Earlier this month the results of the latest Open Budget Survey were released – and they make mixed reading for New Zealand, despite our high overall score.
The Open Budget Survey is one of those classic international comparison tools, in which independent observers run the rule over a country’s practices in a particular area – in this case, whether the government is open about the processes and information surrounding its Budget.
Overall, New Zealand scores 87/100, a world-leading tally. And that reflects the fact that we publish lots of information about the Budget – for those who know how to find it. We also score 81/100 for Budget oversight, which is roughly speaking a measure of parliamentary scrutiny of the Budget – and again, that’s not bad, although it could be improved with an independent fiscal institution, as others have advocated.
Where we don’t look so good is on public participation. Our score there is just 54/100. We don’t publish a citizen’s budget, which is an accessible way to present Budget information – for instance through a comic, video materials, infographics, and so on. In other words, we’re not so good at publishing information for those who don’t know how to find it.
We also don’t have regular processes for getting public input into the Budget. As the survey notes, our public bodies are pretty good at doing consultation when they are forced to for big setpiece events. But they don’t seem to see the need for deep and regular participation in setting the Budget, which is a shame.
One modest contribution I would make to that debate is to propose something like a citizens assembly budget, in which 100 or so randomly chosen citizens, representative of the wider country, were brought together to draw up an outline Budget. Obviously they couldn’t do all the detail, even if given a whole day or weekend. But they could, with the help of experts, jointly discuss and decide how much money they would like to see spent in various areas – health, education, welfare and so on – and what tax rises or tax cuts they would correspondingly recommend. I think it would be a powerful way to reveal what the public actually wants to see in the Budget, and create a mark against which governments could be judged if they diverged from its conclusions.