Budget Briefs

Public budgets usually consist of a bunch of numbers crumped together in small fonts spread over hundreds of pages that bear little meaning to most people. In other words, boring by most accounts. Yet analyzing where your tax money is going can help determine whether it's being used effectively, efficiently and with equity.

In Mozambique, the State Budget is a very difficult document to understand. So, translating this complex information into a format that makes sense for the wider public was a good investment of our time. I was responsible for the development of the Budget Brief series from 2010 until 2012.

While time-consuming to produce, the briefs have consistently generated a lot of healthy debate among NGOs, development partners and government institutions. It also helped us better understand the work we do and opened up the doors for a fruitful partnership with the Mozambican Ministry of Finance.

People from other UNICEF Country Offices have asked me for tips on producing such documents. My first reaction has always been the same: "Is there a need for it?" In other words, is the budget in their countries difficult to understand? Are there other organizations doing similar work? What's the political landscape for advocacy?

It's worth evaluating these types of questions. Conducting budget analysis is difficult, time-consuming and politically sensitive. So it's best to evaluate the cost-benefit of this exercise particularly when juggling different priorities.

But here are some general tips to consider:

  • Hire a consultant to teach you how to conduct these analyses. Don't outsource the work. You have to fully understand the nuts and bolts of how the budget works to have any chance of being taken seriously in these debates. Don't rely on other people's analyses. 
  • Don't be limited by 'investment in children' or 'child-friendly budgeting.' This normally involves having to regroup budget lines to come up with a way to measure how much is being spent on children. I personally find these types of exercises time-consuming, subjective and, worse, not very helpful... I prefer looking at budgets social sectors following the classification used by the state budget and not coming up with a different one. 
  • Avoid the "we-want-more-funds" message. Look for efficiency gains or better allocation of services within sectors. This is a more realistic - and helpful - approach. 
  • Cross budget data with different child wellbeing indicators to determine patterns (particularly in terms of equity). This can help you decide the need for other in-depth analysis (BIA, PER, etc). The same cross-analysis can be done within the budget itself (comparing recurrent and investment spending, how much is spent on salaries versus goods/services, etc).
  • Make cross-country/regional comparisons. This always makes the headlines!
  • Understand your political context and adjust language and level of analysis adequately (you can always make these briefs more descriptive than analytical).
  • Talk to people in the sectors to understand trends. They are a huge source of information and they appreciate these kinds of analyses. Most of them don't have time to do it.
  • The same can be said by people from the ministries of finance. They are partners and not adversaries.

Finally, consistently asking yourself, 'what's the purpose of this analysis?' Is it to increase transparency? Debate? To trigger changes in allocations? Unmask patterns of inequities? These questions should guide your decision on how to better prioritize your time. Remember, this is a very time-consuming process. Don't do it for the sake of having an analysis!