SA is capable of sustaining two narratives. One, which provoked a Financial Times editorial suggesting the Protection of Information Bill represents the path to Zimbabwe, is cloaked in secrecy. The competing narrative - the one of transparency - was enhanced yesterday with the unveiling of the 2010 Open Budget Index, an international survey that measures countries' transparency and openness in budget information and access. Second last year, SA has now made it to the top of the pile - something that should be earmarked as the standard to be followed in all areas of public and corporate life.
What are the implications for strengthening democracy in SA? The International Budget Partnership- sponsored Open Budget Index is the only truly independent, comparative, regular measure of budget transparency and accountability around the world, produced by independent budget experts. The results are based on documented evidence of the state of budget transparency and accountability, and are rigorously reviewed by International Budget Partnership staff and two independent in-country experts.
In addition, the National Treasury has been involved in discussing the responses provided by the two independent Idasa researchers, first as another independent check and, second, to ensure the government's perspective is considered in the final rating. The survey is a self-assessment in which countries review their own practices when it comes to producing and making budget information publicly available.
Although the latest results do not indicate a correlation between the political system and the degree of budget transparency, it has been shown that countries that rely heavily on oil and gas revenue, receive significant amounts of foreign aid and have authoritarian governments appear to have done least well on the i ndex, raising direct questions about openness and its link to the overall democratic climate.
So why should we care about SA's top position in this international survey? First , there is a direct relationship between a policy intervention (budget reform) and one of its most visible outcomes - our high standing in this international survey. This stands in contrast to other government policy interventions, where the cause-and-effect relationship is hazy at best and nonexistent at worst.
The capacity of the government to translate policy promises into reality can clearly be seen in the budget reform process and this is a commendable development: civil society, and members of the executive and the legislative arms of government have contributed constructively to the deepening of the practice, and culture, of budget process transparency over the past decade or more.
Second , with an overall score of 92%, the results indicate that SA provides extensive budget information in most areas examined by the survey. The democracy proposition here is simple: if the government provides extensive information, yet this information is not fully used by citizens and civil society, it raises serious questions about the readiness of South Africans to embrace information to advance social and economic causes.
There is a worrying disconnect here and it points to the fact that state-led supply of budget information has outstripped the ability of ordinary citizens to use that information for explicit advocacy positions. While public finance legislation ensures the publication of most budget information, civil society's indifference to this glut of information may provide powerful disincentives to government officials to supply the type and quality of information it avails to the broader public.
Third , the budget reform process is far from being the finished article, as is demonstrated by persistently poor-quality nonfinancial information, the difficulties in linking strategic plans more firmly to actual budgets and the public value we get for our scarce and precious tax resources.
In other words, we need to look not just at the quantity but also at the quality of the information provided. Superficial accounts of the allocation of resources could disable an honest assessment of the extent to which departments fulfil their obligations to realise social and economic rights.
This also undermines Parliament's potential role in the budget process. Perhaps we should encourage this important oversight institution to lobby for more and better- quality information so as to discharge its responsibilities as the custodians of the nation's purse more effectively.
There is an odd correlation between the absence of calls for better-quality information and ordinary South Africans' obsession with access to, rather than the quality of, the services they receive. We believe that both positions are conditioned by low expectations of the kind and quality of budget information we should have access to ordinarily.
This analysis is well expressed in a yet-to- be-released research report by Neil Overy for the International Budget Partnership, which notes that "SA's budget documents provide very little detailed information about what happens to these amounts of money once they are transferred out of the national fiscus.... The documents released by the relevant parastatals do even less to fill this void in SA's budget transparency picture."
Fourth, the results underscore the fact that, for some time now, SA has stood out as a shining example in Africa in matters concerning transparency and openness. The results are a vote of confidence that the access-to-information provisions in the constitution have been given full expression in subsidiary legislation and practice.
Support for SA as a regional powerhouse over the longer term depends on its ability to define international norms and standards of transparency and that they be placed on the agenda of institutions such as the Southern African Development Community and the African Union. Such norms could codify broadly accepted principles and guidelines on transparency and would provide civil society organisations, the media and legislatures with powerful tools to leverage improvements within countries.
Should SA regress with the current Protection of Information Bill in particular, it will be bad for access to information locally, and there are far-reaching implications for the deepening of democracy continentally.
While our praise for the government's progress in budget reform should not be interpreted as an endorsement of specific macroeconomic and fiscal positions, it is true that effective engagement of such policies is conditional upon freely available and trustworthy budget information.
There are, therefore, several good reasons the government, Parliament and civil society should not rest on the laurels of the log- topping accolade. Even more can and should be done to link the budget process to the progressive vision of a just and equal society advanced in the constitution.
We all have a stake in the deepening of budget reform and the related transparency agenda, and we should be wary of any developments that threaten the public's access to such valuable information.
To regress into arbitrary censoring of information would undercut the progressive reform impetus and threaten to reverse one of SA's finest post-1994 achievements.
Written by: Thembinkosi Dlamini and Russell Wildeman
This article was first published in Business Day on 27 Oct 2010.