One of the most disappointing findings of the 2010 Open Budget Survey is that oversight institutions are as closed to the public as most executives. More than a third of legislatures surveyed even exclude the media from budget discussions with the executive. National audit bodies do no better. Almost two thirds of supreme audit institutions (SAIs) have no mechanism for engaging with the public to with them at all.
As the OBS report argues:
“Legislatures and SAIs do not need to wait for the executive to begin to address the accountability deficit. These institutions can begin to take some immediate steps themselves to open budgets to greater public scrutiny and augment their own limited capacities to oversee budgets.”
Here is what the report finds on legislatures and SAIs:
Many legislatures and SAIs follow practices that do not enable public participation to the full extent that is possible, even given the current powers of these bodies. Legislatures can usually decide their own rules and standing orders and use these powers to organize public hearings or invite experts from civil society to provide testimony during budget discussions. In fact, many countries’ constitutions explicitly enshrine the rights of legislatures to call independent witnesses. However, the 2010 Survey finds that:
- Legislatures are not typically open to the public, including the media, during their budget discussions. In 68 of the 94 countries surveyed, legislatures do not organize any public hearings at which the public is given an opportunity to testify on the budgets of individual ministries.
- In 35 countries included in the Survey, all legislative budget discussions involving the executive are closed meetings; the public is excluded altogether from observing these meetings, even if they are committee hearings, and no public record of the meetings is provided.
National Audit Bodies do not better…
The 2010 Survey also finds that few SAIs have instituted strong consultative mechanisms that would enable the public to refer complaints and suggestions to their national SAIs. For example, in 57 countries, SAIs maintain very few formal communication mechanisms through which the public can make complaints or suggestions to inform the audit agenda or audits. This thwarts a potentially excellent source of information feedback on the operations of government programs.
The lack of such consultative mechanisms is particularly prevalent in countries in which SAIs lack adequate powers and independence from the executive. SAIs typically score much lower on questions in the Survey assessing the comprehensiveness of published Audit Reports than they do on questions assessing their independence. This gap is especially large for those countries scoring less than 60 on the OBI 2010. This suggests that SAIs, even given their institutional limitations, could publish more information in their audit reports. Public support and involvement in the work of SAIs can, in fact, augment the capacity of otherwise weak SAIs to pressure their executives to take remedial action based on audit findings.
The Open Budget Survey 2010 finds that a significant number of countries have weak legislatures and SAIs — more than a third of the legislatures and SAIs in the countries surveyed are found to be weak. Further, the Survey reveals that the majority of countries that implement poor budget transparency practices are also countries that tend to have weak oversight institutions. This means that in these countries, not only is the public unable to have any substantial understanding of, or impact on, the use of national resources but even formal oversight institutions are unable to have any decisive impact on how the executive raises and spends money in the country.
The way out of the accountability trap
Countries that have reduced the role of their legislatures to rubberstamping budget reports or that have undermined the independence of SAIs are likely to suffer from poor governance. When the national purse is in the hands of a small elite that is unaccountable to anyone else, it is likely that both budgets will be unwisely spent and corruption will be significant. However, legislatures and SAIs do not need to wait for the executive to begin to address the accountability deficit. These institutions can begin to take some immediate steps themselves to open budgets to greater public scrutiny and augment their own limited capacities to oversee budgets.