Bringing Quality To the Budgeting Process, By Oluwadele Bolutife
To achieve overall quality in the process, we advocate that the post-budgeting reviews should be accorded its priority of place. That is otherwise called budgetary control. Such preference will mean that a thorough evaluation is done on them, and its observations would then form the fulcrum of the subsequent process.
In my previous article, I advocated for a fundamental shift to a purpose-driving budgeting system. To strengthen that further, in this writeup, I will be talking about the need to bring quality into the process for us to maximise the potential benefits of a purpose-driven budgeting system.
Sometimes around 1997, Dr. Chris Onalo of the Credit Institute, established a group with the primary purpose of monitoring budget implementation at the federal level, with the intent to advise and possibly influence the process. Few meetings were held, and the group ‘died’ a natural death. In one of those meetings held at the University of Lagos, I raised a question about the impact of ‘known’ leakages in the system. I was the youngest person in the ‘August’ gathering, of which I became a member by virtue of my position as the chief exectuive officer of Coastal Bottlers Limited (makers of Tandi Guarana). A well-known Economist countered me immediately that it meant we are “dealing with fundamentals.” He warned us against that, as it will derail us from our focus on monitoring. I was not pleased with that disposition, but I was also sensitive enough that I might not pull through. It so happened that the eminent Economist consulted for the federal government. So, to deal with ‘fundamentals’ may mean breaking his ‘pot of soup.’ I learnt a great deal from that incidence. Unfortunately, we never met afterwards.
The issue of budgeting has been a significant concern, especially for those outside the government, but only a few have dared to differ substantially with the government. Also, in the ’90s, a group of professionals started advocating for a “value-for-money” audit as a possible means of curbing the excess leakages that budgeting had inadvertently aided. The advocacy did not survive either, partly due to inertia from expectedly supportive professional bodies, and of course, unwilling government agencies, who were not prepared to sign their own “death warrants”.
With all these and many more issues, the budgeting system, rather than becoming an economic stimulator, has become the very instrument of stagnation. Apart from the unnecessary delay in passing budgets, more bottlenecks exist before funds are released. Information abounds that most of the time, you have to ‘lobby’ for money to be released for approved budget items. Of course, that lobbying usually entails ‘what is in it for us?’ Or in the local parlance language, “nothing goes for nothing.” Nobody cares about the impact of their actions, as no measuring yardstick is in place. Then, there is the ‘ritual’ of forcing some inconsequential statistics down our throats.
Budgeting should not be about the quantum of money involved alone, it should also pass the test of pure quality information. These are timeliness, completeness, accuracy, validity, and reasonableness. To achieve all these, as much as we should, we need to discontinue the act of just assembling figures and calling it budgets; we should specify the primary purpose we intend to achieve with budgets.
Talking about the budget passage, I recently overheard some ‘hailers’ saying that we have now returned our budgeting system to normalcy. What normalcy, I dare to ask? Passing budgets in December is not an achievement at all! The very intent and purpose of budgeting stipulate that it should be done well in advance of its take-off. For a budget expected to begin implementation in January, the approval should be no less than three months before the take-off date. It is more imperative in an environment where even the ‘organised private sector’ must wait for the federal government approved budget before they can conclude theirs. It thus means the current system slows down everything.
Here is a snapshot of what happens now. Budget is passed late in December, the minister provides the breakdown around mid-January at the minimum, and afterwards, analysts hit the airwaves explaining the intent to the ‘masses’. By February, the Central Bank comes up with policies in line with the budget, then, professional bodies like the prestigious Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN) organise budget seminars across zones of the country. Hence, the first three months are spent speaking to the budget! How long will it take for the business community to respond effectively? We leave that to our imaginations.
Budgeting should not be about the quantum of money involved alone, it should also pass the test of pure quality information. These are timeliness, completeness, accuracy, validity, and reasonableness. To achieve all these, as much as we should, we need to discontinue the act of just assembling figures and calling it budgets; we should specify the primary purpose we intend to achieve with budgets. The objectives should not be ambiguous, and they should be verifiable through a transparent process.
When due process was established some years back, I was of the group that was skeptical about it. In a hot professional debate with some of my colleagues, some of us took the position that this would only expand the network of looters. We have been proved right. Recall, the defence of the then erstwhile governor of Lagos State on the seemingly ‘outrageous’ amount spent on the Lagos State website. He claimed everything went through due process. In an environment of ‘what is in it for us,’ due process has become an official ‘rubber stamp’ for cooperation in stealing from our commonwealth. One of the things I came to understand as a fraud investigator is that collusion is a problem that is most difficult to untangle. Due process, as it has been implemented, unfortunately promotes collusion, more than officials will admit.
The National Assembly’s passing of the budget has merely improved, but it has a long way to go. I do know that we cannot squarely blame them for this. If the budget is ready by the latest in October, it must be transmitted to them much earlier. With the budget passed in October, all other processes should have been completed by the first week in December…
We, therefore, need quality measurement to ensure that every kobo spent in the budget is well justified. Also, it requires quality from the design to preparation, approval, implementation, and post-implementation reviews, if we are ever going to break the circle of sub-optimality that the current budgeting process represents. Passing budgets in December is one of such sub-optimality. It is a lack of purpose that allowed budget-padding into the process. Perhaps, it is a lack of understanding about the desirable timing for budget preparation and approval that made us beat our chests that we are now returning our budgets to the January-December circle. No doubt, it may mean some level of improvement if we are to be charitable. Is it not often said that we should celebrate every little win? However, beyond the celebration, our situation is akin to a student whose score averaged 20 per cent, and the parents engaged a lesson teacher for him. Due to the intervention, he moved his average to 32 per cent. He has improved, but he is still not passing.
The National Assembly’s passing of the budget has merely improved, but it has a long way to go. I do know that we cannot squarely blame them for this. If the budget is ready by the latest in October, it must be transmitted to them much earlier. With the budget passed in October, all other processes should have been completed by the first week in December, thus enabling effective responses to its provisions. The first quarter of the new year should be mainly for the process of reviewing the previous year’s performance and providing a recommendation for the subsequent budgeting process, which should commence in the second quarter. For emphasis, budgeting is a continuous circle, but timeliness is still essential despite that.
To achieve overall quality in the process, we advocate that the post-budgeting reviews should be accorded its priority of place. That is otherwise called budgetary control. Such preference will mean that a thorough evaluation is done on them, and its observations would then form the fulcrum of the subsequent process. Again, to do that effectively, we may need to revisit the value-for-money auditing system to ensure that we are not shunning out figures year-in, year-out, without any commensurate and confirmable achievement. With a quality budgeting process, perhaps it will not take over two decades to complete a less than 150 kilometre Lagos-Ibadan highway. By bringing quality into the process, we may no longer need to buy water to fill the tank attached to a supposedly new borehole ready for commissioning.
If we have the courage and if we are really hungry for an effective system, a purpose-driven budgeting system, hinged on deliberate quality processes and procedures, maybe a way out.
Oluwadele L. Bolutife, a chartered accountant and a public policy and administration scholar, writes from Canada.