As many civil society activists will remember, monitoring and analyzing budgets was an arduous process until relatively recently. It often meant carrying around heavy books and painstakingly trying to find the relevant data amid several hundreds of pages. Things got a lot simpler (and a lot lighter) with the advent of the Internet. When governments first started publishing documents online, budget analysis still required searching large PDFs and patiently compiling the data for analysis. But more recently, with increasing emphasis on fiscal transparency and citizens’ right to information, things got even easier. Many governments are now using so-called transparency portals to host large amounts of budget data in machine-readable formats.
How widespread are these changes? What are some of the emerging good practices? And, how can civil society organizations (CSOs) best take advantage of this new opportunity to enhance budget accountability? Recent research carried out by the International Budget Partnership (IBP) and Fundar, a Mexican civil society organization, looks at these questions.
Four Dimensions to Assess Online Fiscal Disclosure
For the first time, in its 2015 round, IBP’s Open Budget Survey collected information on the government websites and portals through which researchers access budget documents and information. Governments in all 102 countries covered in the survey were found to be maintaining an active budget website and/or portal. In order to start making sense of how that was happening, and some of the emerging good practices, our research project developed a methodology to assess and to identify interesting examples of governments’ online fiscal disclosure practices.
Drawing on previous work, in particular looking at the World Bank’s, as well as the development of global standards for open government data and access to information, we defined four key dimensions to assess governments’ online disclosure of fiscal information:
- Scope refers to the comprehensiveness of the budget information disclosed online. Scope includes which key budget documents are published, the degree to which data are disaggregated, and what historical information is available.
- Accessibility refers to the existence of search and query functions, guides and glossaries, and downloadable datasets in free, open, and machine-readable formats.
- Reliability refers to the availability of information on the source, date of creation, date of upload, and last edit of data being made available. This helps to ensure that users can trace and trust the data.
- Feedback refers to the efforts made to provide users with tools to engage with the providers of budget information. This includes contact details, feedback forms, user platforms, and reports on inputs received from users.
We then developed a questionnaire to assess the online platforms in 80 countries across the four dimensions.
Findings and Emerging Good Practices
Few countries were found to do well across all four dimensions. France stands out as a clear leader in this respect, scoring well across all four dimensions. The Kyrgyz Republic and Peru also perform well.
Most countries do better on scope than on accessibility and reliability; almost all countries perform very poorly on feedback. The online platforms of Mexico and Chile, for example, provide a broad range of budget information and data. Brazil’s portals (here and here) contain both glossaries and frequently asked questions to help users who may not be familiar with budget terminology. France is an interesting example of reliability, tagging each individual file hosted on its open data portal with information on the file format, the date of creation, the date of last edit, and the number of times the file has been downloaded. Colombia was found to have one of the strongest feedback systems of any online platform, with the government providing reports on users and feedback that it has received.
Many countries that do well across the different dimensions are middle-income countries, suggesting that it is not only advanced economies that are capable of building robust and user-friendly online budget disclosure platforms.
What Can Civil Society Organizations do to Improve How Budget Information is Disclosed Online?
The fact that so many governments are now using websites and portals to disclose budget information is welcome, and certainly makes life easier for those seeking this information. Yet our research reveals that the adoption of good practices is, at best, uneven across the 80 countries we looked at.
There are four ways CSOs can ensure governments are taking advantage of the possibilities that new technologies have opened up:
- Carry out a diagnostic of what information is publicly available and what information is needed for budget monitoring and for what purpose.
- Learn how to best take advantage of the budget information that is already available online.
- Pressure governments to make more — and more detailed — budget information available online, and to set up budget transparency portals if they have not yet done so.
- Enter into dialogue with government to improve online disclosure of fiscal information, focusing on accessibility, reliability, and feedback.
More on Digital Budgets
- Digital Budgets: How are Governments Disclosing Fiscal Information Online? (Full Report, February 2016)
- Budget Brief No 34 – Digital Budgets: Improving How Fiscal Information is Disseminated Online (Brief, February 2016)