This post was written by Paolo de Renzio, Senior Research Fellow for the Open Budget Initiative at the International Budget Partnership.
At the IBP, we believe that people have a right to know what their governments do with public resources. We also think that budget transparency has a transformative potential to reshape the relationship between governments and their citizens. When governments publish more information on their fiscal operations, citizens can better monitor government actions and hold them accountable for how they raise and spend public resources. The huge and persistent obstacles that citizen groups and civil society organizations face in accessing budget information were behind our efforts to set up the Open Budget Index. The OBI is based on the biennial Open Budget Survey, which assesses, measures, and compares levels of budget transparency, accountability, and participation across the world. Showing and denouncing the dismal state of budget transparency through the Index was, and remains, a fundamental step in pushing governments to be more open about how they manage public finances.
In addition to simply advocating for more budget transparency —but also to strengthen that advocacy — we needed to understand more about when and why governments adopt and implement transparency-enhancing reforms, and demonstrate that enhanced transparency does in fact lead to citizen engagement and improved accountability. Therefore, over the past three years, the IBP embarked on an ambitious research program aimed at deepening our understanding of the causes and consequences of budget transparency. Teaming up with some of the best researchers in the field, we promoted both quantitative analysis using OBI data (available here) and a set of qualitative case studies looking at how budget transparency had evolved over time in varied country contexts.
The results of these case studies are now available in a book called Open Budgets: The Political Economy of Transparency, Participation, and Accountability, published by Brookings Institution Press. The key findings can be summarized as follows:
- Four main factors stand out as contributing to improvements in fiscal transparency and participation in different countries. These are: a) processes of political transition toward more democratic forms of political contestation and alternation; b) fiscal and economic crises that force governments to put in place enhanced mechanisms for fiscal discipline and independent scrutiny; c) widely publicized cases of corruption that give reformers political space to introduce reforms that improve public access to fiscal information; and d) external influences that promote global norms that empower domestic reformers and civil society actors. (These external factors that support action toward greater transparency are in contrast to those that undermine domestic reform processes with interventions that bypass local institutions and seek fiscal information to satisfy external demands rather than to inform a domestic public debate.)
- The four factors above often interact in complex combinations to shape the trajectories in different countries by fostering or impeding advances in fiscal transparency and participation. Brazil and South Korea, for example, have developed institutional mechanisms and capacities that guarantee not only that a large amount of fiscal information is disclosed to the public but also that opportunities exist for different actors to engage with the budget process at various levels of government. In countries like South Africa, Mexico, and Kenya, trajectories have been more contradictory and outcomes more limited. While all of these countries have seen some improvement in their level of fiscal transparency, corresponding increases in active participation and oversight have not fully materialized. Finally in countries like Vietnam and China, where the autocratic nature of the political regime is not favorable to fiscal transparency and participation, improvements have been much slower and more gradual.
- There is more limited evidence of how greater public availability of fiscal information — and related opportunities to engage with the budget process — may affect government accountability, broader public finance management, and quality of service delivery compared to the above findings. There are various examples of legislators becoming more demanding vis-à-vis the executive, and of civil society campaigns achieving significant but isolated success, but the evidence for the positive impacts of transparency on accountability and responsiveness remains far from systematic or definitive.
The puzzle presented by the third finding will be of key importance looking forward. Those active in the transparency field should recognize that their next challenge will be to develop improved methods of assuring that budget information is well used by local and international actors and that adequate opportunities exist for citizens and other actors to engage meaningfully in different stages of the budget process, and that such participation in turn brings about increased accountability. Two encouraging trends keep us optimistic. First the international context of players, norms, and incentives has dramatically evolved and is increasingly contributing to changing domestic dynamics on the ground, which work in favor of enhanced opportunities for participation and accountability. This includes the notable increase in civil society’s interest, capacity, and engagement with fiscal and budget issues. Second, in other research promoted by the IBP, we have started gathering additional evidence on the ways in which civil society actors have been able to affect government budget policies and processes. We hope that this will generate further useful insights that policymakers and activists alike can rely upon to further the cause of fiscal transparency, participation, and accountability.
Order your copy of Open Budgets: The Political Economy of Transparency, Participation and Accountability here.
This post was written by Ravi Duggal, Program Officer at the International Budget Partnership.
On 14 February 2013 civil society organizations, government representatives, and media from South Asia released the regional results of the Open Budget Survey 2012 at an event in Delhi, India. Every two years the International Budget Partnership conducts the Survey (the first round was in 2006) to measure the openness and accountability of government budget systems and practices around the world. Drawing from the Survey, the IBP calculates the Open Budget Index (OBI), the most comprehensive cross-country measure of public access to information on the receipt and expenditure of public funds available.
South Asia was a solid performer in the OBI 2012 with an average regional score of 55, compared to the global average of 43. As a region, South Asia ranked second only to Western Europe and the United States; however, the difference between the average scores for the two regions was 20 points, indicating that South Asian countries have significant ground to cover to catch up. Still, progress within the region over time has been positive, with impressive growth in some countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan, whose OBI 2012 scores jumped by 38 and 20 points since 2010, respectively. Bangladesh also witnessed noteworthy improvements, whereas India’s and Nepal’s performance, though stable, indicates a need for these governments to step up their efforts to improve. All South Asian countries improved their scores across the four rounds of the Survey except Sri Lanka, which dropped drastically from 67 in 2010 to 46 in 2012.
Among the more troubling findings for the South Asia region were those showing that Pre-Budget Statements were published by only Afghanistan and Pakistan; Afghanistan and India were the only countries to publish Citizens Budgets; and the Executive’s Budget Proposals and other published documents in all South Asian countries lacked important details.
The two-day launch event focused on the oversight role of legislatures and supreme audit institutions (SAI), Citizens Budgets, and public engagement. Overall in South Asia, the oversight provided by SAIs is quite robust, but that of legislatures is weak. Even more disappointing was the poor showing by most of the governments in the region on engaging the public in budget processes, with only two producing Citizens Budgets and few making more than minimal efforts to provide citizens opportunities and mechanisms through which to participate. An example of one government that is bringing its people into budgeting is Nepal, where the SAI is proactively engaging civil society in monitoring various public programs like health and education and collaborating on social audits.
The participants identified what South Asian countries need to do to substantially improve their performance, including:
- take concrete action to embed the principles of oversight and engagement in the budget process – especially legislative and public engagement;
- institutionalize public engagement, which is currently done in an ad hoc fashion;
- produce and publish Pre-Budget Statements and Citizens Budgets in each country; and
- increase the level of detail presented in the eight key budget documents.
The participants unanimously called for strengthening public engagement and participation in all stages of the budget process, and the Survey researchers and government representatives indicated that a lot was already happening in terms of transparency and accountability. However, researchers cautioned that the next step would be a big one, requiring not simply publishing more documents but rather strengthening the depth and quality of information in all of the key budget documents.
Finally, given the growing civil society interest and engagement with subnational budget processes in the region and the many state-level Indian budget groups present, a special session on subnational budget transparency and accountability was organized. For instance, in Bangladesh and India a fair amount of participation in budget planning and formulation happens under decentralized governance structures, but this is not reflected in the Open Budget Survey because it focuses on national budgets. Issues for common action emerged, and the People’s Budget Initiative, a civil society coalition in India, called for improving access to budget information on frontline service delivery so that civil society could monitor them more effectively.
Over the last few days an old blog post by David Sasaki has been circulating on Twitter. In the post he argues that fiscal transparency portals are not enough to bring about government accountability for public spending. To him, the “problem with fiscal transparency portals is that there is no mechanism to oblige government agencies to defend the purchases they make, much less sanction them when they misspend public funds.” After dismissing the media and civil society organizations, such as Fundar in Mexico and Openspending.org, as agents of applying such sanction, Sasaki argues that the solution to the accountability problem lies in the direction of creating new accountability institutions and promoting individual citizen activism via new technologies like Twitter and blogs.
What Sasaki got wrong
Sasaki misses two important points. First, the sleuthing of individual citizens like @AleUrbina that he refers to depends on the fiscal transparency portals, such as the one that Fundar created. Before their agriculture subsidy database was created, none of this information was in the public domain. And even once Fundar had liberated the information, it was released in unhelpful PDF files that had to be manually converted into usable formats, analyzed, and presented in a more accessible manner. It was this database that enabled @AleUrbina and others to start putting pressure on the government. Accessing, analyzing, and disseminating data in timely and accessible formats is the role that “infomediaries” like Fundar play. Budgets and other policy documents are technical, complex, and boring. This is why we need institutions that can bridge the gap between these documents and accountability processes. The more than 11 million people who have accessed the Fundar database to date seem to agree.
The second important point that Sasaki misses is that the accountability efforts of both formal oversight institutions and individual citizens are facilitated and amplified by the intermediaries that he so glibly dismisses. The IBP has documented 22 accountability campaigns in 11 countries, ranging from Afghanistan to South Africa, and, yes, even Mexico. These case studies show that intermediaries like Fundar do not only play the role of accessing and digesting budget information — they also mobilize citizens, support the media to report on budget issues, and make common cause with legislatures and other accountability players to force government to be accountable for public spending. The work that Fundar did with the media and others triggered a range of accountability processes in the Ministry of Agriculture, Congress, and the supreme audit institution. While many of these processes are incomplete, and in some cases stalled, they did result in the dismissal of the agriculture minister and establishment of new regulations to limit misuse of the subsidy scheme (read the rest of the Fundar story here).
The Fundar case is not unique. In India the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) worked with opposition MPs and media to force a debate in the legislature on funds earmarked for Dalits that had been diverted to pay for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. The pressure applied by MPs finally forced the government to return the money. True, the influence of the NCDHR did depend on the masses of citizens that they mobilized (some of whom may even have had Twitter accounts), but the final push for victory depended as much on the debate in parliament and the media buzz. Even more important, the coordination of the campaign and the production of the research that made it possible, depended on civil society intermediaries like NCDHR (read the rest of the NCDHR story here).
Why his post worries me
While his arguments are easy enough to criticize, Sasaki’s blog post worries me for two reasons. First, many people misinterpret arguments that fiscal transparency is not enough to mean that fiscal transparency is not important. Every single one of the 22 campaigns documented in the IBP case study series depended very heavily on access to information on public spending. This stands to reason. If you are trying to hold government to account for public spending, it is hard to see how this could be done without access to information. The important thing about fiscal transparency is not that it is not enough. The important point is that even while it is not sufficient, fiscal transparency is always necessary. It is a “gateway issue” that allows citizens, CSOs, and all other accountability institutions to advocate for their own issues.
The second reason Sasaki’s post worries me is that it yields to a common temptation to try and find one magic bullet to solve the accountability challenge. The complex reality of accountability politics is too messy for one solution to be of much use, even if it is a sexy one involving a peasant farmer with an iPhone5 or the teams of citizen ambassadors that Sasaki proposes. Actual accountability campaigns reveal a rich reality that involves citizens, the media, legislatures, auditors, CSOs, donors, and government insiders in a wide variety of interesting configurations. Efforts to fix the accountability puzzle with a widget like new technologies risk retarding our understanding and replication of real world accountability processes even further. This is not to argue that citizens and new technologies are not an important part of the accountability equation, just that they should not be framed as solutions that can crack the code on their own.
What is to be done?
If there are no magic bullets, then where should we start, you ask? The IBP case studies show that CSOs have played an important role in amplifying the voices of individual citizens and enhancing formal accountability processes. They are particularly important in contexts where formal accountability institutions are weak. The way they carry out their work is complementary and necessary for more robust engagement of citizens and oversight institutions.
In the last analysis CSOs are not sufficient and neither are citizens or new technologies or anything else. We should be careful of framing the debate as a choice between citizens or CSOs or legislatures. The accountability ecosystem is complex — technology has great promise to help the process work, but we should be spending much more time understanding the interactions between these actors and institutions, not pitting them against one another.
European Donor Institutions Use the Open Budget Survey 2012 to Brainstorm on How to Open Budgets Faster
This post was written by Elena Mondo, Project Coordinator of the Open Budget Initiative at the International Budget Partnership.
In late January the IBP met with key European donors to discuss the Open Budget Survey 2012, and what the findings mean for donor institutions. The first stop was on 30 January at the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) in Stockholm; then it was on to the European Commission’s Development and Cooperation Directorate-General in Brussels, Belgium, on the 31st. Finally the IBP met with the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) on 1 February in Eschborn, Germany. The IBP presented the 2012 Survey results at each meeting, but all three also included discussions about the challenges of promoting open and accountable budgeting, suggestions for ways to overcome these, and ideas for “next steps.”
The donors showed enthusiasm for doing more to increase budget transparency and public engagement in the countries they work with, specifically through their aid policies and programs. This desire to increase the pace of improvements on the part of these donors reflects the growing international consensus among governments, civil society, and other public finance and economic development actors around the need for greater budget transparency and accountability (like through the Open Government Partnership, the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency, and the Global Movement for Budget Transparency, Accountability, and Participation).
The donors were interested in learning about how the Open Budget Survey works and how the Open Budget Index — the comparative measure of budget transparency calculated from a subset of Survey questions that assigns a score to countries from zero to 100 — differs from other tools that measure transparency and the strength of public financial management (PFM) systems. In particular, they were curious as to whether, and how, the various metrics might be used together? Do they overlap, contradict, or complement each other?
The Open Budget Survey is unique, both in terms of coverage and research process, from other existing measurements that assess national PFM systems more broadly. It is the only completely independent assessment of budget transparency in the world, covers the greatest number of countries, and is completed on a regular basis (every two years). It is based on objective facts, not perceptions, and it is implemented by civil society. Finally, it clearly and simply defines fiscal transparency as “access to budget information by any member of the public who requests for it, at a particular point during the budge process and at minimal or no cost.”
The European Commission needs an effective method to measure fiscal transparency as it recently included budget transparency as one of the criteria for determining whether countries are eligible for direct budget support. The Commission uses both the Open Budget Index and the Public Expenditure and Financial Accountability (PEFA) framework as intermediate milestones and assessments for the 80 countries currently receiving budget support — and to establish baseline entry points those seeking it. Similarly, GIZ has also included the OBI as one of the indicators that it will use to monitor countries through funding arrangements with the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development on PFM reforms.
These developments are very encouraging, and we ask donors to build on them. In efforts to support countries’ progress toward achieving internationally recognized standards for budget transparency, participation, and accountability, the Open Budget Survey can be a valuable resource for governments, donors, and development practitioners. The Survey can and should be used to assess countries in relation to these standards and identify specific reform measures to expand transparency, participation, and oversight.
In addition to how donors can use the Survey in their funding decisions, the European donors had some preliminary discussions on ways they might collaborate with the IBP to push for greater transparency and create spaces for, and strengthen the capacity of, citizens to engage in budget processes in countries that perform poorly on the Open Budget Index. Finally, the participants suggested that the IBP expand the coverage of the Open Budget Survey to more countries, as well as for more research to better explain the differences and complementarities between the Survey and other metrics.