An assessment of 120 countries’ management of COVID relief in May 2021 by the International Budget Partnership (IBP) found that too many governments were using the excuse of urgency to avoid being as transparent, accountable or inclusive as they could be.
The results achieved by many countries were disappointing, but the overall accountability gap the report found was not entirely surprising. Rather than simply lamenting the dismal state of accountability systems, however, we can shine a spotlight on what good procedures look like in practice. To take a more in-depth look at these practices, IBP drafted briefs that delve into government objectives in implementing them, the impacts achieved, and lessons that can be drawn for their replication in other countries. The main goal was to provide more detailed descriptions to governments and other stakeholders who work with governments of how they can “close the gap” and strengthen national accountability systems during emergencies.
Each experience provides a detailed description of the response taken in that country as well as the benefits they reaped. For example, in Jamaica, the real-time audit of the government’s COVID-19 stimulus package saved an estimated JMD 245 million in payments that would have been made to ineligible applicants. In Nepal and Sierra Leone, early engagement by the countries’ fiscal oversight institutions led to investigations of corruption and mismanagement.
In South Africa, public feedback through the Asivikelane initiative enabled the government to improve access to water, sanitation, and waste removal services affecting more than one million people living in informal settlements. Similarly, in Senegal, the government was able to better target its emergency response to people living with disabilities. This happened thanks to the work of the monitoring committee the government established to solicit public feedback on its emergency measures. In countries that developed COVID-19-related open data portals, like Ecuador and Paraguay, increased transparency in public procurement has led to greater public scrutiny of government contracts.
Many of the briefs were written by civil society organizations that engaged with government during the implementation of the fiscal measures adopted to tackle the impact of COVID. The authors interviewed people within and outside government who had knowledge and experiences of the practices documented in the briefs. A synthesis brief that summarizes the main lessons from the experiences of countries in implementing the good practices that were documented is now available online.
IBP and the World Bank recently organized a two-day workshop that brought together finance ministries, legislative staff, auditors, donor agencies, and civil society organizations to discuss the lessons from the experiences of countries in instituting accountable systems to manage their emergency funds.
Two main lessons emerged from the workshop:
One, country leadership plays a critical role in setting the tone for accountability and undertaking course corrections based on feedback. When governments are explicit about their intention to prioritize accountability, it can become a guiding post that informs actions. These include clarifying the governance of emergency responses through rules, regulations, legal frameworks, processes, and agencies. The actions can also take the form of new investments – including human and financial capital, and technical solutions – or leveraging existing skills and competencies in advancing an open and inclusive emergency process. In some cases, existing transparency, inclusion, and accountability approaches can be better targeted to address the emergency.
Two, a system-wide and multi-stakeholder response involving executives, legislatures, auditors, and civil society actors can overcome resistance to accountability. Emergencies require an all-hands-on-deck approach as a single agency or institution may not have the ability to change the accountability culture in the country. Further, early engagement by oversight bodies and external stakeholders is critical. Several of the good practice briefs found that these actors had, by engaging early, ensured that government standards were upheld.
Our work over the past year has clearly shown that governments can achieve speedy policy responses to an emergency like COVID-19 without undermining accountability. Strong public finance management systems measured by improved scores in the Open Budget Survey and Public Expenditure and Financial Accountability assessment can facilitate the process. When speed and accountability are pursued together, the public receives better services. That, in turn, builds confidence that the government can deliver. The overall message for governments, donors, and civil society organizations is to not wait for a crisis to invest in building transparent, inclusive, and accountable public finance management systems.
Vivek Ramkumar is the Senior Director of Policy at the International Budget Partnership. Edward Olowo Okere is the Global Director for Governance Global Practice at the World Bank Group.