On April 29, 2020, the International Budget Partnership released the latest edition of the Open Budget Survey (OBS). The report comes at a time when the world has changed in ways that few of us could have imagined even a couple of months ago. Everyone is affected by this crisis, but the effects are most severe for those who face displacement and economic hardships as a result of the social distancing necessary to slow the spread of the disease. The COVID-19 pandemic demands quick and massive interventions from governments and other actors. These interventions need to be characterized by honesty, transparency, engagement, and public trust – the very objectives that drive the OBS.

Even before the crisis began, while data was being collected for the latest survey, the world was rocked by mass demonstrations. In the streets of France and Iraq, Chile and Lebanon, Haiti and Ecuador, tens of thousands of protestors mobilized over the past 12 months. In Chile, people were protesting a four-cent subway fare increase. In Lebanon, people were angry about a small tax levied on the use of WhatsApp. And in Ecuador, the government’s austerity measures provoked citizens impacted by these measures to take to the streets.

While each event reflected country-specific tensions, the anger citizens felt in each country reflected a broad concern with inequality, exclusion, and lack of trust in government–especially regarding the management and inequitable distribution of public resources through government budgets. Government budgets guide essential decisions regarding the collection, allocation, and expenditure of public funds. As such, the decisions enshrined in government budgets affect everyone. Yet for large sections of the population in many countries–especially those with modest means for whom publicly funded services are most critical–budgets remain remote and complicated processes that are out of the public’s reach. However, business as usual carried on through opaque and unaccountable systems of budgeting can, and must, change. They must change not only because people are demanding it, but because open budgets benefit everyone.

Every two years, IBP conducts the Open Budget Survey, the world’s only independent and comparative measure of budget transparency and accountability. IBP’s latest OBS covers an unprecedented 117 countries encompassing 93 percent of the global population. The OBS provides a basis for government, civil society, and donor agencies to understand where and how to improve budget practices. The latest round of the OBS reveals that four out of five governments assessed failed to reach the minimum threshold for adequate budget transparency and oversight as measured against international standards.

The latest report finds a modest global improvement in budget transparency, which is consistent with the overall trend measured by the survey over the past decade. For the 77 countries assessed in every round since 2008, the average global score for transparency has increased by 20 percent. However, despite some gains, global average levels of budget transparency remain insufficient (with an average score of only 45 out of 100), meaning that the majority of countries surveyed do not publish several key budget documents with information necessary for meaningful public dialogue on budget decisions. Compounding matters is the profound inconsistency in the publication of important budget information. We find that almost half of countries surveyed since OBS 2008 have at times published key budget documents, only to stop publishing them at other times—resulting in a lack of substantive, sustained positive change.

Even when governments publish sufficient information for an informed public debate on budget policies, few provide formal spaces in which direct dialogue between government and citizens can occur. The average global score on the survey’s participation measure is a dismal 14 out of 100. That said, it is encouraging that some governments are starting to experiment with innovative ways to strengthen conversations between public institutions and the people they are meant to serve, especially underrepresented groups. For example, the Mexican government established a “social comptrollers” system through which programs established to aid disadvantaged communities are directly monitored by committees of beneficiaries. Portugal, South Korea, and Sierra Leone have also taken steps to bridge the gap between state and citizens. We encourage all countries to draw inspiration from these examples and establish inclusive and meaningful mechanisms for public participation in budgeting.

The survey also measures the strength and independence of legislatures and supreme audit institutions (SAI)—the key institutions in most countries providing formal oversight of budgets. Here the scores are mixed but, once again, they expose key weaknesses in the accountability of fiscal systems in the majority of countries. The latest round of the OBS showed that of the 117 countries surveyed, only 30 have adequate oversight from legislatures and SAIs.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the massive spending measures that governments are now undertaking to respond to the crisis, these findings from the OBS are concerning. The scale of this emergency will lead governments to take expedited action on fiscal policies – shifts that are both warranted and necessary. However, these actions will increase the risks of leakages and ineffective spending – and these risks will be even greater in countries with low transparency and weak oversight. Let it be clear that there is no need for a tradeoff between a rapid emergency response and stronger governance of that response. Countries can take action now, and they can expand transparency and oversight of the expenditures made to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. As countries increase their spending, they can also improve their documentation processes, deepen public monitoring, and strengthen auditing and oversight practices. IBP is publishing a separate note detailing the immediate steps that governments can take to reduce the risks of misuse and mismanagement of emergency funds.

To help us amplify our message, we ask you to join with us in advocating and enabling governments to meet our Call to Open Budgets, an ambitious campaign to improve budget practices around the world. Within five years, we call on governments to:

  1. Publish information on how public resources are generated, allocated and spent in a timely manner that is accessible to all, as specified in the Open Budget Survey;
  2. Create opportunities for all people, particularly those from marginalized communities, to provide input into the budget process;
  3. Strengthen monitoring and oversight of budget execution through independent institutions; and,
  4. Sustain improvements achieved on open budgeting, protecting them from political shifts.
Credit: Flickr/USAID Ethiopia

These targets are broad and ambitious by design and are consistent with the immediate steps that we recommend that governments can and should take to protect their emergency funds. And importantly, the targets are achievable. Most countries in the survey have the technical skills and data to get there – what is needed is a broad coalition to ensure that more countries make this a priority. So far civil society organizations from more than 100 countries have signed on in support of the Call to Open Budgets and they will be working actively with us to promote the call to action. We also want to join with governments, development partners, and the private sector as they all have critical roles in this effort. The results of this OBS reinforce that a more transparent and accountable world is possible, and real gains are achievable now in time to enrich the quality of our COVID-19 response. We must act collectively and urgently. Please join us in making this vision a reality.