Budget Consultations: Key Citizens’ Engagement Platforms

By Learnmore Nyoni

This weekend November 11-12, Gweru city council takes budget consultation meetings into wards under its purview with the goal of getting citizens’ views on its annual business plan and 2024 proposed budget and tariffs.

Gweru city council is presenting a proposed ZWL 434, 88 billion budget to its residents for consideration.

The local authority held a budget consultation meeting with residents associations and ward development committees last Thursday at council offices in Gweru.

Local governance experts say that budget consultation is one of the key democratic processes that allow citizens to participate in matters that affect their daily lives.

Through budget consultative meetings, citizens can influence local authority programme priorities, expenditures, and hence service delivery.

“Council is the closest government system to the people, which makes it a very important part of the governance system. Thus, it should relate to the people and offer platforms for engagement. Budget consultation meetings offer that platform for engagement. It is an opportunity and a space where citizens’ concerns are put to the table and prioritized by the local authority.

“This is one of the crucial platforms for engagement and it influences governance, service delivery and how councils are run. People should not only contribute financially to the local authority but also determine how the money they contribute through bills and taxes is used. They should ensure that service delivery is prioritized by the local authorities,” says local governance expert Lewis Marowa.

Unfortunately communities are not fully aware of the importance of budget processes and therefore do not take part in consultation meetings that provide them a platform to shape how their council run its business.

“One of the reasons why local authorities are not performing to expectation is because there is a huge gap between what citizens want and what the local authorities are doing. This is so because, even when citizens come to the meetings, they do not meaningfully participate in them,” he added.

This shows that there is need for citizens’ awareness campaigns to help communities appreciate what a budget is, why it is important, what services should a local authority offer and which ones should be prioritised. Only then can budget consultation meetings yield be effective.

Youths are a key demographic in Zimbabwe. They should actively participate in determining how local authorities plan to expend financial resources availed to them through external financing, council projects, rates, tariffs and funds from central government.

Sadly, not many youths participate in these foras, thereby abdicating their power to council management to do whatever they wish with revenues from their key shareholder; the residents.

Zimbabwe youth in politics director Polite Ndlovu says that many youths have lost zeal in participating in budget consultation meetings because of the treacherous way in which they are oranised and this negatively impacts efforts to mobilise youths to attend budget consultation meetings.

“Some local authorities do not give citizens the budget document in time for them to consider its details. Giving them on the day defies the logic of consultation. The budget is a big document and citizens need a lot of time to look through it.

“Some youths argue that whatever they say in meetings is not what will eventually be done by council. So they say why do they not just do their things without coming to us, taking our time discussing and later do what they want. We have seen many a time local authorities prioritizing buying vehicles and benefits for their management and ignoring service delivery for their communities,” added Ndlovu.

He said such was the case in Kwekwe, where the Kwekwe city council gave citizens a summarized version of the actual budget during the budget consultation process and this will affect future community mobilization efforts for such meetings.

To increase effectiveness of these meetings, councils should inform citizens in time and avoid mobilising citizens along political lines since budget consultation meetings end up becoming policital parties’ war zones, added Ndlovu.

In Zimbabwe, local authority budget consultations are usually done in November or earlier to plan for the expenditures of the following year.

Local governance experts say that the integrity of a local authority is based on engaging its citizens, strict adherence to its citizens driven budget and financial prudence.

However, some local authorities’ consultative meetings on financial matters have been reduced to talk shows since councils propose one thing on the budget paper and does the other during the implementation phase.

“Transparency and accountability are two key tenants of good governance. Through budget consultative meetings local authorities come and meet communities and have dialogue around financial management issues. There is need for more platforms for citizens’ engagement to foster accountability,” says Lewis Marowa.

Local authorities should ensure that all clusters of society such as the elderly, youths, women and people with disabilities are included in the budgeting process. The budget consultation process should be service delivery driven and not just a rubber stamping of local authorities’ plans, says Marowa.

In a move aimed at improving service delivery in local authorities, President Mnangagwa met all local authorities and urged them to ensure a 70:30 ratio where service delivery constituted 70percent of the total budget.

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