Sifiso Skenjana | If government wants our trust, getting the budget right is a good start

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Sifiso Skenjana (supplied)
Sifiso Skenjana (supplied)

The effective and optimised use of the national budget is an important starting point in rebuilding citizens' trust in government, writes Sifiso Skenjana.

South Africa is faced with budget pressures from a revenue collection point of view, investment, as well as ensuring an equitable expenditure framework against which the budget is appropriated.

These pressure points demand now, more than ever, that the government be meticulous in how it appropriates the budget as well as ensures that the exacerbation of inequality, as we currently experience it, is arrested through an impact-led approach in the appropriation process.

Many of the tools currently being used are monitoring and evaluation tools that simply target the fulfilment against certain metrics, without necessarily having a qualified view on the impact that such a metric will have.

We saw budgets being re-diverted from critical development projects, such as education, police and social development, in pursuit of shoring up the country's ailing airline SAA, that just recently came out of business rescue.

To crudely draw the lines of differentiation with monitoring and evaluation (and impact), we simply refer to "monitoring" as the thing to detail what we are doing; "evaluation" would detail what we have done in quantum and quality; and "impact" would most importantly attribute the effort or resource allocation to the effect it has had – this has been the missing part.

Evidence suggests that there is a positive relationship with budget appropriation and economic outcomes. More specifically, Morteza Ezzati in his 2016 paper, The Effect of the Criteria of Need and Capacity in Government's Budget Appropriations on Economic Growth on Economic Development of Iran's Provinces, found that there needs to be both a needs- and capacity-based approach in budget appropriation and, ignoring these, had a negative effect on the growth and developmental outcomes of the provinces.

In a localised context, this suggests that the current proposed zero-based budgeting could be a critical enabler in the optimisation of the appropriation process of the national budget as well as using that for a contextualised view of the "impact" such an appropriation would have in pursuit of the fulfilment against the developmental needs at a subnational level.

The blinding romanticism of the 'theory of change'

Much of the sustainable social and economic development hiccups we continue to see can partially be attributed to the romance of the theory of changewhich broadly postulates itself first around what is sought to be achieved; and how is it to be affected.

The challenge is it doesn't close to loop on taking stock on whether that which was sought to be achieved was achieved, and what in fact is the impact of such a programme. This has expressed itself squarely in how the Budget Speech and the State of the Nation Address have historically been articulated, where we have rarely seen either of the two national addresses start by reflecting on what was promised and the status against that, line by line.

Towards rebuilding citizens' trust

The Edelman Trust Barometer, which measures trust as function competence and ethics, based on a nationally representative sample, found that, in 2020, South African citizens' trust in government had waned, owing mostly to deficiencies in public service delivery and perceptions of corruption. The report also emphasised the urgent need to address deficiencies in education, health and poverty eradication.

There is a lot of emergent literature now on gender-responsive budgeting as a budgeting approach that is aimed at analysing the "impact" of budget appropriation on gender equity and equality. With inequality, low levels of quality education and access, high poverty levels and marginal social development, we ought to start extending that literature to explore the socioeconomic responsiveness of our current budget appropriation.

We need to journey towards having a subnational or provincial view of the socioeconomic responsiveness in order to have the scope and insights to inform more targeted interventions within the appropriation process.

The effective and optimised use of the national budget is an important starting point in rebuilding citizens' trust in government and that such an impact-oriented appropriation will truly be the proof in the pudding as ordinary South Africans will start to see their lives genuinely changing for the better.  

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