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CivicDataLab

A data dialogue around budgets-for-justice in Assam

This year we started with the launch of the Budgets for Justice platform with the larger aim of making it easier for citizens to engage, explore, analyse and discuss the expenditure on law and justice within the union budget. The objective behind creating this tool was to reduce the time and effort it takes for people to collate budget data for the last five years from incomprehensible and inaccessible budget documents. Post the launch, we engaged with the community to understand the importance of budgeting related to law and justice, how it affects us as citizens and what we can do to collaborate and contribute to this discourse. These conversations helped us identify hurdles one may face while using budget-related information to understand the government’s priorities. But more importantly, we realised the importance of using state budget documents, and other datasets to understand the budget allocation and distribution patterns (input), what they lead to (outputs) and how they affect the access to justice for citizens(outcomes).

In this blog, we write about the budgets-for-justice platform for exploring state budgets and share insights from the community engagement event organised in Assam.

In one of our first conversations with partners to understand the process of measuring the budgetary allocation for the judiciary, we learnt that states bear the bulk of expenditure for the functioning of the judiciary. According to the memorandum to the Fifteenth Finance Commission submitted by CBGA and DAKSH, almost 90% of the judiciary’s financial needs are met at the state level. Other conversations around budgeting related to policing, e-Courts, legal aid and correctional facilities amplified the need for engaging with the state budgets. But often reporting around union budgets, by researchers, civil society and journalists take precedence. This is often because accessing state budget documents is hard. We realised this through our work on building the Open Budgets India platform. These documents are not available in file formats which are more suitable for research and analysis like CSV, XLS[x], etc. The states differ in reporting their budgets and there are inconsistencies in reporting formats between years. With the awareness of these challenges, we started to explore ways to make state budgets more accessible.

Not many states in India publish state budget documents in machine-readable formats but Assam has consistently done that since 2019 (As mentioned on page 133 in the 2019 budget speech). The datasets can be viewed or downloaded from the Open Budgets India platform. This initiative has enabled us to build tools such as the Assam Budget Explorer which makes it easier for citizens to explore the annual budgets of Assam. The availability of budget datasets in desired formats and our familiarity with the budget were the primary factors behind selecting Assam as our first state to prototype the budgets-for-justice platform for state budgets.

We launched the Budget Explorers for Assam in 2019 and have updated it for subsequent years (2020, 2021 & 2022). The explorers reduce the time it takes for anyone to engage with the budget documents but comparing budget figures across years is still hard as the explorers are designed to work with data for only one year. On the other hand, the idea behind building the budgets-for-justice was to enable users to compare budget figures across periods.

The image below highlights the difference in the process of curating data for the two platforms — budget explorers and budgets-for-justice.

This image shows the difference in the process of curating data for the Assam Budget Explorer and the state budgets-for-justice platform.
Process to curate data for exploring state budgets

These were the steps to extend the union budgets-for-justice platform for exploring state budgets:

  1. We sourced official state budget datasets, from 2019–20 onwards, from the Open Budgets India platform
  2. We then identified the grants to analyse Law and Justice related budgeting. In Assam, these are represented by Grant 3 (Administration of Justice), Grant 14(Police), and Grant 15(Jails)
  3. A master file was created for each grant by processing and merging files for specific years. This file only included the budget heads which were present across all years.
  4. A budget category label was assigned to each budget code. For eg., All budget heads related to Open Air Prisons (like salaries, wages, and infrastructure) will be categorised under Open Air Prisons
  5. The final datasets were uploaded to the Justice Hub. Refer to this blog to learn more about how we use the Justice Hub to build the budgets-for-justice platform.
  6. We then developed a platform for users to search and explore these datasets using graphs and tables.

Here is a more detailed description of the process of curating datasets for the budgets-for-justice platform.

Over the past year, we have started engaging with the community in Assam through the Data Dialogues initiative. These events provide a platform to discuss the use of open datasets for relevant issues and identify opportunities for collaboration within the community. We reached out and invited students and faculty members from universities, editors and journalists from local media houses, and representatives from civil society organisations to share and get their feedback on the budgets-for-justice platform for Assam.

This is a poster for the budgets-for-justice launch event in Assam.
Launch event poster

Through this event, we wanted to engage with the participants to understand their workflows to analyse budget documents and discuss ideas and suggestions about how to enhance community participation during the budget-making process.

This is a screenshot taken from the homepage of the state budgets-for-justice platform.
The state-level platform can be accessed at https://budgets.justicehub.in/state/assam.

In the first half of the event, we presented open data platforms like Open Budgets India, Open Contracting India and the Justice Hub, and discussed a few public datasets relevant to the state of Assam. We then launched the budgets-for-justice platform for Assam and discussed a few case studies on budgeting related to Open Air Prisons, Policing and Legal Aid. Through the case studies, we wanted to:

  1. Break down the process of analysing state budget datasets
  2. Demonstrate the use of budgetary trend analysis
  3. Showcase how tools like the Assam Budget Explorer and budgets-for-justice can be used to analyse state budget documents
  4. Demonstrate the process of using other datasets along with the budget data to analyse the impact of budgeting around issues related to law and justice

The event also provided an opportunity to discuss the importance of budget analysis as a participatory exercise. Instead of restricting ourselves to reporting an increase or decrease in budget allocation or utilisation we were able to discuss the why behind the numbers and come up with suggestions for the state to improve the current state of affairs.

In the second half, we organised into three smaller groups to discuss the features of the platform and understand the challenges faced by participants during the analysis of state budgets. The smaller groups then presented a summary of these discussions to all participants.

This is a photo taken during the group discussions at the launch event.
This photo shows the three charts prepared by the groups during the group discussion session at the budgets-for-justice launch event in Assam.

A few pointers shared during the discussions were:

  1. The need to build and enhance the capacity of the community to analyse local (municipal) budgets along with state and union budget documents
  2. The importance of budget analysis templates and guidebooks which can help people with little to no familiarity with public finance-related terminologies
  3. Publishing more case studies showcasing the use of budget data to engage with public policy
  4. The need for broader public collaboration to understand how funding for courts/judiciary affects citizens
  5. The role of media organisations in enhancing the participation of citizens during the budget-making process
  6. Finding ways to engage with for-profit organisations for better planning and management of CSR-related funds

Going forward, we would like to:

  1. Continue engaging with the community to enhance their participation during the pre-budget consultation exercise.
  2. Publish more resources, like guidebooks, datasets, etc, which can be re-used by the members.
  3. Initiate conversations with other state finance departments to discuss the importance of publishing budget data in machine-readable formats. In this regard, we have published a guidebook for departments on how to make budget datasets more open, accessible and citizen-friendly.
  4. Understand how budgets can help the citizens initiate a discourse with their public representatives to demand more equitable access to justice

The resources mentioned in the blog can be accessed at these links:

  1. Budgets-for-Justice — Assam
  2. Open Budgets India
  3. Justice Hub
  4. A guidebook to understanding budget documents
This is a group photo of participants who attended the budgets-for-justice launch event in Assam

We thank all the participants for contributing towards making this an enriching and insightful event. We look forward to continuing this engagement to strengthen access to public data.

Our team is constantly exploring better ways to make budget documents more accessible and actionable. We’d love to hear your suggestions on how we can make our platforms more useful and inclusive. Write to us at info[at]civicdatalab[dot]in.

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