A third, again complementary, point of view can be found by examining the challenge from the perspective of local populations and their relationship to the political sphere. Most constitutions encourage a clear distinction between the civil service and politicians. This is, of course, a very positive thing, as it helps avoid the manipulation of government employees for the purposes of short-term political goals. A clear separation of roles also helps protect civil servants by making sure they are chosen based not on their political opinions or party affiliations, but on their professional expertise. These lines of distinct professional roles should not be crossed. However, there is still a need for understanding different actors’ goals in order to implement any reform successfully. Nowhere is this more the case than in expanding municipal revenues. Taxes are often unpopular, which makes an increase in local taxes or fees something that a local politician will often want to oppose. In the context of local political leadership, how can a tax increase find public support?
Increasing municipal revenues and garnering public support need not be in opposition to one another. Indeed, the two can run in tandem if there is the right leadership on the part of city leaders. The provision of public goods and information about how tax revenue is being used can have a strongly positive impact on citizens’ willingness to pay taxes. If citizens feel the fees, levies, and taxes they pay are being put to good use, this increases trust in, and support for, the government itself. This makes sense both for purposes of tax compliance and for obtaining support for tax reform from local politicians.
What is required is to identify what services or goods citizens think are most important, and to begin by demonstrating a real commitment to using tax revenues to improve these areas, thereby publicly demonstrating the link between tax payment and service provision. When this is done well, tax payment and service delivery can interact to generate a positive cycle. If greater government revenue is used to provide highly visible public goods (e.g., roads, hospitals, public parks), this is likely to increase public support for the local government and local politicians together.
Political leaders often lack high-quality information about the least-well-provided services in their juris-diction, which means they can sometimes neglect to improve those items most in need of reform. This problem is often especially pronounced in Africa, where comprehensive data on local service provision is often difficult to collate. Such data deficiencies can lead to inefficiencies in the distribution of resources, with too many goods and services deployed in some places and too few in others. At first it can seem that politicians are simply biased towards a particular area, but the real reason may be that they are simply unaware of the benefits to be gained from diverting small amounts of government resources to help previously neglected areas.
Budget plans must therefore start with an effective mapping exercise to record what is already being provided and to identify priorities that jointly make sense to civil servants, politicians, and citizens. This should involve assessing which areas, and which citizens, live farthest away from key services, and so are in greatest need. Civic engagement and public participation are critical to this process, because they offer an important and valuable mechanism to gather ideas and share information on what the government plans to do.