Online budget tool: less taxing on your brain
A website created through an ambitious collaboration helps people navigate information about the national budget easily
What did you take away from the budget speech last week? Probably the Vat and fuel levy hikes, the proposal for the funding of free education or the below-inflation adjustments to personal income tax brackets. And sin taxes always grab headlines.
But unless it’s your job or personal passion to delve into the details of the budget, the sheer magnitude of data it contains can be overwhelming.
A new portal could significantly change that experience. Enter vulekamali.gov.za, developed by OpenUp (previously Code for SA). The project is the result of a collaboration between national treasury and civil society organisation coalition Imali Yethu.
It aims to make the budget data — information about the way SA spends public money — more accessible.
The portal soft-launched a few weeks ago, providing budget data from previous years, and was then updated to include the 2018/2019 budget info in the days after former finance minister Malusi Gigaba delivered his speech.
It is an ambitious project, and frankly quite cool if you’re a data geek. But its relevance takes it beyond that niche. It’s the second such project from treasury, which launched municipalmoney.gov.za last year. Now provincial and national information can be found on the Vulekamali website.
Treasury already publishes much of its information on its own main site (treasury.gov.za), but has found that it largely goes unnoticed. The site is not only quite tough to navigate, but much of the information is in a format that is not very useable, such as PDFs.
The Vulekamali site, on the other hand, is built with citizen users in mind, offering sections such as "budget highlights", "tax pocket guide" and "estimates of national expenditure" on the front page.
The budget for each of the national and provincial departments has its own section, so if you want access to, for example, a spreadsheet of how the economic development department apportioned its pennies, it is there for downloading.
If you prefer not to be bogged down by the specifics, you can scroll to the summary of spending (a bar graph), which is broken down by category of spend on each subpage.
A learning centre page offers a glossary of terms, as well as further resources, which are quite sparse but promise to grow.
Under "contributed data" you’ll find reports on spending and budget implementation from external sources, including the Centre for Child Law and the Public Service Accountability Monitor.
This is a nice touch that suggests an openness to criticism and accountability.
And if you’re really data or tech savvy, the site documentation and application program interface (API, a means to get access to data) are available.
The site doesn’t seem to be focused on the assessment of spending, unlike Municipal Money, which uses icons and colour-coding to give a quick sense of how well a municipality is meeting its responsibilities. Vulekamali’s primary focus seems to be on the provision of information, and it looks set up to do this well, with clear, navigable site architecture.
But some contextual analysis and commentary (rather than standalone reports of the "contributed data" sort) would be very welcome. Fortunately, if you have suggestions like this, or a request for information, the site wants to hear them. It has "your contribution" and "contacts" sections under the "about" page.
Open data is a key theme of the Open Government Declaration, to which SA is a signatory. The declaration is an international platform for making governments more open, and this site is in keeping with treasury’s progressive approach to transparency and the provision of data.
The recently released 2017 open budget index, which assesses countries’ budget documents, has placed SA in first position, jointly with New Zealand, for having the most transparent budget out of 115 nations surveyed.
SA far outranks its neighbouring countries. Namibia, for example, scored 50/100, compared with SA’s 89/100. According to the International Budget Partnership, which developed the index, a score above 60 is considered to be "providing sufficient budget information to enable the public to engage in budget discussions in an informed manner".