Future-wise: Here is how governments can make budget data more accessible

The key is to de-jargonize the data and make it simple and user friendly

By Shuchita Rawal , Aishwarya Bhuta
Published: Wednesday 01 February 2023
Interventions such as the NDSAP, Digital India Initiative and the DGQI can pave the way for technology-enabled and future-ready modes of disseminating fiscal data. Photo: Twitter@President of India.
Interventions such as the NDSAP, Digital India Initiative and the DGQI can pave the way for technology-enabled and future-ready modes of disseminating fiscal data. Photo: Twitter@President of India.

 Interventions such as the NDSAP, Digital India Initiative and the DGQI can pave the way for technology-enabled and future-ready modes of disseminating fiscal data. Photo: Twitter@President of India.

Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman presented the Union Budget 2023-2024 in Parliament on February 1, 2023. The state governments will also present their respective budgets in the coming months. 

For a vast majority of the population, newspapers and news channels remain the key source of information on budgetary announcements. More recently, social media and other online media platforms are also becoming popular vehicles for disseminating highlights of the budget. 

However, for a considerable proportion of the interested people, there is hardly any engagement with budget documents themselves. Despite being a storehouse of vital fiscal information, budget documents fail to encourage large-scale public engagement mainly due to their technical and heavily jargonised nature.

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To bridge that barrier, there is a strong case for enhancing the availability of fiscal information in the public domain in an open, usable and easy to comprehend manner. 

Centre has taken various initiatives to promote as well as enhance the quality of fiscal data made available online by the governments at different tiers.

One such important policy that governs open data in India is the National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy (NDSAP), 2012. The broad objective of the policy is to facilitate access to government-owned shareable data and information in both ‘human readable’ and ‘machine readable’ formats in a timely manner.

In order to ensure that the data shared is useful, accessible and easy to comprehend, NDSAP has listed a few key principles. These include openness, flexibility, transparency, legal conformity, intellectual property protection, interoperability, quality, security, efficiency, accountability, sustainability and privacy.

Similarly, the government launched Digital India Initiative in 2015 with a vision to transform India into a digitally empowered society and power its knowledge economy. It aims to promote the ‘Digital Empowerment of Citizens’.

It emphasises making people-related documents (including budget documents) available electronically in a standardised format. It further advocates making these documents accessible to citizens through web portals and mobile applications.

Also read: Economic Survey 2022-23: Production of coal to cross 900 million tonnes next financial year

Further, the Development Monitoring and Evaluation Office of the NITI Aayog has developed a Data Governance Quality Index (DGQI). DGQI is aimed at evaluating how the data is being compiled by the various ministries and departments.

It emphasises simple and user-friendly processes of data generation, management, and utilisation, followed by its widespread dissemination for better decision-making. 

Under the DGQI, ministries and departments are ranked across six key themes under the Data Systems pillar. Of these, analysis, use and dissemination of data have been accorded the highest weightage (30 per cent).

Other indicators such as interactive and easily navigable visualisation of data, use of social media platforms for disseminating credible information and multilingual interfaces of departmental websites are other key considerations for state governments to improve the uptake of fiscal data and invite public participation in budgetary processes. Moving forward, the DGQI can be a tool for enhancing fiscal transparency.

Based on the above policies and several studies being carried out in this direction, the following key parameters need to be considered by the state governments while making their budget data available online:

  • Availability of complete datasets: All the datasets released by the government should be as complete as possible, supplemented with metadata that describes and explain the variables in the raw data.
  • Accessibility and comprehensibility: Data published should be in open formats i.e., machine-readable formats, such as Open Document Formats for Spreadsheets (ODS), Comma Separated Values (CSV), or Excel (XLS, XLSX), and HTML among others, for helping the users reuse the data.
  • Timeliness: Whenever feasible, data should be published on a real-time basis. It is also recommended that the fiscal data for at least the preceding 10 years should be made available in the public domain. This would facilitate long-term analysis and year-wise comparisons.
  • Readability: Budget documents should be published in at least bilingual forms (vernacular language as well as English / Hindi). Moreover, de-jargonising budget data is crucial to promote public engagement.The presentation can be simplified using charts, tables, figures and other visualisations that help demystify complex fiscal data.
  • Usability: Fiscal information on responsiveness to vulnerable sections of society, such as women and gender minorities, children, persons with disabilities and religious minorities, should be presented via Special Budget Statements. A similar case can be made for fiscal data on important social and economic sectors such as agriculture, health and nutrition, education, environment and climate change to help the general public easily understand the states’ budgetary priorities towards these issues/sectors.

In order to make budget documents widely accessible, it is crucial to consider the needs of people with disabilities. All Indian government websites must comply with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines WCAG 2.0, according to the guidelines laid down for government websites.

The key objective of the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is to provide ‘strategies, standards, resources to make the web accessible to people with disabilities’. It advocates making exclusive websites/portals to meet the specific requirements of people with disabilities as well as the elderly population. 

Critical interventions include making websites’ screen reader friendly, adding captions with audio/video content, sign language interpretation for all pre-recorded audio content etc.

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Adopting these policy measures and guidelines can enhance the quality of budget data available online in the public domain, improve public engagement with budgets, and further fiscal transparency in the country. The benefits of open data policies and initiatives cannot be overlooked.

Interventions such as the NDSAP, Digital India Initiative and the DGQI can pave the way for technology-enabled and future-ready modes of disseminating fiscal data. 

At the same time, increasing the accessibility of online information for people with disabilities will be a welcome and much-needed intervention for expanding public engagement with budgets online. 

As the future is data-driven, the time is ripe for adopting new-age modes of dissemination of fiscal information that enable greater public participation and engagement with budgets which impact one and all.

The authors are with the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability, New Delhi. 

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Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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