Ahead of the 4 July holiday in the States, we’ve compiled a list of publications, articles, and other interesting links to keep you up-to-date on recent happenings related to budget work, participatory budgeting initiatives, budget websites, and much more. Enjoy!
Research and publications
ODDC Dissemination of the Uganda/Kenya Case Study: Highlights (Development Initiatives)
- This post reviews the findings of a study “How open data could contribute to poverty eradication in Kenya and Uganda through its impacts on resource allocation.”
- A fresh look at the book PFM and Its Emerging Architecture which was published last year and edited by Marco Cangiano.
A Needless Journey (The Politics of Poverty, Oxfam America)
- In this video interview, Semkae Kilonzo of Policy Forum Tanzania talks about the importance of budget transparency and civil participation as a tool for breaking through barriers and bottlenecks in government.
Tech Projects for Transparency – A New Guide to the “Fundamentals” That Deliver Impact and Save Money (Transparency & Accountability Initiative)
- TAI has released a new guide called “Fundamentals for Using Technology in Transparency and Accountability Organisations” which deals with everything from defining a strategy to monitoring outcomes of technology projects.
- The guide is available to view on TAI’s website or to download as a PDF.
- China’s National Audit Office (NAO) is contributing to the country’s battle against corruption. Last year, audit offices across the country scrutinized more than 150,000 companies and government departments. The NAO’s efficiency is partially due to the fact that it keeps its inner workings confidential.
- This post talks about adding new digital technologies to participatory budgeting in the San Francisco area.
New Budgetary Website Makes Dutch Aid More Transparent (Development Initiatives)
- The Dutch Minister for international trade and development cooperation has launched a budgetary website which provides full access to the ministry’s overall budget, with estimated and actual expenditures which are cross-referenced with their individual activities, driven from live IATI data.
- Donors have sharply cut the support they give to the Mozambican state budget.
World Bank Endorses New Country Partnership Strategy for Philippines (Manilla Bulletin)
- The World Bank’s new country partnership strategy (CPS) will support the Philippines’ goal of promoting growth that reduces poverty and creates more and better jobs. The CPS will guide the World Bank’s engagement in the Philippines from 2015 until 2018.
Budget Transparency in Uganda to be Achieved through ICT? (New Vision, Uganda)
- Uganda’s Minister of Finance mentioned a number of new systems — including an SMS system, hotline, and website for the public to participate in budget decisions and monitoring — to enhance budget transparency and accountability.
This post was written by Paolo de Renzio, Senior Research Fellow for the Open Budget Initiative
Budget transparency, the mantra goes, is key for citizens to hold governments accountable for how they spend public money. But what if public spending does not happen through the budget, or if a good share of public resources are not captured in budget documents? Time and time again, the Open Budget Survey has shown that many governments keep certain corners of public finance hidden from public view. Questions in the Open Budget Survey that are linked, for example, to extra-budgetary funds, state-owned enterprises, and other similar activities consistently score very low, highlighting a problem that an increasing number of civil society groups are becoming aware of.
In Angola, for example, vast sums of money have been spent outside of the official budget process through Sonangol, a state-owned oil company. Sonangol engages in a number of so-called “quasi-fiscal activities” on the government’s behalf, including providing fuel subsidies and contributing to the servicing of the national debt. In many countries, tax incentives and concessions are used by governments to stimulate activity in certain sectors of the economy. The tax revenue that is forgone from such arrangements often amounts to more than 10 percent of total revenue. Yet little or no information is publically available on why they were originally granted, how long they are supposed to last, and how much they cost the public purse.
To cast some light on what we have called the “hidden corners” of public finances (see figure below), the IBP has embarked on a project to look at how some governments — chosen among those that perform better on the Open Budget Index — have set up reporting requirements and transparency practices on extra-budgetary funds, tax expenditures, state-owned enterprises, and quasi-fiscal activities. Eight country case studies were commissioned to gain a better understanding existing practices in these four areas, and help to define the basic pieces of information that governments should make publicly available to allow for independent monitoring and enhance accountability.
Figure: The public sector, its components, and the “hidden corners”
The case studies reveal a wide variety of country circumstances and approaches. In a number of cases it is possible, by looking beyond the key budget documents that the Open Budget Survey focuses on, to gather extensive amounts of information on these areas of public finance. Many of the governments of the countries we studied approve laws and publish reports that allow for a reasonably detailed picture of government-funded activities and operations beyond the core budget to emerge. These take the form of annual reports published by state-owned enterprises, special appropriation laws for extra-budgetary funds, and tax expenditure reports, among others. Some areas, such as quasi-fiscal activities, remain more difficult to detect and monitor, and some extra-budgetary institutions are still not reported on in any detail.
Civil society groups and other actors interested in monitoring government activities and operations in these areas can use the report and the case studies as a resource to gain a better understanding of some of the issues involved, some of the innovative practices that exist around the world, and some of the key topics to look into if they decide to investigate these areas in their own countries. The Annex of the report presents a more detailed checklist of the types of information that governments should make publicly available, which could serve as a basis for advocacy campaigns asking for more transparency around the hidden corners of public finances.
Budget transparency in Australia has recently taken a big step forward with the first ever release of federal budget data in machine readable format. Prior to this year, budget data in Australia had been locked away in PDF and Word documents. While these publications met the broad guidelines for reporting government spending to the public, analysis of government spending remained a difficult and time consuming process.
Providing information is one thing, making it usable is yet another.
Unlocking the data
As a novice programmer with a degree in sociology and background in activism, I decided to address this problem by creating a web tool that would allow users to explore the entire federal budget. The website — BudgetAus — works in much the same way as a search engine: users can search for their areas of interest to see how much money the government is spending, regardless of the agency or portfolio in which the spending occurs.
The original site was built from budget data that I manually copied and pasted from the existing PDF’s published by the government. The following year we tried to program scripts to scrape the data, but this proved too time consuming. The complexity of the data contained within the documents, and the fact that the documents presented information in different ways and were not broken down to the same level, proved challenging.
Behind the scenes, people had been working within government to release budget data in machine readable formats (as data files). However, they faced the same set of challenges – inconsistencies in the way the data was organized by different agencies made them unsuitable for use by programmers.
Building a network
Having established my interest in budget transparency over the past year or so, I found a small network of people with a strong interest in what I was attempting. This network includes experts who work on the federal budget, veteran journalists, and professional programmers.
With the first release of machine-readable budget data imminent, we made a big push to have this data reformatted and made consistent with the requirements of BudgetAus and similar projects. This was no easy task, with a team working overnight with the Excel tables contributed by each of 180 agencies to produce line item data in a suitable format.
Getting the data is only one requirement of a successful budget transparency project. Engaging the wider public with the purpose of having access to the data is also crucial. I used a budget night event to find collaborators willing to put the budget data to use. With the help of some prominent independent journalists, Wendy Bacon and Margo Kingston, the BudgetAus collaboration, as it has become known, spent budget night using social media to find out what sort of budget questions people wanted answered.
Wendy set up a Question Bank on GitHub – an online, open source collaboration tool. This seems to be functioning quite well for public discussion of budget transparency questions. Some developers in our network set up a data visualization repository to support this and future efforts by coders and citizen bloggers to produce meaningful graphs and visualizations based on open data.
Everyone played complimentary roles, from the budget experts who provided background on the nitty-gritty of budget questions, to the media and our coders. Collaborators seemed to fall quite naturally into their respective functions.
Where to from here?
Based on this years’ experience of working with BudgetAus, the government is now designing a standard way for agencies to report spending.
While BudgetAus and its collaborators have helped to shine a light on the important issue of data consistency, there is much work that remains to be done. Answering questions such as how spending promises (estimates) differ from actual spending, and how different political parties make changes to public spending, will require retrospective data that is so far not available. To continue to build on the success of the project will require funding the formalization of a group working on these issues.
In the end it took leaders within government, the respective agencies, citizen journalists, citizen hackers, and the general public to begin a functioning budget transparency project. I hope that this is just a beginning.
We’ve compiled a list of news articles, blog posts, publications, and other materials from this week related to budgets and civil society work, as well as governance and development issues more generally.
Working with Budgets and Spending Data (School of Data)
- The School of Data, whose goal is to empower CSOs, journalists, and citizens with the skills they need to use data effectively, has an online course on working with budget and spending data.
Does transparency improve governance? Reviewing evidence from 16 experimental evaluations (Journalist’s Resource)
- This post summarizes the research process and conclusions published in a new article (paywalled) by Stephen Kosack and Archon Fung in the Annual Review of Political Science on the link between transparency and governance. The authors say that the evidence shows “reason for enthusiasm about the power of information to catalyze meaningful governance reforms.”
When is civil society a force for social transformation? (OpenDemocracy)
- This article looks at the question of why the huge growth of civil society organizations in the world today hasn’t led to an increase in their impact. The author postulates two main reasons for this: 1) civil society groups are increasingly divorced from the forces that drive deeper social change, and 2) structures that used to mediate between people of different views and backgrounds have largely disappeared, which has led to disagreements among those participating in politics and civic life.
The Public Expenditure Management Peer Assisted Learning (PEMPAL) plenary meeting was held this week in Moscow. Warren Krafchik, director of IBP, gave a presentation on the work of IBP around budget transparency and citizen engagement, and Juan Pablo Guerrero spoke about the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency (GIFT). Here’s a few tweets from Juan Pablo at the event:
Debating the Success of OGP
The Ambition of Open Government Partnership (Open Up Blog)
- Martin Tisne shares his reflections on OGP developments over the last 3 years in light of the recent series of OGP events in Asia and Europe.
- This post is related to Tisne’s above commentary on the successes of OGP commitments. By digging deeper into the OGP data and getting comments from Tisne and others involved in OGP, the author questions how clear OGP’s success really is.
What if “corruption” is a concept that has outlived its usefulness? (The Campaign for Boring Development)
- “What’s peculiar about the situation in today’s Least Developed Countries is that donor countries have exported the category of “corrupt” to describe behaviours that are deviant in the donor countries, but essential to preserving political order and preventing generalized violence in the recipient countries.”
Corruption, Politics, and Public Service Reform in the Digital Age (World Bank’s Governance for Development Blog)
- This post summarizes some of the lessons learned from a recent book (Corruption and Reform in India: Public Services in the Digital Age) on corruption in India, and includes comments from World Bank employees involved in related work.
East African prospects: an update on the political economy of Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda (Overseas Development Institute)
- This report provides an update on the political economy of four East African countries and is based on published research, media reports, the authors’ inside knowledge on certain topics, and recent interviews with well-placed observers in the region.
- This post summarizes the findings and common themes from recent case studies on decentralization and service delivery in the Arab world. It touches on a number of important governance issues including participation and accountability, and the role of fiscal rules and structures is referenced throughout.
The political economy of multi-stakeholder initiatives (World Bank’s Governance for Development Blog)
- This post describes a recent workshop in Ethiopia with civil society and government to demonstrate the potential benefits and impacts of multistakeholder initiatives.
Thinking politically about the role of MSIs in Governance (World Bank’s Governance for Development Blog)
- “The recent rapid expansion of multi-stakeholders initiatives (MSI) promoting improved governance raises critical questions about the role of these mechanisms in addressing problems of government transparency, responsiveness, and accountability, specifically whether and how they generate on-the-ground impact.”
Fiscal Transparency Reviews
- This evaluation, which was carried out at the request of the Russian government, recognizes the progress that Russia has made in strengthening fiscal disclosure as well as highlights a number of areas for improvement.
- This report aims to complement ongoing PFM reviews to help identify relatively low cost measures to strengthen fiscal transparency in Vietnam.
Papua New Guinea Spending Wheel (Pacific Institute of Public Policy)
- Interactive visualization of how the government of PNG spends its money
Where does your 1000 Vatu go? (Pacific Institute of Public Policy)
- Infographic of Vanuatu government spending
Transparency and Nigeria’s Health Budget (Daily Trust, Nigeria)
- Reviews the state of budget transparency generally and looks more in depth at Nigeria’s health budget.
FY 2014/2015 state budget referred to presidency for approval (Daily News Egypt)
- The Egyptian government released its budget on the first day of the presidential election.
All stakeholders to be taken on board in budget process (Business Recorder, Pakistan)
- Pakistan’s Minister of Finance said government plans to make a multistakeholder commission to consult on 2014-15 budget.
New Bunge body to oversee budget process (Daily News, Tanzania)
- The Tanzanian Parliament is to create new department and legislation to oversee the operations of the budget committee for better use of public funds.
Citizen participation key in management of public funds (Zambia Daily Mail)
- This post discusses the experiences of participatory budgeting in Cameroon, which are detailed further in a recent publication from the Africa Research Institute.
Post-2015 Development Agenda
Post-2015 resources round-up (Post2015.org)
A sneak peek at UN progress on post-2015 (Post2015.org)