The power of open budgets: a tool to make human rights real in Scotland

This article was first published in the Agenda section of The Herald on 11th July 2024. Read more at

By Dr Alison Hosie, Research Officer at the Scottish Human Rights Commission

In a democracy, the power we place in governments is derived from the people. This principle, often cited but not always realised, is being actively pursued in Scotland through fiscal transparency, public participation in, and robust budget oversight of, the budget process. These principles aren't just bureaucratic buzzwords; they’re the bedrock of accountable governance and the backbone of human rights budgeting.

As Scotland’s National Human Rights Institution, it is the Commission’s job to promote the human rights of everyone living in Scotland – and promoting these rights involves ensuring that public investments effectively support public services.

That’s why we have taken a close look at the Open Budget Survey (OBS) 2023, conducted by the International Budget Partnership, and highlighting the state of budget transparency and accountability globally. In comparable scores we’ve produced for Scotland, it’s clear the Scottish Government has made notable efforts to improve the accessibility and comprehensiveness of financial information since our last review in 2019.

However, transparency is just the first step, providing tools to understand where taxes are allocated and how these funds drive societal progress. Meaningful citizen engagement is the next vital component.

Citizen Engagement

Public participation in the budget process empowers individuals and communities to influence government priorities. Despite progress since 2019, Scotland still needs to develop mechanisms that support citizen participation. Genuine participation fosters a sense of ownership and agency, strengthening the social contract between the government and the people.

Scotland's OBS 2023 results highlight the quality of its budget oversight. Parliamentary committees and independent audit bodies play crucial roles in holding the government accountable for financial decisions. Rigorous scrutiny and examination act as checks and balances, deterring corruption and promoting responsible governance. Effective scrutiny, however, depends on access to comprehensive fiscal data, including pre-budget statements and in-year reports.

Why does all this matter?

Democracy requires active engagement and awareness from all members of society. Informed, involved, empowered citizens can advocate for policies addressing their needs and realising their rights. Empowered people help democracy to thrive. Transparent budgets enable advocacy for policies to eradicate child poverty, grow a rights-based economy, tackle climate change, and improve public services. Public participation ensures diverse voices are heard, and marginalised communities represented in decision-making. Budget oversight ensures taxpayer money is used efficiently to progressively realise rights, minimising waste and maximising impact.

These principles are essential for building resilient and inclusive societies, especially in facing global challenges like recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, high inflation, the cost-of-living crisis, and wars in Ukraine and Gaza. As Scotland navigates uncertain times, the importance of transparent, participatory and accountable governance cannot be overstated. It’s about ensuring every penny spent reflects the values, aspirations and rights of the people it serves.

Read the Commission’s full report on Scotland's Open Budget Survey 2023 on our website at