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Budget: a non-governmental perspective and need of the time

Budget: a non-governmental perspective and need of the time

In modern economies, budget is the key instrument for the execution of government economic policies. Because government budgets may promote or retard economic growth in certain areas of the economy and highlighting priorities in government spending which ultimately becomes the focus of competing political interests. Country’s budget facilitates financial stability by tracking expenses and following a plan, to pay bills on time, build an emergency fund, and save for major expenses. Overall, a budget puts a nation on stronger financial footing for both the day-to-day and the long term working.

Objectives of government budget are:

  1. Reallocation of Resources through tax imposition and tax concessions or subsidies.
  2. Reducing inequalities in income and wealth
  3. Economic Stability
  4. Management of Public Enterprises
  5. Economic Growth and 6. Reducing regional disparities.

Where these objectives are the direct outcome of government’s economic, social and political policies but if we monitor the non-government perspective budget experts everywhere complain that citizens’ seemingly unending appetite for more public services and benefits is not matched by a corresponding willingness to pay for them. The public does not seem to understand the need for short-term fiscal trade-offs, let alone grasp the potentially serious impact that demographic changes may have on long-term budget outlooks. While citizens welcome spending that provides them with visible and immediate benefits, many seem blind to the need for essential public goods and resist paying for them.

Many public officials, academicians and civil society organizations view public engagement as one solution to the absence of popular support for responsible fiscal policies. Public engagement in civic affairs is both “means” and “ends” of well-functioning democratic government. It is a necessary element of efforts to improve official accountability, results when citizens feel connected to their government. An engaged public demands that government be efficient, responsive, transparent and accountable. Government, in turn, becomes more open to the public’s input and participation. Thus, public engagement creates mutual benefits i-e citizens become better educated about public policies and government activities and by tapping into the experience and expertise of their constituents, officials can build more effective and responsive government. Public officials in many countries are concerned that disengaged voters could make it more difficult to undertake constructive policy changes but the civil and political contexts differ from country to country where public engagement activities share the basic objectives of making government work better by bringing it closer to citizens, improving the accountability of the public sector, overcoming mistrust between people and their elected leaders, and instilling a stronger sense of national purpose and common direction.

Being the activity of state budget, symbolizes an explicit agreement between people and government where private resources are exchanged for the public services and benefits that fulfil national priorities and objectives. Citizens rightfully expect governments to deliver on that promise. They further expect that public budgets be fair, equitable and transparent. If citizens believe that the management of government finances is subject to corruption, inefficiency and waste, they question the motives of their leaders and are less willing to accept tough policy choices such as structural reforms, tax increases and spending cuts where resistance is obvious when they feel that government does not respect their opinions about how to allocate public resources.

Although, Budgeting is one of the most difficult tasks to perform and more public participation may further complicate the process due to insufficient knowledge of citizen about the complex economic, social and political issues embedded in national budgets so, direct participation by citizens in the national budget decisions may not be feasible or desirable but several other forms of engagement may be feasible in this regard but governments always discourage public participation and never wish that citizens become more thoughtful about government, more realistic in their expectations, and better prepared to exercise their oversight of elected representatives.

In the world of Globalization where technology enable to access everything on a single click, governments are no longer dependent on intermediaries like public media to communicate with constituents. Official websites provide unfiltered information directly to the public on a cost-effective basis. Many public agencies already make good use of their websites to communicate information about their activities, programs and benefits but finance division websites, however, seem to ignore the wide range of users inside and outside of government that now have access to them. That may reflect the inwardly-focused nature of government budgeting and accounting so, engaging the public in budget policy is by no means an easy goal. Policy makers are not likely to change national budget processes to involve citizens in budget deliberations Access to accurate, reliable and comprehensive budget information can raise the quality of the public debate. Its absence allows misinformation to go unchallenged, potentially feeding public mistrust and cynicism about government. The goal of public engagement is to empower citizens, thereby enabling them to make their governments more open, responsive and effective. Governments, however, should not encourage greater engagement by citizens may be because they expect immediate and measurable improvements in budget outcomes. Instead, changes are far more likely to take the form of gradual improvements in popular understanding of policy issues.

Although, engaging the public in national budgeting will not solve complicated budget and fiscal policy dilemmas, but it is an important part of an overall strategy both to encourage good government practices and to adopt politically viable yet responsible fiscal policies. Engaged citizens are more knowledgeable about government, hold more thoughtful and sophisticated views of public policy, and are less cynical in their attitudes toward government. The budget represents the public’s priorities and allocates the responsibility for paying for those activities. If citizens are not engaged in national budgeting, they cannot exercise meaningful oversight and hold officials accountable. Budgeting, however, is a technically complex as well as a politically difficult exercise, made that much harder because it is a means not an “end” of governing. Most citizens quite sensibly do not view responsible budgeting as a higher priority than the major tasks that they assign to government, such as improving the welfare of citizens or providing the national defense. Citizens understand poorly how fiscal problems affect their well-being. Too often when they receive information about the budget, it is negative. Press reports tend to focus on waste, abuse and corruption, thereby reinforcing popular mistrust of government. When elected officials discuss the budget, it is often in highly partisan and simplistic terms that divide the population, rather than unify voters around common goals so, involving citizen in budgeting process is extremely important as it not only promotes transparency but bounds governmental officials to focus on the needs of general public.

Ms. Urooj Aijaz (MD IRP/ Faculty Department of H&SS, Bahria University Karachi)

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