The Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, with support from the Australian Government recently convened a policy dialogue on Public Finance Management in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, with useful outcomes for national development. Abimbola Akosile reports
Nigerians have always been particular about how the commonwealth is managed for the benefit of all citizens. This is also in line with the citizens’ quest to reduce corruption in the public sector, through blocking of loopholes and punishment of offenders and looters.
To continue discourse on these issues, a policy dialogue on public finance management was convened by the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC) recently in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, with support from the Australian Government.
The forum attracted 30 participants from civil society organisations working on various governance thematic frameworks, government agencies, media and private sector operators.
The overall project was expected to contribute to greater collaboration between government and CSOs in strengthening institutionalisation of effectiveness in managing public finance in Nigeria more efficiently.
At the end of exhaustive deliberations on the concerned topics, a communiqué was issues and jointly signed by the Executive Director, CISLAC, Abuja, Mr. Auwal Ibrahim Musa (Rafsanjani); Lead Director, Praxis Centre, Abuja, Jaye Gaskia; Executive Director, Mother of Good Counsel Initiative, Port Harcourt, Lady Doris Onyeneke, and Programme Manager, Society for Women and Youth Affairs, Port Harcourt, Amanie Stella.
The participants at the forum observed that development planning involves processes which ensure that national policies and strategies are realised and development concerns at all levels are fully integrated into the overall national development.
To them, “It is designed to effect some permanent structural changes in the social, economic and infrastructural architecture of the nation in a planned manner, with an eye on the dynamic global challenges. The government sets out objectives about the way it wants the economy to develop in the future and periodically intervenes to try to achieve those objectives.”
The forum also noted that weak communications and coordination around the budget proposal has created certain assumptions on the execution of the fiscal action plans. Major public resource allocation process, reflecting a mirror image of the state in terms of social values and priorities has not translated rhetoric into reality, with a glance at the budget from the surface, it added.
To the participants, the essence of planning by government is that it could make a conscious choice regarding the rate and direction of growth. The most logical interpretation of this is that the relative rates at which heavy and light industry, agricultural improvement, transport and commerce, housing e.t.c. are to be pursued become a matter of conscious policy, the communiqué noted.
“Budgeting in Nigeria is indeed intensely a political matter as both expenditures and revenues are about allocation of resources among competing constituencies within a political environment. What is of importance to the citizenry, constituencies and society at large is expressed through the political and democratic process.
“In Nigeria, to overcome the lapses of incremental budgeting, what is in vogue and encouraged by current administration is clean slate type of budgeting which is otherwise known as zero based budgeting. At the end of the year all unspent money will be returned to treasurer”, the participants observed.
They also noted that some ministries often find it difficult to return such money so they resort to looking for activities that will allow spending of more money in order to spend their budget; and this act has prompted a new terminology called ‘Budget Engineering’.
The forum noted that the National Assembly, if truly pro-people, should have considered the budget earlier than it did, rather than the purchase of luxury cars; at a time of unprecedented downturn in Nigeria’s economy, as a crucial tool to be passed efficiently and speedily.
To the participants, the 2016 budget shows that government is still not in a hurry to apply austerity measures, but inclined to populist social spending, with laudable plans to spend big on infrastructure overshadowed by plans to borrow heavily. With overly optimistic targets for revenues, this budget also remains a document that can be a pliable tool for the perpetuation of institutional corruption, they further observed.
Tips for Progress
To the forum, the need for a National Development Plan finds urgent justification in the reality that the one year period of the annual national budget is practically inadequate to reflect government policies and reform agenda as critical areas such as infrastructure most often require more than a year to establish, expand, reform or revive.
According to the participants, “it equally requires longer time to bring budget deficit to an acceptable level of stability. The growing significance and relevance of prudent fiscal management for the success of every strategic development plan must be appreciated by planners and managers of a country’s economy.”
The Executive and Legislature were enjoined to learn the art of translating goals into an operating budget – where effective communication is imperative. The forum sought the development of a timetable to set expectations and to determine deadlines; a process which the executive must communicate.
According to the participants, a budget tool kit should be developed and distributed to the legislature with detailed information that guides. The package should contain a rolling forecast updated with actuals, recurrent detail for headcount planning, the defined goals with specifics related to each department, a digital worksheet to aid both the development of the budget and any upload or consolidation process, and a financial calendar which includes deadlines and responsibilities..
To them, citizens’ buy-in should rank on top of the ladder both in the planning process and during the year, with monitoring and evaluation of actual budget performance. Government at all level must not sacrifice the people’s purpose of the budgeting exercise for mundane wrangling.
Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and media were advised to play a significant role in the speedy implementation of the 2016 federal budget, which has since been passed into law.
To the forum, there should be strengthened, legal, governance and administrative policies and procedure in place to create a more robust platform to interact and engage with citizens as a way of promoting inclusiveness in the budget system of the nation.
There is need for CSOs to increase advocacy for better allocation to security, health and education as well as develop the processes, mechanisms and structure for knowledge management and information sharing through the establishment of resource centre on various issues around public finance management and monitor it through the life of the administration, the forum also added.
To the participants, there should be more responsive and internal capacity effectiveness for governments at the national, state and local levels to be able to effectively discharge their functions and be more relevant to the citizens.
Participants thanked CISLAC and the Australian Government for providing the platform and taking a step further in strengthening institutions to serve the people better in Nigeria.
The process was acclaimed to be catalytic to strategising towards strengthening participation in the policy thrust that will underpin the budgetary activities of the new administration.
The meeting also urged the conveners to sustain its engagement in promoting knowledge of what through such capacity building session. It was a consensus that the engagement indeed refined the participants’ thoughts and that all they have learnt would be applied in their work to ensure a better society with the benefit of improved public finance management.
“There should be strengthened, legal, governance and administrative policies and procedure in place to create a more robust platform to interact and engage with citizens as a way of promoting inclusiveness in the budget system of the nation”