What to Do When Government Fights Back?

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This post was written by Albert van Zyl, Manager, Learning and Knowledge Development at the International Budget Partnership.

Indian civil society organization Samarthan monitors the implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) in the state of Madhya Pradesh. MGNREGS obliges government to provide work to poor people or to compensate them when, or where, no work is available. Samarthan informs eligible workers of their entitlements, works with government to unblock administrative problems, and blows the whistle on corruption. Initially, Samarthan worked closely with government to register workers for MGNREGS, iron out administrative growing pains in the scheme, and deal with instances of corruption. Eventually, however, corrupt officials learned how to “work the system” and negate Samarthan’s early advances. It was time for Samarthan to adjust its approach. A recently published update of the IBP’s 2011 case study of this campaign explains how it did it.

Final Updated Summary Samarthan case study

Over time Samarthan found that officials were manipulating the new system, having found new ways to capture funds and disadvantage the poor. Village and national officials colluded to withhold MGNREGS projects from the districts where Samarthan works and previously cooperative officials systematically withheld information from Samarthan.

Samarthan smartly realized that its previous approach would not stand up to such a full frontal attack and changed strategic tack. First, Samarthan decided to strengthen the collective bargaining power of MGNREGS workers by organizing them into a trade union. Second, they decided to recruit sympathetic professionals from nearby cities to participate in MGNREGS audits at the village level. Again, the thinking was that city lawyers and civil society workers might help villagers stand up to local officials. Third, Samarthan scaled up its interventions from two districts to eight in order to create a larger basis of evidence for demonstration and impact on policy. Evidence from eight districts would be harder for government to dismiss as isolated or sporadic.

While it might have a veneer of technicality, Samarthan’s work is fundamentally a struggle for social, political, and economic power. The problem is rooted in the dominance of those who are poor and marginalized by village officials and social elites. No technical solution will hold if the more fundamental political problem is not also addressed.

While these innovative efforts to bolster the political power of villagers make intuitive sense, we don’t yet know if they will have the desired effect. Samarthan’s experience does illustrate a few truths about efforts to hold government accountable for the use public funds.

  • It’s never over. Impact on government finances and service delivery can easily be reversed. Once improvements have been attained, it is important to keep monitoring government to guard against backslide.
  • For the same reason, the measurement of CSO impact can be deceptive. At various stages of the Samarthan campaign one could have argued that it had failed or succeeded. While the duration of any assessment of impact would clearly make a difference, a fair assessment of their efforts should also take into account that Samarthan was learning and adapting its strategy in response to government.
  • The ability to adapt strategy in response to changes in the environment is an important attribute of most successful CSO budget campaigns. When government started resisting its work, Samarthan adjusted from what was fundamentally a cooperative “insider” campaign to an “outsider” strategy that builds the political clout needed by such an approach.
  • Citizen efforts to hold government to account are profoundly political in nature. These efforts demand technical budget analysis skills, but the advocacy work that follows demands engagement with vested political and economic interests.

Join us on 16 April from 9:30 am – 10:30 am Eastern Standard Time for a webinar on this topic. “How to Adjust Your Advocacy Strategy When the Government Fights Back or the Context Changes” will feature Albert van Zyl and Yogesh Kumar, executive director of Samarthan, as they discuss the key steps and considerations in planning and implementing an effective advocacy strategy. Kumar and van Zyl will draw lessons from the recently updated IBP case study “Samarthan’s Campaign to Improve Access to the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme in India.”

Links Roundup: News and Publications on Open Budgets

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IBP News

  • Latest IBP Newsletter (Jan-Feb) with articles on citizen participation in Latin America, technology and open budget data, as well as new publications, job postings, and more.
  • New brief and infographic on Kenya’s Division of Revenue Bill for 2014 featuring tables with sectoral breakdown of revenue allocations.
  • New blog post on whether sub-Saharan African governments are publishing the comprehensive budget data that CSOs need to carry out independent and credible analysis.

News from Around the World

Blogs and Commentaries

Open Government Partnership (OGP) Updates

  • OGP updates from Azerbaijan, Peru, Georgia, and the U.S.

Transparency for What? Do Governments Publish the Budget Information that CSOs Need?

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This post was written by Paolo de Renzio, Senior Research Fellow for the Open Budget Initiative at the International Budget Partnership.

Access to budget information is a fundamental precondition for civil society budget work. When governments do not release detailed budget data to the public, it is impossible for civil society organizations (CSOs) and other actors to carry out independent analyses which can be used to influence government policy. In order to overcome this major obstacle and put pressure on governments to publish more budget information, the International Budget Partnership (IBP) started producing the Open Budget Survey (OBS) in 2006. Since then, budget transparency has gained widespread acceptance, and scores on the Open Budget Index (derived from the OBS, it assigns a score to each country based on the information it makes available to the public throughout the budget process) have been rising – albeit slowly.

However, even when budget documents are comprehensive and published in a timely manner they may be too complex for an audience with limited technical knowledge and skills. They also may not contain the types of information or level of detail needed to investigate a specific policy or service delivery area. To investigate this issue, IBP teamed up with the Overseas Development Institute to see whether the budget information made available by governments responded to CSO needs. The project and resulting report focused on Africa, one region where budget transparency challenges are greatest.

2012 OBI sub-saharan Africa

To develop a preliminary assessment of the specific budget information needs of African civil society, we reviewed their use of national budget data in publications available on their websites. The review included almost 70 groups affiliated with IBP in 30 African countries. We found 51 recent publications from 18 organizations in 13 countries that used budget data extracted from publicly available government documents as a basis for their analyses and advocacy initiatives. Based on their content, we created a list of types of budget information that are most relevant to CSOs:

  • actual spending on medicines (and medical supplies) as a share of total health expenditure;
  • actual spending on primary education as a share of total expenditure;
  • total budgeted transfers to subnational governments as a share of total budget; and
  • actual capital expenditure as a share of total expenditure, and explanations of the purpose and expected results of different capital projects.

In order to assess the degree to which African governments publish these types of budget information, we focused on those countries in sub-Saharan Africa that, according to the 2012 OBS, published both the budget as approved by the legislature and annual reports that detail actual revenues and expenditures. These two documents are particularly important for the independent monitoring of what governments do with public resources. The first details the government’s policy intentions as sanctioned by parliament and the second reports on what actually happened during the course of budget implementation. Just 11 of the 26 countries covered qualified: Angola, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Liberia, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and Uganda. Among these, only seven presented information through web portals where reports for various years were made available.

Main findings from the study include:

  • Enacted budgets are often quite comprehensive, while year-end reports tend to only provide aggregate outturn information.
  • Comprehensiveness varies significantly from country to country. While all seven countries studied in the report provided information on health spending, only two countries detailed spending on medicines as part of health spending, or included information on capital projects in their budget document.
  • More generally, budget documents provide limited detail on the composition of expenditure within specific government agencies.
  • In some cases the analysis raised questions about the quality and reliability of publicly available data, as some data from different documents could not be reconciled.

These results highlight how, despite the positive trends that can be seen both in Africa and internationally, great challenges remain for civil society groups interested in budget monitoring and advocacy. Even the most transparent governments in Africa do not publish much of the specific budget information that is deemed most useful by civil society. Advocacy efforts aimed at improving levels of budget transparency will need to be re-doubled, and possibly targeted at country-specific information needs that will allow budget groups to more effectively pursue their goals.

¿Dónde Van Mis Impuestos? (Where Does My Money Go?): How Political Will Can Answer This Question

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This post was written by David Cabo, Director of Fundación Ciudadana Civio

When we started ¿Dónde Van Mis Impuestos? ­– the Spanish version of the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Where Does My Money Go? (a website that graphically “visualizes” how tax money is spent in countries around the world) – in December 2010, the platform quickly became the model for tax visualization in Spain. This is true even though the platform presents only a high-level summary of the national budget. However, there is no other similar resource in Spain, which demonstrates both the scarcity of publicly available and accessible information about public expenditures and that we have a long road ahead of us in terms of open and accountable budgeting.

donde van mis impuestos

Thanks to the kick start the platform provided, as well as the public’s interest in public spending information, the regional governments of the Basque Country  and Aragon decided to take a concrete step forward and hired our lead developer to create custom tax visualization projects for their regions. With the help of these governments, and the subsequent ease in accessing the required information, we were able to create two new versions of the tax visualization platform (one for each region) that greatly improved upon the original project. These websites display not only where the government spends the money but also its revenue sources. The sites go even further to include a comparison of budgeted and actual expenditures, and they allow citizens to track where every cent of their tax money goes. The Aragon site includes updated budget information as soon as it’s available, and we are working on extending its coverage to the county and municipal levels. This level of information was only possible because the two administrations made the information public.

With this experience behind us, we now want to improve ¿Dónde Van Mis Impuestos?, the national-level website. Although we have been able to adapt and improve upon the platform for the Aragon and Basque Country sites, there is one feature of those sites that we will not be able to reproduce on the national site without the cooperation of the Spanish government —the budgeted vs. actual spending of public money. The breakdown of actual central government expenditures currently available to the public is completely inadequate — much worse than the breakdown of budgeted expenditures — which makes a comparison between the two impossible.

The problem, apart from technological issues related to file formats and data standards, is the lack of political will to clearly inform citizens about where and how much the government actually spends. In Spain the focus is on budgeting, which in many departments is nothing more than a piece of paper cluttering a desk or two (for example, every year the Ministry of Defense spends a minimum of more than one billion euros beyond its budget).

In the middle of an economic crisis in which citizens scrutinize every detail of public spending, wouldn’t it be more effective for the government to make this data public in a detailed and straightforward manner?  Or at the very least permit others to do so? Knowing the complete details of official budgets (without the interference of intermediaries who present data on a few select issues in isolation from the entire budget picture) could help the public understand unpopular spending cuts. For instance, if you take into account the reduction of certain payments and are aware of cuts in pensions, health care, and other fundamental services, perhaps you would be more understanding of the spending cuts in other areas that are not basic necessities.

For all this to occur, Spain’s political leaders must respect citizens and allow them to participate in the business of public spending. It’s also essential for citizens to actively participate. At the end of the day, accomplishing these goals is our raison d’être, and our work on ¿Dónde Van Mis Impuestos? aims to drive the discussion and action to make it happen.


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