Each month, we shine a spotlight on partners who are using budget advocacy to bring transformational change to their communities. This month we’re spotlighting Katia Lambis, budget expert and OBS consultant, from Fundación Solidaridad in the Dominican Republic.
This interview was translated to from Spanish.
Q: Tell us about Fundación Solidaridad’s mission?
A: Fundación Solidaridad, founded in 1990, is a non-profit institution based on the principles of solidarity, equity and participatory democracy. We support citizens to play an active role in their collective wellbeing. For 30 years, the organization has developed projects to strengthen the advocacy capacity of civil society organizations in promoting transparency, oversight and accountability, among other issues.
Fundación Solidaridad has been recognized nationally and internationally for being a pioneer in the implementation of the Municipal Participatory Budget in the Dominican Republic. Since 2008, we have carried out the independent review of IBP’s Open Budget Survey (OBS) in the Dominican Republic.
Q: How did the Dominican Republic fare in the OBS 2021?
A: The country made significant progress, ranking ninth in the list of countries that exhibit the greatest budget transparency globally and as one of the 17 countries that publish all eight national budget documents.
Q: In what ways has the Dominican government shown improvement compared to its previous OBS ranking from 2019?
A: The country’s transparency score improved from 75 to 77 due to progress that was made in the availability and comprehensiveness of information provided in national budget documents. Regarding budget oversight, we also observed an increase from 57 to 63 points thanks to actions carried out by Congress and the audit institution (the Chamber of Accounts). However, we should note that the public participation score decreased from 31 to 22 points because opportunities for citizen participation were not provided during the formulation and approval of the budget.
Q: The Dominican government established public consultations during budget implementation to strengthen public participation in the budget process. This is a great start but what else can it do to further bolster the public’s involvement in budget matters?
A: The Dominican government has expressed its commitment to public participation in budget matters and the relevant institutions have reiterated their commitment to prioritize, guarantee and expand spaces for public participation throughout the budget process. To this end, they have begun to set up mechanisms that allow citizens and civil society organizations to participate in activities related to the formulation of the budget and are working to create participation mechanisms during the approval of the budget.
Q: How does the Dominican Republic use the OBS findings to improve its open budget practices?
A: With each OBS publication, the results have allowed the Dominican Republic to identify areas for improvement in its budgetary practices and implement policies to address weaknesses.
A good example of an effort to promote more open budget practices was the publication of the Citizens Budget, which began in 2015. The Citizens Budget has contributed to a) progress in making information accessible to citizens; b) improving follow-up and citizen monitoring throughout the budget process; and c) contributing to improved transparency and accountability of the budget process.
The institutions responsible for the budget’s preparation have made available to the public several instruments to support the Citizens Budget, such as a guide to understanding the budget, explanatory videos and infographics with weekly, monthly and quarterly reports on budget execution that allow citizens to evaluate the performance of spending measures.
Thanks to Fundación Solidaridad’s advocacy, and the results of the OBS 2021, the government is motivated to continue working towards increased transparency and oversight, and to formalize channels for public participation in budget matters. We continue to organize dialogues with Congress and the Chamber of Accounts to promote greater detail in budget information and increased spaces for public participation. We will keep working towards progress.
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.
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:
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
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:
The establishment of a Government Integrated Financial Management Information System that will generate real-time information on budget execution and results.
Greater access by Congress of the executive’s budget monitoring systems.
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.
By Claire Schouten, Senior Program Officer, International Budget Partnership and Joe Powell, Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Open Government Partnership
Restoring the notion of government of, for and by the people will be essential as we seek to renew societies and build resilience in the post-pandemic global recovery. This crisis exacerbated and exposed inequality and injustice around the world, hitting the most vulnerable hardest. Now is the time for governments to make more robust investments in rebuilding societies.
These investments are too important to be made opaquely and without public input, especially when inequality and perceived corruption have already undermined public trust in many governments. In recent years, governments globally have made commitments to be open about what they’re doing with the public’s money.
Fiscal openness is a mainstay of the open government movement. In the last decade of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), over 90 percent of OGP members have made a total of 671 fiscal openness commitments – more than nearly any other policy area. Fiscal openness is not just a consistently popular policy area in OGP, it’s also one of the four core eligibility criteria for membership, based on data from the Open Budget Survey. Redoubling those commitments, and most essentially, making sure they translate into accountability – so that communities have a say in public spending and can ensure governments use scarce resources for the public good– has never been more important to our democratic future.
The good news is that these efforts are paying off. As per the Open Budget Survey, we’re at the highest level of transparency since the International Budget Partnership started assessing open budget practices more than fifteen years ago. In the 77 countries assessed in every round between 2008 and 2019, the average global score on budget transparency increased by 20 percent. The latest OGP Vital Signs research also shows that OGP countries that have made open budgeting commitments – especially if they are ambitious and over multiple action plans – have improved their scores more than other countries.
However, progress has also been inconsistent with fluctuating performance in too many countries. Among OGP members, there are now some countries that even risk falling below the core eligibility criteria because they have slipped on their fiscal transparency scores. COVID exacerbated this volatility as many governments have not been as transparent with relief spending as they could be. Despite all of this, there is room for quicker, more sustained progress. If countries around the world simply published budget documents that they already produce for internal use, there would be transparency gains globally of 20 percent. Governments can also focus on proactively providing information that citizens want, such as information on service delivery.
Going beyond transparency
There is also growing recognition that transparency alone is insufficient, that opportunities for public participation and strong oversight are also central to accountable government. Spaces are needed for informed public debate and for those most likely to be adversely affected by inequitable budgets to be involved. Strong oversight by both legislatures, national audit offices and other oversight actors is needed to hold the executive to account throughout the budget process and ensure budgets are fully implemented in line with stated objectives.
As governments launched massive spending measures to address the impacts of the pandemic, some countries have shown that a more transparent, inclusive and accountable way of managing the public purse, even during an emergency, is indeed possible.
In the Philippines, a commitment to hold a series of public consultations called Dagyaw 2020—promoted under the aegis of the Open Government Partnership—was repurposed to ensure continuing public dialogues during the COVID crisis on government response policies.
In South Africa, the civil society-led Asivikelane campaign has highlighted severe public service shortages in South Africa’s informal settlements. Using a simple but effective survey that is implemented via text messages and targeted advocacy, the campaign has already improved access to water, sanitation, and waste removal services from municipal governments affecting more than one million people.
These good practices demonstrate that speedy policy responses do not have to undermine accountability. They provide a useful roadmap for governments to include citizens and critical oversight institutions in deeply consequential spending decisions in emergency times and beyond. By planning and implementing spending in a more open and collaborative way, and keeping citizens informed, governments can ensure public spending is more effective and equitable. Perhaps most importantly, they can strengthen social capital and expand civic space so that all people feel heard and trust that public funds are spent in the public interest. Governments should take heed of these approaches in their ongoing relief efforts. For instance, the EU’s landmark Recovery and Resilience Facility – an essential mechanism to combat the challenges faced by EU member states as they rebuild economies and livelihoods in the wake of the pandemic – should model these good practices. Given the unprecedented size and scale of the funds, it will be crucial to embed enhanced transparency, accountability and civic participation mechanisms to ensure these funds have their intended impact.
We have an opportunity to forge new alliances and strategies that shift politics. It’s an all-hands-on-deck approach to countering authoritarianism and promoting local accountability solutions. It consists of:
Refined political strategy. For public resources to contribute to a more just and equitable society, we need a deeper understanding and response to the political economy of public resource decision-making and implementation. Powerful interests that have built social, political, and economic structures that concentrate wealth and privilege and exclude marginalized groups are at the root causes of deprivation. Further opening up budget processes in meaningful ways requires developing alliances and partnerships that build countervailing power, so that public resources are spent to tackle poverty and inequity. Progress on open spending practices will also generate important information for combating corruption in public contracts and company ownership.
New spaces for impact. New spaces are emerging as opportunities for impact on big political issues of our time. They include meaningful civil society participation in revenue debates and spending monitoring; bridging budget and environmental actors to ensure that recovery funds contribute to a sustainable and green transition and that climate change funds serve vulnerable communities; and strong connections and real gains at the subnational level of government, with a focus on service delivery. Civil society has been a vanguard in carving out new spaces to inform government decisions in a meaningful way– now it is time for national and local governments to scale up and formalize channels for greater public participation on these mission critical issues.
New opportunities for powerful alliances. We can build a robust accountability ecosystem that fosters trust and strengthens democracy. Let’s bring together citizens, social movements, state accountability institutions such as national audit offices and executive ministries to foster a governance system that works for all.
As the Open Budget Survey and good practices above illustrate, it is notable that countries across income levels and geographies have been able to chart new directions to manage public funds in a more accountable and inclusive way. Where there is a will, there is a way. A more inclusive approach is not only possible, but desirable if we are to advance more resilient and democratic societies in which public funds advance the public interest. The Open Government Partnership can help by enlisting new allies, building broad coalitions across government and civic actors with legitimacy and power to rise to the challenges we face and are likely to face going forward.
This article also appears on the Open Government Partnership’s website. Read it here.
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 Astou Mbengue, lead data collector for the Senegalese Federation of Inhabitants (FSH).
The text was derived from a video interview that was translated and then edited for the purposes of clarity and brevity.
Q: What are the main problems you and FSH are working to address?
A: I live in an area that can best be described as an informal settlement. It is a precarious neighborhood that was built without clear planning, which makes it susceptible to flooding. Our parents developed this area, and my generation feels obliged to improve living conditions in the district by working through community organizations. In some areas we face sanitation problems, which are compounded by a lack of financial means to improve conditions.
Flooding is a particular challenge that has contributed greatly to the community’s degradation. Flooding causes sanitation problems because homes are not connected to formal sewage systems. Even if the houses were strong [flood-resistant], floods would still have a major impact on living conditions because rainwater mixes with wastewater, which creates a massive health challenge. Wastewater that isn’t handled properly is discharged into the streets and it affects the entire community, including children who end up playing with the filthy water. This can lead to skin disease, diarrhea, and acute respiratory infections. The problem of sanitation and flooding negatively impacts the entire community’s daily survival.
As citizens, we saw the problems getting worse and so we decided to take charge of our needs. [But] without authorization from officials, the situation is untenable. Even if the population takes charge of its development, there will always be blockages at the level of the authorities who must validate the initiative.
Q:What is your role in FSH and in your wider community?
A: I wear many hats because I am Bajenu Gox or a neighborhood auntie, a community actor, and a municipal councilor. Additionally, I am a data collector at FSH. We are motivated to be a voice for the voiceless and all those who live in the same precarious conditions that we find ourselves in. We have organized ourselves at the local level to solve the problems we all face.
The role of the Bajenu Gox is important. We were chosen following discussions of several neighborhood delegates. In the beginning, we were focused on Millennium Development Goals 4 and 5 – reducing child mortality and improving maternal health, respectively. Combining this position with my role as lead data collector at FSH and municipal councilor of the commune has been a natural fit because both roles are focused on making the community better.
Being Bajenu Gox requires me to be on the ground working with the population. As a councilor, my job is to represent the population at the level of the municipal council, give budgetary orientations, report on the difficulties encountered by the population, vote on the budgets, and verify that resources are being used for their intended targets.
Q: What is your process of data collection?
A: FSH has certain principles, particularly principle number 3, which is to know one’s community. To achieve this, we must have data. We collect data by working with members of the federation group who are trained in data collection.
Data collection takes place at two primary levels: the group and municipal level. At the municipal level, data collection takes place between the federation and its supporting NGO, Urbasen, which has a mapping unit. By contrast, FSH uses a data collection manager. To collect data at the municipal level requires preparatory meetings with the mayor. We then analyze and validate the proposals and organize meetings with leaders, such as the neighborhood delegates, other notable people, and the municipal team. Then we train the people who collect the data.
Following training, data collection is done in four phases. The first phase is to define the perimeter of the district of the commune by GPS. In the second phase, we organize focus groups in the neighborhoods, bringing together notable people, neighborhood delegates, and all the targets to present themselves. The neighborhood delegates lead the focus group meetings and discuss and prioritize the difficulties the neighborhood experiences. In the third phase, we organize a small dissemination activity. In the fourth phase, we carry out the household surveys for each house in the area. At the end of this process, we meet with the mayor to elaborate on the thematic maps at the municipal level.
The basis of data collection is to self-identify as a community, since the state has not been able to do that. It is with a solid demographic base that we can justify the existence of this community. That’s the importance of collecting data that can help integrate vulnerable groups into policy. As the saying goes: whoever has information, has power.
At the group level, we conduct a survey amongst member organizations to determine each group’s constituents and answer questions such as: are they still members, have they undergone training, what are their income-generating activities, what are their savings? This is valuable data to combine with the municipal findings.
Q: How do IBP and FSP work together in Senegal?
A: IBP supports Urbasen and FSH. We connected with IBP through Urbasen and were introduced to the SPARK program, which has strengthened our budget knowledge and built our capacity. IBP opened our eyes to the value and importance of budgets and budget advocacy. Now we meet with women who have been trained in budget analysis and we understand how the budget is distributed amongst the population and sectors.
IBP has also been instrumental in introducing us to institutional actors and partners whom we didn’t have access to previously. It is not merely a financial partner; it accompanies us in our actions and gets close to the communities in which we work. This gives the communities an opportunity to get to know the organization that supports us.
SPARK has helped our advocacy efforts and facilitated our collaboration with the National Sanitation Office, through which we organized community mobilization and sensitization activities about the work being done to prepare for the rainy season, amongst other activities.
Q: What challenges does FSH face?
A: A major challenge is expansion. There is a lot of demand for help across many regions and departments but it’s not easy to expand while ensuring that the quality of our work remains high. We are therefore focused on expanding to regional branches with the same quality that we have become known for.
Q: How have you developed personally from working for FSH?
A: I have discovered that I have huge capacity to find solutions to seemingly insurmountable challenges and I have seen how our work is having a positive effect. This has been a source of deep motivation. As a member of the community, I take pride in knowing that I am representing it, assisting it, and helping to improve living conditions. As a woman in Senegal, I also face socio-cultural barriers. My personal ambition is to assist our communities to have relief and fulfillment.
By Eka Iakobishvili, Program Officer, Open Society Foundations
In August this year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreed to issue the equivalent of $650 billion in Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) to boost global financial liquidity in what IMF president Kristalina Georgieva called “a shot in the arm for the global economy at a time of unprecedented crisis.”
The SDRs are a reserve asset issued by the IMF to each of its 190 member countries, which can be exchanged for hard currency as required, or used as reserves, or swapped or on-lent. For countries suffering fiscal pressures because of the economic impact of the COVID pandemic on exports, or tourism, or increased healthcare costs, new SDRs can help balance the books.
The use of SDRs can be an attractive option for a country, if hard currency is needed. Although a small interest rate applies, it is by far the lowest available to Lower and Middle Income Countries (LMICs) and this is why SDRs are often referred to as free money or a reserve asset that is without conditions.
There is a lack of transparency about how SDRs are used and regrettably, very few governments globally have sought dialogue with the public on SDRs spending. In most countries, particularly in Africa, use of the SDRs resources and consequent accountability have been left solely to the discretion of the central bank and a few technocrats within the finance ministry with limited to no involvement or dialogue with the general population. This raises concerns over the decisions made: central banks might opt to prioritize debt repayment to international creditors, as opposed to using the funds to support recovery efforts.
For poor and middle-income countries, SDRs are going to be vital in the post-pandemic recovery. In this process, civil society has a vital role to play. Civic activists and established civil society organizations (CSOs) have the power and capacity to advocate and push for people-centered economic models that were not possible before, building the capacity for resilience but also playing the oversight role.
Some groups are already taking a lead:
In Africa, some suggestions by Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development (ZIMCODD) already have been made for SDRs use in a multi-year framework that can finance social services and/or infrastructure projects within the country.
CSOs can assist central banks and governments to ensure broader public participation in dialogue with technocrats and high-level policy makers. In Uganda, Southern and Eastern Africa Trade Information and Negotiations Institute (SEATINI) has been pushing for such policy engagement with the government by providing policy recommendations and calling for wider public participation and oversight on debt debates in the country.
CSOs can also support efforts by legislators to strengthen debt management procedures and engage in advocacy around oversight procedures where they exist.
Finally, the CSOs should work in coalition with cross country and cross regional groups to apply pressure on institutions (IMF, or regional banks) and high income countries involved in on-lending, to include transparency and accountability safeguards in SDR-related concessional loans – all in the spirit of democratic ownership, strengthening independent scrutiny, and creating space for participation and accountability to citizens.
It is important that calls for putting such mechanisms in place come from both national groups and international CSOs to ensure governments are held accountable and follow through on these commitments. For CSOs to be effective in holding government to account, they need access to information on the use of SDRs. International organizations, including the IMF, can and should facilitate disclosure of such information and enable public dialogue at the national level.
The international community and national governments can benefit greatly from opening the space for civil society voices and expertise to inform decision making around and oversight of SDRs. Smart partnerships between international organizations, governments and CSOs can ensure these critical funds help fuel more efficient, resilient and inclusive post-COVID recoveries.
For more on this topic, watch the recording of a recent event co-hosted by the International Budget Partnership on Promoting Equity and Accountability in IMF Special Drawing Rights in English and Spanish.
IBP recently hosted an event with JAMP about fostering open and inclusive budgets in times of crisis and beyond, as part of the IMF/World Bank’s CSO Policy Forum. We heard Jeanette talk about JAMP’s approach to strengthening the accountability system in Jamaica and the results they have seen, especially through digital tools to bridge the information gap and the gap in access to decisionmakers. The video recording is available here.
Q: What is the Jamaica Accountability Meter Portal (JAMP) and what prompted its creation?
A: JAMP is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to improving governance in Jamaica. We have three strategic objectives: First, to strengthen existing government accountability mechanisms; second, to educate citizens; and third, to encourage citizens to engage the government. We provide digital tools for citizens, the media, and other stakeholders to increase government accountability and bridge information and accessibility gaps. Our Account-A-Meter highlights and tracks breaches of government policy and regulations, our MP Tracker helps citizens monitor the performance of and provide easy access to parliamentarians, and our Legislative Tracker monitors the passage of key legislation, educating citizens about the process. Unless citizens begin to understand how the parliament works, they’re always going to be at a disadvantage in holding government to account. Each of these tools is in response to a deficiency we experienced as citizens.
Before JAMP, it was difficult for citizens, businesses, or civil society to access government information and officials. This made it challenging to identify and remedy problems in the delivery of goods and services. We have something called the nine-day wonder, which I’m sure is not unique to Jamaica. This is the idea that when citizens hear about something going wrong at the government level, we talk about it and spend a great deal of time on social media discussing it. We might even write an article to the local newspaper expressing our concern. But within nine days maximum, we usually move on to something new. JAMP is therefore intended to be the kind of tool that allows us to focus on a problem long enough to see it solved.
When I lived out of Jamaica for a little under five years, I constantly checked the news, social media, and the radio trying to connect to Jamaicans and find out what was happening at home. But even with the information in hand, I was limited in terms of what I could do. With the JAMP tools, anyone in the Jamaican diaspora has access to this information. It levels the playing field in a way that I find very rewarding.
We’re working on three new tools to complement our existing resource. One is a procurement tool dealing with transparency around the awarding of contracts in Jamaica. We have an amazing database of 14 years’ worth of contracts awarded in the public sector that we are using to create a data visualization tool to assist key stakeholders. The second tool is a digital version of the national budget. Not every citizen can hold a hard copy of the national budget in their hands, nor can they necessarily understand it. But we want them to have a tool that provides the level of granularity about government spending that not even the paper-based version carries. The third tool is a public bodies tracker using a real-time checklist to create an early warning system for government watchdog agencies working to combat corruption. Together with our three existing tools, we hope these resources will move the needle on tackling the mismanagement of public resources in Jamaica.
Q: How did your relationship with IBP begin?
A: What I’m about to say is something I have said about IBP many, many times before I even had the opportunity to interface with the organization one-on-one: IBP is my favorite international non-government organization. I say that because of the extent of the support I have received. In 2016, when I was trying to understand the importance of the national budget in effecting change in Jamaica, I was hired by the Institute of Law and Economics to produce Jamaica’s first citizens’ budget. At the time, a citizens’ budget had never been created. I had to learn about the national budget and then find a way to create a document that would guide other citizens.
In the process of trying to find my footing, I came across IBP’s website and I have no words to explain what a treasure it was at the time. The information extended way beyond budgets; it included everything related to proper financial management, whether at the central government or local government level. It opened my eyes to the fact that many of our concerns were not unique to Jamaica, something I found encouraging. So, IBP was a real wealth of information for me and helped me wrap my head around the big picture of proper management of a country’s finances and the challenges citizens face. There were also inspiring case studies about citizens who successfully engaged government and held it accountable. IBP became my classroom and continues to be a valuable resource for me
When I decided to create JAMP, I returned to the IBP website to seek inspiration from kindred spirits around the world. You have to start off believing that what you’re doing is going to succeed and that’s what the IBP website demonstrated – that citizen engagement can and does make a difference.
Q: What are your reflections on IBP’s Open Budget Survey and how it has influenced your work?
A: For the 2019 Open Budget Survey (OBS), I was simply excited for Jamaica to be assessed in the survey because we hadn’t qualified previously, meaning we hadn’t covered enough of the indicators to qualify as part of the survey. So even though Jamaica’s score is very concerning and nothing to be proud of, I have to say I was proud of the fact that we were even on the map – the IBP map. That was an indication that the country had, in fact, made progress.
Taking part in the survey process itself deepened my understanding of budget documents. There were questions I could not answer on the fly. Some questions required me to research and engage with government departments. It also gave me greater insight into other areas that JAMP could effect change
For me, the budget became not just a technical document that guided ministries, departments, and agencies about their spending priorities, but also a promise book. It became a family budget. It was no longer just a government document – it became a family budget. After learning to read a budget in 2016, I listened to the news and read newspapers differently. I could see the problems of Jamaica in the budget. I could see the priorities of the government. I could see the policy decisions. The bottom line is that I developed a greater sense of ownership of my country. Despite already being engaged as a citizen in advocacy work, learning to read the budget deepened my connection to Jamaica and my sense of responsibility to it and for it.
The OBS also deepened my understanding of the gaps in the accountability framework and the public management framework. It has allowed me to better assess where JAMP is going to have impact. Working towards a better score in the OBS is not merely about an improved ranking. It represents better governance and management of public affairs in Jamaica.
Q: You’ve previously described JAMP as a “citizens’ tool”. What are the challenges in having citizens fill the gap in Jamaica’s accountability framework?
A: Despite Jamaica having one of the world’s best ratings for freedom of expression and media freedom, citizens are still fearful of holding government to account – whether their fear is real or perceived. Moreover, most citizens are unsure what their role is in the accountability framework. In their minds, the Auditor General provides a report that goes directly to the parliament, and the public accounts committee then meets with different government departments to fix the problem. Citizens aren’t sure where they fit into that process. And when citizens don’t see changes and improvements taking place – less waste, fraud, and corruption – they may feel that their engagement would have no impact.
There is certainly a lack of awareness of the JAMP tools and therefore engagement is another challenge. We’ve had more users visiting our site than expected, but it has to go beyond visits to actually using the tools. Over the next nine months, JAMP will undertake an advertising campaign to spread the word about the tools with the goal of increasing engagement.