Budgets are the key to understanding the planning choices any organisation makes. They show the limits and potential that the organisation has to work with. In the case of government, they are the instrument for communicating revenue and expenditure plans – they not only reflect government policy; they operationalise it. Budgets are the entry point to exploring issues of education financing, ‘Through engaging with a budget, decision making and accountability can be improved, policies and practices can be changed and corruption and inequity exposed.’ However, in order to use budgets to challenge plans and priorities, the processes and power issues involved in budget management need to be understood, as well as the budget’s potential impact.
There are many different definitions of a budget. A budget is a planning tool – it matches expected income and expenditure, and gives details of the choices government (or any other organisation) is making regarding revenue collection and expenditure priorities. However, a budget is not neutral. It is subjective; full of value-laden decisions and different interests. While some believe a government budget should be re-distributary, sharing the wealth of the rich with those who are less well-off, others believe that government budgets should be minimal. Budgets therefore reflect political priorities, economic understandings and the level of commitment to an idea of social justice.
There are three ways to engage with budgets: budget analysis (understanding what is contained in the budget, the information which informs the budget, and the impact of the budget on different people); budget tracking (monitoring disbursements to see if they are timely and in accordance with allocations, and monitoring flows through the system from international to national to local level) and budget influencing (producing alternative budgets, lobbying and campaigning to change budget allocations, offering alternative information).
For a good example of how to analyse, track and influence budgets read these reports: