Deliberations around public budgets can sometimes bring out the worst in parliamentarians  but impassioned responses rarely come from citizens themselves. Perhaps it is because budgets come in the form of tomes, with tables upon tables of data and very little context. Even though those tables reflect social services and entitlements that impact us all, simply disclosing this information does not necessarily mean that these documents will be understood or the resources well spent.
The Budget Transparency Initiative (BTI), led by the World Bank’s Social Development Department and funded by the Governance Partnership Facility, has introduced a methodology to disclose, simplify, and analyze budgets at various levels to not only bring this information closer to citizens but also create enabling spaces for them to provide feedback.
BTI has recently finished pilots of this methodology in Nepal and Cameroon. In Nepal, approximately 85 percent of its total education budget goes to community schools and more than 90 percent of this budget goes to these schools directly. To encourage transparency and accountability, the government of Nepal has legally empowered communities to conduct an annual social audit in each community school in order track the resources that it receives. Despite this devolution and due to a general lack of awareness of the process in the communities, school-level stakeholders are often not adequately prepared to carry out a social audit.
The Community School National Network (CSNN), a national NGO with expertise in social accountability approaches, led the pilot in Nepal and conducted a capacity building program for social audit committee members and facilitators in the sixty schools. These facilitators then conducted a School Social Audit Gap Analysis to identify gaps between policy and implementation on the ground. To complement the gap analysis, a series of templates were developed to collect and disseminate information to school stakeholders. For example, the School Governance Assessment  template collects information on the social audit process, the management of school finances and the conduct of the School Management Committees.
In Nepal, a thorough capacity building effort was integral to this process. A post-capacity building assessment in 20 schools found that one iteration of training and use of these templates has significantly improved community-level capacity to monitor and improve 22 out of the 39 indicators in Nepal’s Social Audit Guidelines.
In Cameroon, an ongoing impetus for decentralization has resulted in an increase in fiscal transfers to local councils, making budget transparency at the local level even more critical. Under the stewardship of Regional governors and high-level regional steering committees, a process to disclose the budgets of 60 schools, 25 health centers and 12 local councils was initiated. The Governors and steering committee members themselves, with support from two NGOs (Integrity Network Cameroon and SNV – Cameroon), led the process to mobilize communities for the budget dissemination meetings. Traditional and religious authorities and the use of local languages were also crucial in engaging local communities. Radio programs, theatre performances and other forms of educational entertainment in local languages were used to deliver the message of the importance of budgets and budget transparency. Simplified local council budget templates  and a Local Council Budget Transparency Index were also developed to encourage local councils in exchanging best practices in budget transparency. School and health center budget templates  were created, populated with data, distributed during dissemination meetings and also posted on visible places in the community.
In the Cameroon context, this combination of high-level political will, trusted local leaders and community radio has engaged and informed citizens of their local budgets. In several instances, a platform for people to directly pose questions to authorities regarding services and expenditures generated constructive discussions.
In both countries, the templates capture budget information in a simplified and citizen-friendly format and are designed to be used on a regular basis, generating new and updated data on various services at the community level. Service users and citizens themselves generate the data in the templates. And while the data itself has been useful for informing higher levels of government, the process of data gathering has built invaluable community capacity to understand and monitor how resources are being used at the local level.
Budget disclosure alone can be enough if it is meant to attract attention from donors and cheaper credit . It is not enough if it is meant to reach citizens and get them to engage with their government on their rightful entitlements. As it enters into the next phase, the BTI team would like to hear from you about your experiences in this area. How have you made budget dissemination interesting? What approaches have you used to engage citizens?
The BTI adds to the decades-long experiences of civil society organizations around the world and NGOs like the International Budget Partnership . The new Open Government Partnership  (OGP), an initiative founded and led by national governments like Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Philippines, South Africa, United Kingdom, United States, also marks a new era in this area of governance.
Budgets have never been so exciting.
Photo Credit: Bakti Kusumaningrum / World Bank