Is the budget readable?

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A report by a southern think tank ranked the GNWT second-last among provinces and territories in making their financial situation accessible and comprehensible to the public.The report, released at the beginning of May by the C.D. Howe Institute, takes aim at several aspects of how the GNWT presents its budgetary information.

The GNWT was given a “D+” grade, just higher than Prince Edward Island’s “D.” The highest ranking jurisdictions were Alberta and New Brunswick, which both achieved “A+” grades.

The report states that a government budget “must communicate the information in a manner that lets the user recognize and make sense of the key numbers.”

“In the case of governments, an essential minimum is that a motivated and numerate but non-expert reader must be able, unaided and in a reasonable amount of time, to identify the total revenue and spending numbers in a government’s principal financial documents and compare results to intentions.”

Among factors that the GNWT needs improvement on, it says the territorial budget does not prominently display consolidated figures of revenues and expenses, instead putting the figures deeper within the document; it states the GNWT doesn’t fully explain the reasons why deviations occur later on from the budget plans; and it states that interim reports don’t compare final numbers with budget targets.

A GNWT spokesperson said the measures used in the report are simplistic and picked in order to compare governments across Canada.

“There are a number of issues with the approach that is used, that makes the report of only limited value,” wrote Todd Sasaki, communications officer for the Department of Finance.

On the issue of how prominently consolidated figures of revenue and expenses are presented in the budget, for example, Sasaki wrote that the authors “appear to have missed” that these figures appear on page 2 of the budget address.

Sasaki said, issues with the report aside, the GNWT is open to hearing new approaches to making its budget information more accessible and understandable.

“What the report is trying to highlight is the importance of providing financial information in a manner that allows legislators and taxpayers to easily find and understand the government’s financial situation,” wrote Sasaki, adding that the GNWT shares that objective and recognizes its financial documents can be complex.