Budget formulation and public expenditure are central fiscal responsibilities of national- and local-level government. These functions are cyclical and have different moving parts, involving both legislative bodies and executive branch institutions. Annual budgets reflect government priorities and programs, and should also provide details on revenues, spending and debt. Budget monitoring opens the budget-making process to public view and helps ensure that it follows the established rules, including provisions for public review and legislative approval. Public expenditure tracking uses the approved budget to determine if public funds are allocated and spent in accordance with the budget and with other laws governing public spending. Monitoring public procurement is an aspect of expenditure tracking that focuses on processes surrounding the government’s decisions to purchase specific goods and services, such as solid waste disposal.
Generally, there are four stages to the budget process.16 First, in the formulation stage, also known as the drafting stage, a budget is put together and made ready for proposal to the legislature. Next, in the approval stage, the budget is reviewed and changed before it is approved by the legislature. In the implementation stage, a budget is put into action to be implemented by the executive branch. Lastly, in the oversight stage, the budget is overseen by the legislature and the auditor’s office to check if it is being implemented as approved (by the legislature) and following the relevant financial laws (by the auditor’s office). Budget monitoring takes place during the formulation and approval stages of the budget cycle, while expenditure tracking, including public procurement monitoring, takes place during the budget implementation and oversight stages.
Some groups may move from monitoring the budget process into budget advocacy, which involves organized citizen efforts to influence budget allocations or reform the process.
Civic groups may monitor the budget and expenditures processes to make them more transparent, inclusive and efficient and to prevent corruption. Budget monitoring is generally done to ensure that the public has access to budget proposals and that budgeting rules are followed. Expenditure tracking helps ensure money is reaching the intended destination and that it is accounted for through the procurement processes. This helps mitigate mismanagement and contributes to resources better serving the public interest.
Civic groups can monitor budgets and track expenditures for a variety of intended outcomes, including:
- Increased citizen scrutiny and involvement in budget decisions;
- Improved transparency and fiscal responsibility;
- Decreased levels of corruption;
- Ensured value-for-money of public purchases;
- Improved service delivery and public sector projects; and
- Improved engagement between civil society, government, and citizens.
As monitoring groups become more experienced in budget monitoring and form relationships with public officials, they may choose to participate more actively in the budgeting cycle. Some groups may start with a focus on budget transparency and then move into expenditure tracking and budget advocacy initiatives.
Monitoring Openness and Outcomes Throughout the Budget Cycle
Monitoring Budget Openness
Because the budget enumerates the priorities and policies of a government for an entire cycle, the process of drafting and implementing a budget must be transparent and open for public input. However, complete budget information is often not accessible to citizens at the national or local levels. In addition, budgets and the technocratic steps in the budget cycle can be complicated for ordinary citizens to understand and easily engage in without support. For these reasons, some civic groups focus entirely on monitoring the openness of the budget process. Such groups monitor the level of space provided for citizen input and whether the budget process follows transparent practices at various stages, and then aim to make the process more open through ongoing monitoring and advocacy initiatives. Monitoring budget openness is typically done by watchdog organizations. Groups can develop a “Citizen’s Budget,” a concise, illustrative budget summary designed to be easily understandable by citizens, as a tool to help make the budget process more transparent. Organizing budget consultations is another tactic to support a more open and transparent budget process.
Monitoring Budget Priorities
Budget monitoring initiatives can also focus on tracking budget proposals and the enacted budget allocations and spending, in terms of investments in specific sectors and budget categories. This dimension of budget monitoring is centered on ensuring that the government is setting the right priorities and doing it in a manner that is fiscally responsible and responsive to citizen needs.
Using information collected through budget hearings, budget reports and citizen questionnaires, groups can determine the extent to which citizen priorities are included in the final budget. These findings have often led groups to conduct follow-on activities that continue their engagement in the budget cycle beyond the formulation and approval stages, including expenditure tracking and budget advocacy.
Issue-based organizations may monitor the budget trends within a sector or focus on a particular issue to raise public awareness about funding levels and to inform advocacy campaigns designed to influence spending decisions. Watchdog organizations continually monitor different aspects of the budget process against certain indicators related to openness and fiscal obligations. These types of monitoring initiatives can help civil society and citizens get informed about the budget process and the priorities and policies that will be funded in that fiscal year. Such monitoring can also be useful for policymakers and public officials seeking to involve informed citizens who understand the budget process.
Even when citizen groups actively monitor the budget-making process, there is often a gap between allocation decisions and how public funds are disbursed and spent. As agencies initiate spending through payrolls and procurement processes, citizen groups have kept records of local expenditures. As the projects are rolled out and payments are made, groups have observed the implementation of the projects and conducted citizen-based service delivery evaluations to ensure quality.
Expenditure tracking initiatives can take place during the budget execution and oversight stages of the budget cycle, but the majority of the activities typically focus on tracking spending during the budget execution process. Groups can use budget documents and findings from budget monitoring to engage in expenditure tracking. For example, information on the final budget allocations captured through a budget monitoring initiative can be used to provide points of comparison for the information collected through an expenditure tracking initiative. Civic groups may compile monthly reports based on their expenditure tracking findings. These reports can then be compared to the local government’s record of expenditures and yearly reports and statements. During the budget oversight stage of the budget process, some citizen groups have even audited local budgets to reveal how the government’s records compare to their own. In addition to ensuring the quality of public projects and services, these findings can help reduce corruption. Groups can use them as a basis for working with local governments to improve the budget execution process or to raise citizen awareness of discrepancies in expenditures.