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Citizens Guide to the Budget, publishing concept

Internationally, most citizens’ guides to their countries’ budget are published each year. Some appear to be one-off; most cover the substance of the budget, but some instead cover only the budget process; and some are very short according to a former New Zealand Treasury official and consultant to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Murray Petrie.

In the 2008 Open Budget Survey, countries to score an ‘A’ for publication of a citizen’s guide to the budget were El Salvador, France, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, United Kingdom.  Murray Petrie, deputy chair of Transparency International New Zealand, particularly suggests South Africa’s short citizen guide to the budget as a model, particularly for a developing country.

Meeting a need

Broadening understanding of the country’s public finances can help to frame more realistic citizen expectations and to build support for difficult policy choices. It can also help to offset the influence of narrow special interest groups and to avoid public debates being conducted in jargon by those “in the know”.

The IMF Deputy Managing Director (the recently appointed Chinese official) Min Zhu, is on record arguing that fiscal transparency is vital if developed countries are to get out of the fiscal mess post-GFC, which requires credibility of fiscal policies in the eyes of electorates if difficult austerity measures are to work.

See Revitalizing the Fiscal Transparency Agenda

As part of the growing search for more transparency and accountability in government finance, the article Murray Petrie co-authored with colleagues from the IMF suggests guidelines for the production and dissemination of a citizens’ guide to the budget. Examples from a variety of countries help to illustrate why governments should publish an annual guide, what the contents and characteristics of a good guide should be, and how such a guide should be made accessible.

Why should governments publish a citizens’ guide to the budget? Murray Petrie and his then IMF colleague Jon Shields say access to information is a precondition for citizens to

  • understand how a government is using its entrusted powers to tax, borrow, and spend public resources;
  • become involved in informed public debate during the budget process
  • and hold a government properly to account.

By reporting and explaining budget decisions and the state of the public finances with simplicity and clarity, the government can help to demystify the budget beyond the often necessarily technically complex detail in the budget documentation.

“Otherwise, the job is left to civil society or the media, who are not always adequately equipped” Murray Petrie says in the OECD publication.

“It is also a good discipline for policy makers to explain themselves in simple, everyday language” he says.

Broadening understanding of the country’s public finances can help to frame more realistic citizen expectations and to build support for difficult policy choices. It can also help to offset the influence of narrow special interest groups and to avoid public debates being conducted in jargon by those “in the know”.

Qualities of a citizens guide

Murray Petrie says a citizens’ guide should be an objective and technical document, not a political tract.

It should attempt to describe the budget in a neutral manner and meet recognised standards of comprehensiveness, reliability and relevance. It should not be seen as a partisan document to promote how well the government is managing fiscal policy. While the guide might contain a foreword by the finance minister or the president, the body of the guide should be clearly the responsibility of the government agency that is accountable for the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the budget and associated information, e.g. the Ministry of Finance says Murray Petrie. This will help to avoid cynicism that a citizens’ guide is a purely political tool.

A citizens’ guide should generally be produced by the executive branch. The guide should be seen as helping to meet the government’s responsibility to explain publicly how it is raising, spending, and managing public resources. It is an important part of the transparency and accountability of fiscal policy.

“Where the government does not produce such a guide, it may be appropriate for the legislature to produce one, especially in those countries where the legislature has substantial powers to amend the budget presented by the executive” the former New Zealand government official says.

Failing that, there would be a role for a citizens’ guide produced by civil society, such as the budget briefings produced by a movement in Gujarat, India, he says. “But this solution is second best. The government should explain its own budget to the general public. The media and civil society groups can then use the citizens’ guide as an input to their own deliberation, dissemination or advocacy activities – or publish their own alternative guide if they wish.”

How should a citizens’ guide be disseminated?

The guide should be actively and widely disseminated using a variety of media. The aim of publishing a citizens’ guide is to help inform and engage the broader public on how the government plans to raise and spend public money. This requires pro-active use of a variety of dissemination methods. Passive posting of information on websites is unlikely to be sufficient, particularly in countries where important segments of the population lack easy access to the Internet. The guide itself might be produced in a number of versions involving different forms of media ranging from radio messages to posters and leaflets.

In addition, in some countries, active dissemination will require production of the guide in more than one language.

The government should facilitate dissemination by the media and relevant civil society groups. The media and NGOs can play an important public education role as intermediaries. A government introducing a citizens’ guide should engage the media and relevant NGOs prior to release of the first guide, in order to help maximise its exposure and impact.

The guide may inform discussion of the legislation at committee stage. In some countries, the guide could be discussed as part of the poverty reduction strategy process.

Namibia publishes a web edition of The Citizen’s Budget. Namibia and Tanzania describe a citizens’ budget as a simplified digest of the national budget produced in a format that makes it easy for the ordinary citizen to understand the main features of what the government has planned for the financial year. This citizens’ budget aims at making budgetary information in the country more understandable, accessible, interesting and relevant to ordinary citizens. It also gives them the opportunity to be more involved and informed about the government’s planning, and budget execution process. It mentions in brief where the government is going to get its money and how it has arranged to spend it.

There is clearly an international movement to get more countries to publish their own national annual Citizens Guide to their Budget. Some countries have started to create their own guides, some are part way – and others – are yet to start.

Find out more

see, New Zealand Citizens Guide to the Budget, New Zealand angles
Ph: 64-4-475-6109

Citizens Budget questions

Examples saved in a very simple budget library

How to draft

There are different examples of format/structure, illustrated here: And, as another reference, here is the link to the Citizen Budget Guide developed by Murray Petrie and his international colleagues, which gives some ideas on how to draft such document:

Murray Petrie also advises and consults to the International Budget Partnership.  His main role these days is a member of the coordinating team for the Global Initiative on Fiscal Transparency (GIFT), see

GIFT is a multi-stakeholder initiative involving the International Budget Partnership, the IMF, World Bank, some governments, other NGOs. It has promulgated a set of High Level Principles on Fiscal Transparency, Participation and Accountability.  Principle 1 asserts a public right to fiscal information, principle 10 asserts a public right to direct participation in fiscal policy making. The HLPs, which are on the GIFT web site, were endorsed by UNGA in December 2012.


From Anthony Haas, Asia Pacific Economic News representative in the NZ Parliament’s Press Gallery, and Director Centre for Citizenship Education.