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Budget 2016: Improving transparency and accessibility of Budget information

Published 21 Jun 2016

Treasury Staff Insights: Rangitaki article by Niki Lomax

New Zealand’s Budgeting practices rate well internationally in terms of transparency and accountability. The 2015 Open Budget Survey, an independent assessment covering over 100 countries, has given New Zealand the top ranking for transparency since 2012.

However, we are always looking for ways we can improve our communication of Budget information with the public – both the form of the content, and the platforms we use to deliver it.

In the last 12 months the Treasury has been working on a number of projects to make Budget information more accessible.

We thought a lot about how the public engage with Budget material. Rather than designing material for the public directly, we focused our efforts on improving our communication with the groups that communicate Budget information to the public – journalists, bloggers, Ministers, Members of Parliament, and other intermediaries.

Content of Budget Documents

A new Budget document

The Summary of Initiatives document provides a single source of all the new initiatives in the Budget. Previously this information was scattered across 10 volumes of the Estimates of Appropriations (fairly dense and technical documents designed to support the legislative process) and mixed in with information not always directly relevant to the current Budget. To add further confusion, often information in the Estimates of Appropriations is presented on an annual basis, whereas Ministerial announcements and press releases are almost always presented as a four-year total.

The Summary of Initiatives document more clearly communicates the new initiatives in the Budget, listing each new funding initiative by Budget package, spending area and Vote.

The document was well received by journalists in the media lock-up and will be formally embedded it in the suite of Budget documents published on Budget day.

A refreshed Budget website

Budget.govt.nz has been redeveloped and modernised. The mobile-responsive website provides access to all Budget content and serves as a replacement for the NZ Budget App which was decommissioned as part of this project. The website is more cost effective to develop and maintain than a native app and ensures users have a consistent experience across all devices.

The website uses the Highcharts framework for interactive charts which allows users to download charts as vector graphics which can be manipulated and reused. The website also has a data library, providing easy access to all Budget data and the latest economic and fiscal data.

A focus on open data

In addition to making our data easier to find, we have also been working to improve the way we publish data. We have been working with Figure.NZ, a charity devoted to getting people using data, to publish our data in open formats. This means machine-readable, interoperable formats that can easily be integrated with other data sets with minimal rework.

So far we have published historical series of key fiscal indicators and detailed expense data. We are looking at further datasets, particularly focusing on where there are gaps in publically available data.

The main benefit of working with Figure.NZ is that it means that people interested in data don’t have to know what data Treasury owns or produces – instead they can search the Figure.NZ database and see our data alongside datasets from other public sector agencies, private sector organisations and academic institutions.

Explaining our processes

Another thing we wanted to do for Budget 2016 was to publish more information about the Treasury’s processes and how the Budget works.

In particular, we wanted to present more information on the accuracy of our macroeconomic and tax forecasts to help inform readers on the degree of uncertainty around a point forecast, but also show that we review and assess our forecasts to improve our forecasting. Budget.govt.nz has a section on forecast accuracy which provides an update on analysis of Treasury’s forecasting performance, last published in 2013.

We have also published a ‘Guide to New Zealand Budgeting Practices’ which aims to provide a simple guide on how the Budget is put together, what key terms mean and the ‘rules of the game’.

Supporting public understanding of Budget information – including the spending and revenue decisions taken by government, as well as the state of the government’s books and the New Zealand economy  is a critical part of Treasury’s role. We take this seriously, and these projects contribute to an ongoing process to improve the communication of the Budget.

 

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Treasury Staff Insights: Rangitaki

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