The Open Budget Survey (OBS) 2017 showed a drop in global budget transparency for the first time since the survey began measuring public access to budget information in 2006 – but there were some success stories among the 115 countries in the 2017 survey. Few countries have steadily sustained strong increases to budget transparency as the Dominican Republic. The country’s score on the Open Budget Index (OBI, a comparative measure of budget transparency calculated from a subset of OBS questions on the amount and timeliness of budget information that governments surveyed make available to the public) has risen 37 points since 2012, thereby making it one of the top five scores in the Latin American region in 2017, after Mexico, Brazil, and Peru. The Dominican Republic’s OBI 2017 score of 66 out of a possible 100 on budget transparency is substantially higher than the global average score of 42. But while these gains are impressive, more work is necessary to ensure they translate into meaningful public participation.
The positive measures taken by the Dominican Republic mainly relate to a restructuring of the budget office (Dirección General de Presupuesto – DIGEPRES) alongside a new approach to interacting with citizens. The creation of two units in 2012 – the Economic Studies and Budget Integration Unit and the Evaluation and Public Expenditure Quality Unit (Dirección de Estudios Económicos e Integración Presupuestaria and Dirección de Evaluación y Calidad del Gasto Público) — has been central to the improvements in budget transparency. These new units have led the reform efforts including those to increase the level of detail in budget data and improve the budget office website. The budget office has also taken steps to strengthen its processes, including hiring new professionals training them in transparency practices. This increased capacity has been bolstered by increased monitoring of performance on openness.
Going forward, the Dominican Republic is set to increase transparency even further. A major shortfall for the country was its failure to publish a Pre-Budget Statement, which the government had actually produced for its internal use. However, after the OBS 2017 research period concluded, a change in practice ensured the Pre-Budget Statement for fiscal year 2018 was published in a timely manner. This step could place Dominican Republic among the best performers in the next Open Budget Index.
While the Dominican Republic has made impressive improvements in transparency – with a clear opportunity for further improvements – and has set an example in Latin America; the government hasn’t complemented greater public access to budget information with adequate opportunities for the public to participate in budget decision making and oversight. In order to close this gap in public accountability the government now needs to match the progress in budget transparency with robust public engagement in the budget process.
Though the Dominican Republic’s score on public participation of 17 is higher than the global average, it leaves significant room for improvement. And improvement in this area has happened before. In 2014 the Dominican Republic produced and published their first Citizens Budget, a document designed to present key public finance information to a general audience. The process of producing the document was carried out in close collaboration with civil society, critical in ensuring that the document includes budget information that is accessible and useful. The government of the Dominican Republic also worked closely with IBP to learn international standards of budget transparency and accountability, and to participate in an exchange of ideas between the Dirección General de Presupuesto and different civil society organizations. Due to these efforts, the government has successfully produced more citizen-friendly budget documents aimed at different groups of people.
Though this participatory effort to increase access to information is positive, there needs to be more of a focus on establishing mechanisms that would allow the public to engage more directly in the formulation and implementation stages of the budget processes.
For example, though the government’s DIGEPRES and Portal de Transparencia Fiscal websites provide detailed budget information they lack a platform through which citizens can effectively contribute to budget policies. With regard to the enactment process, the National Congress holds public hearings during the formulation stage of the budget, participation is by invitation only. This potentially limits the inclusion of vulnerable or marginalized groups, making a budget that responds to their needs less likely. Ordinary people must be allowed spaces in which they can express their priorities; without opportunities for active participation, budget systems may only serve the interests of powerful elites.
Overall, the Dominican Republic is showing steady progress on budget transparency, which in itself is to be applauded. But we know that transparency alone is insufficient in improving governance. Efforts to improve transparency must be accompanied by improvements to opportunities for public participation. These two elements, alongside adequate formal budget oversight, must be advanced and resourced equally to achieve a truly democratic budget process.
Many governments around the world are making less information available about how they raise and spend public money, according to the results of the International Budget Partnership’s Open Budget Survey 2017.