year-end and then frantically issuing half-baked tenders for “use it or lose it” last-minute projects.”
Market research firm IDC points out that SA still has a long way to go in terms of creating a sophisticated e-government infrastructure. On the other hand, the Department of Public Service and Administration notes that SA still remains holed in the first stage of maturity when it comes to e-government.
Khaya Ngcakani, e-government consultant at Gijima Public Services, says the success of e-government initiatives is best measured by how much of a country’s population has access to government’s services.
“This implies inclusiveness and consistency in an e-services mandate for all citizens from a social development perspective, for example health, education, employment, housing and other social services that impact a country’s overall standard of living.”
She adds that the enablement of citizen access to essential government services allows for broader citizen participation in the various phases of a country’s development – economic, social and political.
“South African e-government implementations have been successful in optimising efficiencies and increasing revenue-generating mechanisms, for example, SARS e-filing will need to translate their successes into developmental initiatives that start to see the inclusion of a larger segment of SA’s population into the mainstream economy, and by doing so, increasing SA’s tax base,” Ngcakani explains.