Budget Trailblazers: Romulo Emmanuel Miral, Jr.

Budget Trailblazers: Romulo Emmanuel Miral, Jr.

 

Each month, we shine a spotlight on partners who are using budget advocacy to bring transformational change to their communities. This month, we talked with Romulo Emmanuel Miral, Jr. PhD, Director General of the Philippines Congressional Policy and Budget Research Department.

Romulo Emmanuel Miral, Jr. PhD, Director General of the Philippines Congressional Policy and Budget Research Department.

Q: What is the role of the Congressional Policy and Budget Research Department (CPBRD) in strengthening accountability in public spending, and who have been its key allies in these efforts?

A: All legislation on appropriations emanates from the House of Representatives, as it holds the purse strings. That said, ultimately, the House and the Senate jointly enact all such legislation. In addition to legislation, Congress is also vested with the oversight function over the implementation of legislation, the national budget included.

As the socioeconomic think tank of the House, CPBRD provides technical assistance to the legislation and oversight processes involved in the national budget and other appropriations through research and information support. The department’s main budget-related outputs are Budget Briefs; Agency Budget Notes; the Legislative Agenda, which is formulated for each Regular Session and with the support of the Committee Affairs Bureau; and occasional research monographs, such as the Legislator’s Guide in Analyzing the National Budget. Underlying all research and information support are the principles of transparency and accountability in public spending.

We also provide context for budget and appropriation legislation and oversight. In the area of the national budget and other appropriations, CPBRD articulates this context in its research outputs by:

      1. Elaborating on the goals of public spending, namely, macroeconomic stability; redistribution; sustainable and inclusive development; and efficient, effective and predictable allocation of limited public funds through correspondence between national priorities and long-term spending plans; and alignment with strategic national and sectoral priorities, and
      2. Discussing and illustrating the underlying principles of transparency, accountability, fiscal discipline, and evidence-based decision making.

CPBRD works with the Committee on Appropriations and other House Committees in providing support for the legislation of the national budget and other appropriations. It is also tapped by the Speaker’s Office for information support. Externally, CPBRD worked with the Commission on Audit and Social Watch Philippines, a civil society organization working towards the creation of the House Committee on Public Accounts. For purposes of knowledge sharing, policy dialogue, and capacity building, occasional collaborations have been pursued with multilateral institutions, such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Bank; other government institutions, such as the Philippine Institute for Development Studies; and civil society organizations, such as the Institute for Autonomy and Governance.

Of late, CPBRD has explored the institutionalization of public participation in the preparation of the national budget, which will allow the public more avenues to strengthen transparency, accountability, and efficiency in the use of public funds.

We also support the state’s oversight function, which increases the probability of success of the legislation of the national budget and other appropriations. It ensures that laws are implemented as they are intended and that outputs and outcomes in public spending are achieved. Our support is articulated in three ways: First, attempting to put forward the policies, parameters, and standards involved in budget implementation by the executive. Second, defining policies on the use of unutilized funds. And third, emphasizing the importance of the executive’s submission of periodic execution reports to Congress.

Recently CPBRD introduced legislative evaluations as an integral component in the implementation of laws.

 

Q: What are the main PFM challenges you have seen and are trying to address, as far as your role is concerned?

A: CPBRD sees the following as the main problems in public financial management in the country: A lack of efficiency in the allocation and utilization of limited public funds; a lack of fiscal transparency and accountability on the part of government agencies for their outputs and outcomes; and inadequate systems for monitoring budget execution and budget accountability.

Two of the more specific and notable problems include the wide discretion of the executive in budget execution and unavailability of complete and timely monitoring and evaluation information to guide budget legislation and oversight functions.

CPBRD has proposed the following solutions to these challenges:

    1. The establishment of a Government Integrated Financial Management Information System that will generate real-time information on budget execution and results.
    2. Greater access by Congress of the executive’s budget monitoring systems.
    3. Strengthening the institutional capacity of Congress to monitor and evaluate the fiscal performance of national government agencies, such as through the creation of a public accounts committee, enactment of the Budget Reform Act, and the establishment of an independent congressional budget office similar to that of the US Congressional Budget Office that serves both houses of Congress.

 

Q: Has your agency benefitted from IBP and what we do? How has IBP influenced your work?

A: CPBRD monitors the Open Budget Survey because it provides an independent assessment of the extent that the country exercises transparency and accountability at each stage of the budget cycle. Through the OBS, we are able to monitor whether the Philippines has made improvements over the years in comparison with other countries. Highlights of the survey are featured in CPBRD’s Facts in Figures.

The OBS also provides assessments of Congress’ exercise of its oversight function. Where oversight is perceived to be low, CPBRD is prompted to produce outputs that underscore the importance of mainstreaming oversight in the work of the legislative and to provide our principals with the basis to initiate reviews of executive agency or program performance.

CPBRD also produces and distributes the Agency Budget Notes annually during the budget season. The Notes present analyses of the budget utilization performance or absorptive capacities of agencies. Indicators on the achievement of targets and relevant findings by the Commission on Audit are also given. We intend to improve on these outputs because they are widely used even outside the House of Representatives.

 

Q: How crucial was CPBRD’s role in providing oversight functions for COVID funds? Can you share about specific steps your office took to ensure accountability of COVID spending by the government?

A: As a research and information support unit, CPBRD provided House Members with a total of 40 weekly monitoring reports on the Republic Act No. 11469, which declared COVID a national emergency and gave the president the powers necessary to carry out the declared national policy. The reports were organized along the four areas covered in the law, namely, social amelioration, economic stimulus, health and COVID-19, and peace and order.

After the expiration of said law, CPBRD published ‘A Results-based Assessment of the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act’. The report summarized the results of the implementation of the law, identified factors that affected implementation results, and offered recommendations for improving the design and implementation of COVID-19 measures.

With the extraordinary budgetary powers given to the president under RA 11469, it was important that Congress was apprised with the extent to which agencies/departments and their respective programs were affected by discontinuances and reallocations for COVID-19 Initiatives. During the deliberations of the national budget in 2020 and 2021, CPBRD incorporated in the Agency Budget Notes updates on discontinuances and the status of COVID-19 releases, thereby highlighting the utilization performance of COVID-19 releases by the recipient agency.

Lastly, Special Issues of CPBRD Budget Briefs analyzed executive issuances affecting the agency budgets and the implementation of COVID-19 measures. Financial reports by the executive were examined and in a more simplified manner, fund releases were reported by expenditure purpose and recipient agency. Other fund sources were also covered, such as pooled savings from discontinued agency programs and unprogrammed appropriations, particularly from loan proceeds for foreign-assisted projects and Treasury-certified additional revenues. The budget briefs identified challenges to budget accountability, such as downscaled, postponed, or abandoned projects authorized in the General Appropriations Act, weak compliance by agencies to the reportorial requirements on utilization of COVID-19 releases, and proper accounting and audit of donations for COVID-19.

 

Q: What specific impact has your office achieved in the last two years?

A: During the pandemic, CPBRD temporarily stopped the production of our publications in hard copy and made considerable improvements to our website for online publications. Notably, there was increased demand for the Agency Budget Notes from House Members. CPBRD will resume printing of limited hard copies because of requests from the staff of House Members.

Congressional review of the budget has taken up more issues relating to operational efficiency of agencies and the overall efficiency in allocating limited public resources. It was observed that during recent budget deliberations, House Members asked executive agencies about their budget utilization performance or absorptive capacities. Also, budget proposals for the creation of new positions were also reviewed against unfilled positions of the agencies.

Online fora on the formulation of a national evaluation policy conducted by CPBRD in partnership with the Senate Economic Planning Office and the United Nations Children Fund UNICEF were well attended. The need for a culture of evaluation is now better appreciated.

Budget Trailblazers: Rongai Leakwara

Budget Trailblazers: Rongai Leakwara

In this section, we shine a spotlight on partners who are using budget advocacy to bring transformational change to their communities. This month, we talked with Rongai Leakwara, a budget champion from one of the smallest and marginalized ethnic minority communities in Kenya, known as the Ilchamus community. 

Q: What inspired you to start working with budgets? 

A: I became involved in budget work to help my community better organize and engage in county budget making processes. As a person with a disability from the Ilchamus community, I became an active member of a support group for people with disabilities. It was through them that I was introduced to the Centre for Enhancing Democracy and Good Governance (CEDGG), a civil society group that works to empower vulnerable and marginalized citizens to engage with development and governance processes. CEDGG has truly played a big role in making me who I am today. Through CEDGG, I was able to learn about and engage in county budget processes to push for our community needs to be included in the county annual budgets.  

Q: What skills and tools have you learned from your partnership with IBP that has helped your budget work? 

A: I have learned about the county budget process such as the decisions that are being made, important dates in the process, the people involved and the role of citizens. I have also gained skills in analyzing budget documents, community organizing and facilitation of budget deliberations at the community level and engagement with government officials. More importantly, I have gained advocacy skills that have enabled me to engage government officials and follow up on their commitments to hold them accountable.  

Q: How has becoming a budget champion in your community changed your life? 

A: Being a community budget champion has raised my social status in the community and I am now recognized and respected in my community as a resource. Even men, who had previously looked down on women and people with disabilities, now call on me to educate them. For example, the Ilchamus Council of Elders has invited me to consult on their decision-making regarding development in our ward. In addition, government officials, media and research institutions reach out to me for my opinion on various development concerns within the Ilchamus community. In 2019, I was recognized and rewarded by the Baringo County government as a community heroine for championing for the rights of people with disabilities, women and the Ilchamus Community. However, what pleases me the most is when I see my community members accessing water, health and other services as a result of the budget advocacy work that I and my fellow budget champions have done.   

The Iingarua health center that Rongai has been advocating for more budget allocations to improve service delivery.

Q: Why is it important for women to have a voice in budget processes? 

 A: Women play key social roles at the family level ranging from overseeing health care for the family to ensuring water is available for the household. Women end up shouldering the many costs that come with health care needs such as travelling to health care clinics and the purchase of medicine. Therefore, if only men participate, they may not remember to prioritize water projects or health services since they do not appreciate the struggles we go through. When men and women participate, budget decisions are likely to be balanced. 

Q: Why should the average citizen care about budgets? 

A: We expect the government to implement development projects and improve services such as water and health services in our communities. But as a budget champion, I have come to learn that it is only through the budget that the government brings development to our community. We may continue complaining about poor services but unless they are factored in the budget, we may never see the improvements we want and need. Citizens also pay taxes which finance government activities, so we should care because it is about our money. 

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From challenge to advocacy: how Social Justice put children at the heart of the budget

From challenge to advocacy: how Social Justice put children at the heart of the budget

From challenge to advocacy: how Social Justice put children at the heart of the budget

This is part one of a three-part series on the budget analysis and advocacy learning journey of IBP’s civil society partner, Social Justice in Cote d’Ivoire. Read part two and part three.

This post is also available in French.

Why budget work? This is a question we hear a lot at the International Budget Partnership (IBP). The answer can be complex, but in short, budgets directly impact people’s lives and their ability (or inability) to access the resources and services needed to thrive. At the core of this work are our partnerships with civil society groups around the world. We work with them to bolster their capacity to engage in their country’s budget ecosystem to affect transformational change. One of those longtime partners is Social Justice in Cote d’Ivoire – a group that in just 18 months, significantly deepened and focused their budget analysis skills to take on a challenge affecting children across the country.

Context matters: the Francophone Africa Network
In IBP’s 20 years of budget work, we’ve seen our partnerships with government actors, civil society groups and social movements result in significant policy and process changes that improve the lives of the most marginalized people. These successes inspired us to expand our work and partnerships to other countries, but we know that replication is often not possible given a specific region or country’s context. One such region is Francophone Africa, where we have intensified our work with the establishment of the Francophone Africa Network (FAN) – comprised of 14 civil society groups from nine countries in Central and West Africa. The goal is to strengthen learning and practices on budget work so FAN members can execute ambitious but realistic advocacy strategies that contribute to more inclusive and equitable budget processes and outcomes in their countries. IBP has successfully convened this network through workshops and other events but also decided to go deeper and offer dedicated resources to three groups from FAN, including Social Justice Cote d’Ivoire. Having worked with them as an Open Budget Survey researcher, IBP knew they were well-positioned to take their budget advocacy and analysis work to the next level. Established in 2009, Social Justice Cote d’Ivoire advocates and works on issues of transparency, corruption and good governance and has used budget monitoring as a tool to achieve their goals. However, to go deeper into this work, both IBP and Social Justice Cote d’Ivoire knew they would need to pivot from issues of broad transparency to budget analysis and advocacy to narrow their focus and achieve significant change.

Understanding the ecosystem
The first step was to better understand the overarching public finance ecosystem in Francophone Africa to identify what they could focus their efforts on. Eight countries, including Cote d’Ivoire, are part of the West African Economic & Monetary Union (WAEMU) that share the same currency and one central bank. As a result, public financial management reforms happen at the regional level, requiring an understanding of the ins and outs of WAEMU. IBP’s support of Social Justice Cote d’Ivoire included a deep dive into WAEMU’s reforms to understand how Social Justice could best approach their budget analysis. They learned that as part of WAEMU’s reforms, they had transitioned to program-based budgeting (PBB) which aims to make budgets more transparent, ensure that public money is spent on the right priorities and links budgets more closely to the purposes of spending. This meant that Social Justice Cote d’Ivoire would need to understand how PBB works to engage in the budget process. It is this kind of region-specific context that makes it difficult to replicate successful budget work from other countries and requires a dedicated network such as FAN.

An emerging problem
Beginning with the 2014-2015 school year, the Ivoirian government had made school compulsory for six to 16-year-olds and recognized the importance of school canteens in keeping children in school and in turn improving success rates. In fact, according to the Ministry of National Education, the school performance rate increased from 62 percent in 2012 to 74 percent in 2015 in primary schools with canteens and the average success rate for the Certificate of Primary Elementary Studies is 68 percent in these schools, compared to 59 percent in schools without canteens. Social Justice Cote d’Ivoire decided to evaluate the effectiveness of school canteens in improving student performance. As Social Justice Cote d’Ivoire dove into their analysis, they focused on a key question: are there functioning school canteen programs in the country? They noticed a disturbing trend which would become their focus during our partnership: of the 12,537 existing public primary schools, 7,115 did not have school canteens, and of the 5,422 canteens, some were not operational or functional. Social Justice Cote d’Ivoire scrutinized budget allocations and determined that despite their importance, state and local authorities were not prioritizing or allocating sufficient resources to the canteens. It soon became clear that there were several factors contributing to this issue:

  • School canteens are overwhelmingly dependent on support from donors, namely the World Food Programme;
  • A lack of specific funding for school canteens by the central state and local authorities;
  • A weak oversight system for monitoring and accessing information on school canteens;
  • Minimal community involvement in the management and supply control of school canteens;
  • No involvement of cooperatives or other food production groups in the management and supply of school canteens

Based on its analysis, Social Justice Cote d’Ivoire focused on a critical issue facing its community that was consistent with its goals as an organization: transparency, good governance and social justice. They picked up the school canteen issue and ran with it, building their capacity to examine the problem through a budget analysis lens and identifying the right stakeholders to help them champion success for school-aged children.

The author would like to thank Carol Kiangura, IBP Senior Program Officer, Sub-Saharan Africa, Training, Technical Assistance & Networking and the Social Justice staff for their invaluable help in writing this post.

Understanding the role of citizens in promoting equitable taxation: A peek at upcoming IBP publications

Understanding the role of citizens in promoting equitable taxation: A peek at upcoming IBP publications

Even before the global pandemic, the international community was increasingly focused on domestic resource mobilization, as aid budgets were set to shrink while countries had affirmed ambitious targets in the Sustainable Development Goals. COVID has brought into even sharper relief the need to resource emergency responses and support aggregate demand. The fiscal costs of the current crisis require a mix of revenue sources, but ultimately will be paid for mainly with taxes.

Alongside the growing attention to taxation in general, interest in the role of civic actors in tax reform in low- and middle-income countries has also grown. This is due in part to a recognition that without a strong grass-roots voice in tax, some of the goals of progressive tax reform—such as equitable tax systems that are based on strong reciprocal ties between taxpayers and the state—may not be met. Civic actors have a vital role to play to ensure that tax systems are redistributive, and that tax compliance is part of a bargain in which citizens demand state performance and services in exchange. This is no easy task, as it means mobilizing the public to take on powerful interests that oppose progressive tax reform.

As part of IBP’s new Tax Equity Initiative, we have developed some resources to help civic actors deepen their engagement with tax reform and learn from each other.  We spent most of 2020 working on three exciting new projects:

  • A review that explores lessons for civic actors from the academic literature on the politics of tax reform. This project resulted in two publications: an extensive literature review paper and a much shorter guide for civic actors to reflect on the main findings from the literature review. Both were released Friday, October 9.
  • A global scan of the civil society tax field, in which we catalogued the major civil society organizations around the globe that are working on tax, the topics they are working on, their main approaches and the constraints that they face, among other things. Products include a summary paper with a broad overview of our findings, as well as a searchable online database that will be available to everyone, which will be published in early November.
  • The first ever set of in-depth case studies on how civic actors have engaged in tax reform, covering seven cases of CSO-led tax reform campaigns in Latin America, Africa and Asia. A synthesis of these cases, and short summaries of each, will be available later this year. In addition to highlighting emerging findings from across the case studies, this project will generate lessons for other civic actors interested in engaging with tax reforms.

Taken together, we think these products will fill a gap in our understanding of how civic actors can and do engage in tax reform.

Our review of the academic literature on the politics of tax reform surveys the literature on the political economy of domestic tax reform, with a focus on low- and middle-income countries. The review looks at the main players involved in the politics of tax reform, the way in which the substance of tax reform shapes political forces, and the process by which taxes are eventually reformed, including how the reforms are framed and understood.

Tax reform is fundamentally political. It is about governments and the bargains that governments strike with taxpayers over how much will be paid and in exchange for what. Of course, states do not bargain with an undifferentiated mass of taxpayers, but with an array of interests, including powerful business interests, donors and creditors, civic actors and individual taxpayers that may or may not be organized. These actors may react to tax reform in different ways depending on their interests and perceptions, including their views not only about the taxes themselves, but what those taxes will be used for.

The literature review demonstrates that while states may generally seek revenue, and business and other elites generally seek to avoid shouldering the burden of paying tax, there are important divisions within these actors and groups. For example, ministries of finance may seek greater revenues to support expenditure, manage debt repayment, and ensure overall fiscal balance. But they may also promote foreign investment and other specific economic activities. This can lead to the pursuit of tax exemptions or tax treaties that reduce revenue, bringing ministries of finance into potential conflict with revenue authorities.  Thus different parts of the state have divergent views on how much revenue to collect and how to use tax policy and administration to further their goals.

While business associations frequently oppose tax increases, they are also often divided over their interests. For example, formal sector business generally likes to see informal businesses enter into the tax net because they believe this leads to fairer competition. In Ghana, larger traders that were part of the Ghana Union of Traders’ Associations supported a turnover tax that brought smaller and more informal business into the tax net because it ensured fairer competition between these larger and smaller traders. Smaller firms may wish to see incentives or exemptions removed for larger firms for the same reason. These examples point to strategic opportunities for civic actors to exploit: opportunities to create alliances with state actors or powerful interests that may not typically be friendly to citizen agendas.

Tax reform is not only about fixed interests or incentives, but also about the way in which such reforms are structured and framed. Different ways of designing and talking about reform also matter. For example, when taxes are closely linked to popular expenditure programs, and when taxpayers trust the government to collect taxes fairly and use them for spending in the public interest, there may be more support for tax reform even from those who have to pay more. This suggests the importance of sound tax administration for tax policy: where there is high trust in tax authorities, there is likely to be more willingness to support progressive tax reform.

These points are just a taste of what is covered in the literature review paper. The shorter reflection paper is organized around guiding questions that civic actors can use to reflect on their strategies. We hope this is a useful starting point for supporting more and better civic engagement with tax, but we also want to hear from you! We know we are only beginning to scratch the surface of this exciting and dynamic field, and we want to keep improving the materials we are developing to make them more accurate, insightful and useful. So please: read and reflect, and also share your thoughts with us.

Help our children make it through COVID-19: we need transparent budgets

Help our children make it through COVID-19: we need transparent budgets

Most children in the world are not attending school. Millions are unlikely to return. Disruptions to cash, food, health, protection and other programs leave hundreds of millions of children exposed to hunger, violence, sickness and even death. Such risks are magnified where household income has fallen due to job loss, lower earnings and/or fewer remittances.

“If you are not infected, you are affected.” Once commonly used when referring to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, this same phrase can now be applied to the global impact of the coronavirus pandemic. While younger children are not considered at high risk of direct health complications due to the virus, the epidemic is having an indelible and devastating impact on their current and future lives.

COVID-19 has significantly overstretched the capacity of many governments to finance the delivery of essential services to children and their families. Well before the pandemic, many countries were failing to invest sufficient resources in programs that improve the wellbeing of vulnerable populations, including children. With the collapse of government revenue alongside the surge in demand for spending in recent months, fiscal deficits are widening to historic proportions. In this context, governments must ensure that massive budget reallocations and fiscal stimulus packages do not crowd out spending on goods and services that often serve as a lifeline.

Government spending decisions have life and death consequences. A study by The Lancet shows that a modest disruption of health systems and decreased access to food is likely to kill an additional 1.1 million children and 56,000 mothers over the next six months as an indirect result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This means that public finance decisions taken today will have a profound impact on the trajectory of the world’s 2.4 billion children and their caregivers, especially those living in developing countries.

Public oversight of government spending is imperative

At all times, but clearly even more so during periods of crisis, creating opportunities for the public to provide input and monitor how governments allocate public funds is crucial. Yet, we know from the results of the latest Open Budget Survey (OBS 2019) that most countries fall short of this. As the world’s only independent, fact-based, and comparative assessment of public budget accountability — transparency, oversight, and public engagement — the OBS offers insight into how inaccessible government budgets can perpetuate poverty and inequality.

For example, recent research by UNICEF and the International Budget Partnership found that one-third of the budget for immunization programs in 22 countries went unspent during the period from 2009 – 2017, the most recent years for which data was available. Without an open budget process, it is unclear what happened to these resources. While poor budget transparency practices are a major concern for children during normal times, the stakes have never been higher than in 2020.

As the impacts of COVID-19 continue to intensify across the globe, there is a danger that the open budget agenda will reverse and close. Normal budgeting and spending processes have already been upended as emergency packages move forward with limited or no consultation from the public. Parliamentary oversight functions have been significantly reduced in many countries, and lockdowns have created new public finance planning and implementation challenges. The year 2020 is likely to be characterized by the largest public spending deviations in all of history.

Open budgets can be an effective tool in creating a better future for our children

As we cope with this crisis, we also see an opportunity to shape the future — where citizens and government are in active dialogue about the best way to invest scarce resources. Open budgets help align government spending with the needs of vulnerable communities.

Producing comprehensive, useful, and timely budget information enables different groups to assess the impact of government spending and hold governments accountable. In addition, higher credit ratings from improved transparency allow governments to borrow more and cheaper funds, while also attracting greater budget support from donors. This increases the overall pot of resources and potential impact of national budgets on people’s lives.

We’ve seen firsthand how information from the OBS empowers governments and civil society to quickly improve budget openness.

Using results from OBS 2017, UNICEF and IBP supported finance ministries in implementing budget transparency improvement action plans, which catalyzed the publication of more budget information and created new spaces for citizens to contribute to public finance decisions. As a result of these efforts, 15 of the 19 countries in Eastern and Southern African that participated in the latest rounds of the OBS recorded significant improvements in their scores.

In the face of the COVID-19 crisis, we must advocate for and keep the pressure on governments to conduct proper consultations in forming their budgets, carefully document what is being funded, and report on the impact of that funding to hold them accountable.

In recent days, IBP and UNICEF convened a conversation on the transparency of health and education budgets with over 150 participants from government and civil society around the world as well as a discussion with finance ministry officials and civil society organizations from more than a dozen countries in Eastern and Southern Africa to discuss the latest Open Budget Survey results.

We join hundreds of signatories from organizations around the world to call on governments to adopt open budget practices now. Together, we can use budgets as the ultimate tool to champion the voices of our children when they need it most.

Citizens, Civil Society and Auditors: COVID-19 requires an “ecosystem” approach to accountability

Citizens, Civil Society and Auditors: COVID-19 requires an “ecosystem” approach to accountability

Governments around the world are at a critical juncture. Democracy is continuing to erode in countries across the globe, with increasing threats to citizens’ freedoms and restrictions on civic organizations. At the same time inequality is high and rising.  Frustration with governments (democratic or not) failing to address peoples’ needs, alongside cases of corruption, has caused citizens to take to the streets in unprecedented numbers, forcing government action. Yet often the root causes of impunity remain untouched.

At the moment, these medium-term trends are overshadowed by the COVID-19 emergency. Faced with this crisis, governments in the north and south have taken action, both to protect their populations from the virus and, given the economic harm often necessary to prevent the spread of the virus, to provide social protection programs. Effective response by governments are necessary to save lives and prevent families from falling into poverty and hardship in the short term, and hold the key to coming out the other side of this crisis with strengthened social safety nets, health systems, and more. However, it is likely that funds meant to strengthen public health infrastructure and reach vulnerable groups will be mismanaged. This is an opportunity for public auditors to ensure that public money is well spent during and after the crisis.

This is the moment for Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs), entities mandated with checking whether public funds are being managed properly, to become much more visible accountability champions, strengthening their hand to ensure government resources reach people in their moment of need. However, many SAIs will struggle to seize that opportunity.  Evidence shows us that even technically sound audits undertaken by independent auditors are often not acted upon by governments.  Parliaments may not take up the audits, or if they do, they may not enforce meaningful action. Findings of mismanagement or corruption could potentially implicate politically well-connected actors, both inside and outside government. Thus, it is not surprising there would be resistance to holding them to account, which could embarrass the government and even shut down what might be lucrative opportunities for enrichment. Of course, not every audit finding is about corruption and some may point to challenges faced in delivering complex public programs. In these cases, even if audits point to the right solution, these may be difficult to put into practice. Both a political economy lens, who stands to lose from audit findings being acted upon, and a practical lens of the challenges of implementing audit recommendations, may point to barriers to meaningful action.

This challenging reality suggests a need for more strategic approaches to leveraging audits for accountability, one that is realistic about the causes of public sector problems and the complexities of reform to address those challenges.  Thinking about the role of SAIs within a broader accountability ‘ecosystem’ of actors and mechanisms suggests that ‘connecting the dots’ between these actors is more likely to result in meaningful change than isolated efforts.  That means bringing together citizens and civil society organizations to work with SAIs to undertake audits and champion findings and recommendations. Too often, civic efforts fall short when seeking to address systemic challenges related to public resources and services, and could be strengthened by connecting more meaningfully to state oversight.  IBP’s efforts to support CSOs and SAIs in five countries has shown promise in assembling diverse coalitions that leverage audits to engage government actors and ensure corrective action.

In the context of a decline in trust in public institutions, citizen engagement with the state in seeking accountability can make a difference, from strengthening the active practice of citizenship and the social contract to more tangible outcomes in improved government efficiency and responsiveness. SAIs are increasingly engaging citizens more broadly, both to inform audits and to help ensure action.  Cases such as South Africa demonstrate that SAIs are increasing interested in tapping into these potential synergies.  SAIs are increasingly adopting the language of public engagement, and there are promising cases of  collaboration.

Even in contexts of a weak accountability ecosystem and limited democratic governance, evidence shows that civic action is an important factor in audits being acted upon by government.  In the best cases, citizen participation with SAIs is both a means to more effective audits and ultimately greater accountability, and an end in itself in terms of democratizing audit processes, strengthening the accountability ecosystem, and deepening citizenship practices.  However, engaging citizens and civil society is no magic bullet, as examples of ‘box ticking’ in other domains, such as participatory budgeting, confirm.  Collaboration between mobilized citizens, CSOs and SAIs can lead to effective coalitions with powerful synergies, but this requires significant effort to build relationships, strategize together and align ways of working.

Given the many challenges faced by citizens and governments around the world, there is an urgent need for SAIs to be more effective in their oversight efforts to ensure scarce public resources are used most effectively. During the present COVID emergency, lives depend on it.  Accountability strategies that leverage SAI, CSO and broader citizen roles – along with media, private sector and other government actors, such as parliaments and courts – can mitigate some of the challenges faced by oversight actors, particularly during the COVID emergency.  This can lead to public resources being used more effectively in the short term.  In the long term, it could contribute to strengthening and democratizing the accountability ecosystem.