Budget Transparency Will Improve Our Politics

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In 2005 Australia's lack of budget transparency made headlines when Greg Combet and Nicola Roxon sought a High Court injunction against the Howard government. Howard was using funding from the Department of Workplace Relations to pay for the WorkChoices media campaign, a move made possible because half of the departmental budget was tied to a vague outcome: “higher pay, higher productivity”.

Though the Australian parliament had never approved funding to be used for the campaign, the Court ruled the outcome’s phrasing meant its budget could be used to fund almost anything. The Court found no fault (pdf) with the use of allocated funds.

Budget transparency refers to the way a government accounts to the public regarding funding allocations. This extends from reporting spending to the public to involving the public in spending decisions, exemplified by the ACT’s current budget consultation or the participatory budgeting initiatives being piloted in the US.

Organisations like the International Budget Partnership (IBP) attempt to collaborate with civil society in dozens of countries to analyse and influence public budgets and “reduce poverty and improve the quality of governance." The IBP measures and compares how well particular countries are performing in terms of budget transparency and currently NZ is in the top position. Australia, on the other hand, has no score as it does not participate.

In response to the inappropriate levels of accountability in 2008, the ALP’s Lindsay Tanner made it an election promise to improve transparency standards and initiated Operation Sunlight.

Reviewed by Andrew Murray, Operation Sunlight said some very basic things about how the government should be accounting to the public for funds appropriated through the parliamentary process.

The accomplishment of Operation Sunlight was that for the first time, rather than provide vague “outcomes” for entire portfolios, government agencies were now required to specify each program in a “Portfolio Budget Statement”, including evaluations of each program's success or failure.  This has allowed sites like BudgetAus, which I founded, to check the estimated and projected surpluses and deficits published by the last government.

More recently, the Labor government mandated that all of its publications would be available under Creative Commons 3.0 for commercial or non-commercial use. This also has positive implications for transparency.

The 2011-12 and 2013-14 budget papers have been published under this licence which has allowed me to undertake an independent analysis of government spending based on the data within. It was only after I created my first set of figures and coded searches to total up spending on terms across all agencies and portfolios that  I realised what radical change such simply policy could create.

However, the Portfolio Budget Statements remain published exclusively in PDF and Word Documents at budget.gov.au. This format prevents people searching across them in any way or finding specific information via search engines. The site and the documents themselves are so lacking in any effort to engage that most people I speak to, including those who must make use of them in their work, will do almost anything to avoid having to read them.

In a world of databases, why has the federal budget has been kept in such an unusable format? Encouragingly, the AFR reports that from next year budget data will be released to the government's new open data portal at data.gov.au, in formats which make plugging it into sites like BudgetAus a less expensive and painful process.

There is more to budget transparency than just giving people the figures. Analysis and engagement are the real outcomes of transparency efforts. The more educated people are, the less opportunity there is for budget information to be used for political purposes and the better political discourse will be for it. Projects like BudgetAus raise the bar because they raise the collective IQ on matters that to date we have been told not to worry our pretty little heads about. Whether you are from the business community, an activist or an engaged citizen, such projects will allow you to engage with budget data as never before and understand what is really going on behind the press releases and catchphrases.

Even a cursory look at the programs listed by size shows what the country is up against in creating a sustainable economy and highlights significant structural and demographic issues which will affect Australia long after this government is a memory.

Find out more about BudgetAus here.

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