New Frontiers in Open Government: Forging New Alliances for Accountability

New Frontiers in Open Government: Forging New Alliances for Accountability

 

By Claire Schouten, Senior Program Officer, International Budget Partnership and Joe Powell, Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Open Government Partnership

 

Serikat Perjuangan Rakyat Indonesia (SPRI) staff member conducts social audit data collection with communities in Indonesia. Credit: SPRI

 

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.

 

Beatrice, an informal settlement resident from the International Budget Partnership (IBP)’s Asivikelane campaign, which collects weekly data on service delivery in South Africa. Credit: IBP

 

In Sierra Leone, the Audit Service used real-time auditing approaches honed during the Ebola crisis to publish a report on COVID-19 spending that led to the Anti-Corruption Commission taking up a number of investigations and detaining top government officials.

 

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.

Special Drawing Rights: Let’s talk about transparency and accountability

Special Drawing Rights: Let’s talk about transparency and accountability

 

Flickr

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.
  • In Latin America, CSOs such as Latin American Network for Economic and Social Justice (LATINDADD), are asking governments in the region to issue one time budget flexibilities to start using SDRs as an extraordinary fiscal framework that was applied during the pandemic.

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.

Budget Trailblazers: Rommel Rodríguez and Jaime López

Budget Trailblazers: Rommel Rodríguez and Jaime López

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 Rommel RodríguezMacroeconomics and Development Area Coordinator, and Jaime LópezTransparency Researcher, both from the National Development Foundation (FUNDE) in El Salvador.

Q: What is FUNDE’s area of work and main aims? 

A:  FUNDE has four areas of work: Macroeconomics and Development, Transparency, Citizen Security, and Territorial (urban, rural, and environmental) Development. Our mission is to work for a fair, open, supportive, and sustainable society. Our vision is to generate innovative thinking, proposals, and actions in the field of development. In 2008, we started to work more on fiscal affairs from a macroeconomic lens, and more recently we began to focus more of our work on engaging the broader public in how budgetary matters impact their lives. 

Q: How has been the partnership between FUNDE and the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEFI)? 

A: In general, it is a relationship based on mutual consultation. There have also been opportunities to collectively host events or advocacy activities. For example, FUNDE, ICEFI and other organizations recently made a joint statement on the possible loan agreement between the IMF and El Salvador and the use of bitcoin in the country. We also work together to co-lead the Citizen Oversight Committee of the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador, which is playing a critical oversight role in monitoring public spending on COVID relief. 

Both organizations are part of the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency, the Latin American and Caribbean Tax Justice Network, and the Central American Tax Justice Network, and share an interest in promoting tax transparency and public participation in tax decisions. Together with eight other organizations from Central America, FUNDE and ICEFI recently created the Center Against Corruption and Impunity in the North of Central America, where we seek to address transparency and corruption in the governments of the Northern Triangle. 

Q: How did El Salvador score on IBP’s COVID study? What are your main impressions?    

A: The COVID study helped us think more systematically about financing for emergencies, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and to use that process to highlight in very clear and discrete ways the processes that were followed as well as the lapses that occurred. For instance, government officials failed to follow the formal processes that exist for administering and authorizing the budget. We were able to highlight positive developments, such as the creation of the Citizen Oversight Committee in the legislature, as well as lapses, such as the fact that the government has not evaluated or published information on the impact of its relief package.  

In fact, to this day the government still has not produced a specific document that accurately details its 2020 spending on COVID-19 relief. A budget expenditure report is available, but not a specific document for pandemic-related spending. The Citizen Oversight Committee has been focused on getting this information. 

Although the creation of the Citizen Oversight Committee was a positive development, in practice some officials have been reluctant to provide timely and substantive information to the committee. This is happening despite the fact that the legislative decree that created the Committee allows for the committee to have unrestricted access to information and indicates that officials who fail to provide information should be sanctioned. 

Q: What recommendations do you have for the government of El Salvador to improve accountability for COVID-related expenses? 

A: After the initial lockdown, the government resumed monthly publications on its online portal, including for information regarding the execution and modification of the budget. The information is relevant but lacks detail; for example, it does not include the objective of specific expenditures. The information published on the government portal also lacks detail about the sources of financing, including tax or other contributions to the treasury, donations, external loans and financing, and the placement of securities, among other things.   

The Ministry of Finance claimed that urgency is the reason it did not introduce loans through the standard budget process, which would have meant requesting that the Legislative Branch approve the additional resources into budget line items. Instead, they introduced new funds into the budget through an Executive Agreement. Nevertheless, executive agreements to allocate funds and/or modify the budgets of public entities through the Official Gazette must also be made public, without exception. To date, several of them are not public.  

The public portal of Comprasal should be updated as soon as possible with information on COVID-related purchases. The Prevention and Mitigation of Disasters Fund and the Trust for the Economic Recovery of Salvadoran Companies, which is administered by the Development Bank of El Salvador, must also provide detailed information on their sources of financing, the distribution of funds, and the execution of expenses, as well as a public list of beneficiaries. This information must be made publicly available online. 

Taking Accountability Seriously in Times of Crisis

Taking Accountability Seriously in Times of Crisis

This pandemic is far from over, but in order to keep moving toward recovery and renewal, we need to assess how countries are faring with relief spending– are they being open and accountable to help ensure funds go where they are needed most? 

 The International Budget Partnership’s report  “Managing COVID Funds: The Accountability Gap” is the collective work of local researchers in 120 countries to assess governments’ fiscal policy responses to the pandemic, looking at the three pillars we use in our Open Budget Survey: public access to relevant information, adequate oversight arrangements and opportunities for citizen engagement.  

On average, the findings were bleak. In only about a quarter of countries we surveyed were government auditors able to publish audit reports before the end of 2020. Many governments bypassed legislatures, took shortcuts in procurement and avoided consulting citizens. However, we also found good practices across a wide variety of geographies and income levels. These included comprehensive reporting in Bangladesh and gender impact assessments in Canada and the Philippines; real time audits in Sierra Leone and Jamaica and procurement transparency portals in Ecuador and South Africa; active parliamentary oversight in Nepal and innovative citizen engagement opportunities in Chile. 

PHOTO: Credit: International Budget Partnership

Some of these good practices were featured in an event organized by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) aimed at exploring to what extent governments receiving IMF assistance for their crisis response were “keeping the receipts,” and actually delivering on the governance commitments. These included enhanced reporting, the publication of procurement contracts and of independent ex-post audits on crisis-related spending. The IMF also published its first update on how countries have fared in the implementation of these measures. Their findings are more upbeat than ours, in part due to methodological differences. 

First, the IMF only looked at the degree to which governments delivered on the commitments they made to the IMF, rather than on what they should do to ensure that their citizens can hold them responsible for their response to the crisis, which is what our study focused on. For example, the IMF’s implementation table assessed reporting arrangements on COVID-related spending only for countries that included those as one of their commitments, but not for other countries, even though adequate reporting is important for accountability in all countries. 

PHOTO: Credit: Affendy Soeto via Shutterstock

Second, the IMF did not assess country performance based on clear benchmarks, but rather took stock of what actions countries took toward the commitments they made. For instance, there are no set standards for the level of detail that spending related reporting should include, or for how to ensure effective auditing of pandemic responses. On reporting of pandemic-related spending, the IMF states that “most countries are, or will shortly begin, publicly reporting on execution of this spending.” This assumes that it is acceptable for countries to begin publicly reporting on the execution of crisis-related spending more than a year after the beginning of a crisis. On audits, the IMF report seems to accept that a normal ex-post audit process that takes up to 12 months after the end of a fiscal year is sufficient during a crisis. 

In contrast, our report ranked all countries consistently on their reporting on the implementation and impact of COVID spending packages, including on the level of detail of their reporting. Similarly, we looked at whether countries conducted expedited audits to monitor the use of emergency funding and published their results by the end of 2020, to allow for timely course correction if needed.  

PHOTO: Credit: UN Women/Pathumporn Thongking

These differences highlight the need for an open debate on what accountability standards should be used to assess country performance in managing public finances during times of crisis. How often should governments be expected to report on emergency spending, and at what level of detail? What information should be publicly available about procurement contracts to ensure waste and corruption are minimized? What role should legislatures play in crisis responses? What is the most effective role that auditors can play in checking the receipts for crisis spending? These are questions that deserve a common response, one that satisfies both the needs of funders like the IMF and those of citizens and civil society groups monitoring government efforts. 

Discussions on minimum acceptable accountability standards for managing public finances in times of crisis should include all relevant actors to ensure that they are meaningful. They should ideally result in a measurable and actionable set of indicators to provide governments and other actors with clear guidelines and expectations. 

We stand ready to work with the international donor community, country governments and other stakeholders to set consistent benchmarks and collectively advance accountability norms globally.  

COVID-19 & Accountability in The Gambia

COVID-19 & Accountability in The Gambia

A public health emergency is testing whether Gambian civil society can keep tabs on the national budget 

The Start of a Change Agent

After decades of dictatorship, The Gambia had its first transfer of power by popular election in December 2016. This election brought hope, but unravelling decades of dictatorial rule has proven difficult. Government funds earmarked for public projects often end up in the hands of individuals with connections to politicians or used to benefit special interests.  

Ahead of the watershed 2016 election, Marr Nyang resigned from his job at a well-regarded law firm to embark on a grassroots voter education and engagement campaign. Following the campaign’s success, he established Gambia Participates as a civil society organization to bolster good governance.       

“I started Gambia Participates because I realized there were no organizations promoting fiscal transparency, doing anti-corruption work, or bringing the public into the fold,” Nyang said. “It was only done at the government level and inconsistently. I decided to start Gambia Participates in 2016 during that toxic political environment. After the change in government, I started pushing for fiscal discipline, transparency, and accountability. Fast forward and we’ve seen great improvements, but also have big challenges when it comes to the mismanagement of public wealth.”  

The organization works to ensure budget transparency and a budget that “reflects the needs and aspirations of the people,” as Marr puts it. They also monitor and hold the government accountable for how it spends the budget. Over time, they have successfully nudged the Gambian government, and the Ministry of Finance in particular, to improve governance standards and budgetary reporting.  

In December 2020, as part of its work to monitor and hold the government accountable, Gambia Participates sued the National Assembly for violating the budget process by forcefully inserting a US$1 million loan scheme for Members of Parliament in the 2021 budget. On 4 May 2021, the Supreme Court declared the move unconstitutional and the loan scheme was consequently removed from the enacted budget.  

 The Open Budget Survey as a Vehicle for Reform

The Open Budget Survey, published by the International Budget Partnership (IBP) in collaboration with partners in close to 120 countries around the world, helps local civil society assess and confer with their government on the reporting and use of public funds. The Gambia took part in the Open Budget Survey for the first time in 2019 thanks to Gambia Participates and its dynamic leader. 

Since the country took part in the survey, the government signalled a willingness to make its budget documents more transparent. For the first time, the Ministry of Finance published the Executive’s Budget Proposal (EBP) on time and well before the enacted budget was approved. The EBP is the national budget that is tabled before parliament and is widely considered to be the government’s most important annual economic policy statement. Timely publication of the EBP is critical, as it can enable the public and CSOs to make submissions on their needs and priorities to their elected representatives before the budget is approved into law. 

Prior to this, the EBP had only been made available in hard copy for the Ministry of Finance and National Assembly. By making the EBP and other such documents available to the public, the Gambia demonstrated its support for informed public debate on the budget. Furthermore, this is one of the key criteria used to assess and rank countries in the Open Budget Survey. The government also published the 2019 budget on the Ministry of Finance website for the first time.  

These are significant wins for the people of The Gambia and for advancing global transparency norms. “I believe the Open Budget Survey was a wake-up call for the government to acknowledge its weaknesses and work towards improving them by collaborating with civil society,” Marr said. “In partnership with IBP we realize it is important for there to be a standard roadmap to ensure increased budget transparency, citizen participation in the budget, and accountability around the budget process.”      

When COVID-19 hit, Gambia Participates leveraged the skills learnt from conducting the Open Budget Survey to analyze how COVID-19 emergency funds were being used and to hold the government accountable.  

 Pivoting during the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic was the ultimate test of good governance in the country since the end of dictatorial rule. As the virus spread, the government created a $10 million emergency response fund to provide the medical sector with the tools to keep the pandemic under control. Gambia Participates leveraged the skills and knowledge obtained from its work on the Open Budget Survey to track where and how the emergency funds were being spent. 

As the investigation into COVID-19 spending unfolded, field workers from Gambia Participates began noticing a lack of personal protective equipment among frontline workers throughout the country. They also discovered hospitals in major population centers lacked basic items, like overhead thermometers. Frontline workers that Gambia Participates interviewed said funds had been mismanaged just as they had been during the Ebola crisis of 2014-16. 

Gambia Participates published an investigation titled “Corona, The Gambia, and the Millions,” in which it detailed the misappropriation of emergency funds. According to the investigation, only $3 million of the $10 million emergency fund had been spent. Moreover, much of the money that was spent had gone to “motor vehicles and hotels while treatment centers and isolation centers are in dilapidated conditions.”  

The Gambian Ministry of Health cooperated with the investigation and publicly reported that  the emergency funds had been spent on the procurement of medical equipment, the refurbishment of health facilities, as well as vehicles, training, and hotel accommodations for quarantined individuals. Field workers from Gambia Participates, however, painted a very different picture.  

Everywhere they visited, health workers and stakeholders complained of a lack of training on COVID-19 protocols; unfurnished isolation centers; inadequate sanitary materials; fraudulent names on the list of frontline workers eligible for hardship allowances; and, above all, a lack of preparedness. In the initial phases of the emergency response, there was no plan or budget in place to determine the actual expenditure of funds.  

Using the findings as a springboard, Gambia Participates offered policy reforms designed to prevent public sector corruption and strengthen the public finance sector and health facilities. While the Ministry of Health acknowledged the accusations of corruption and misuse of funds, it is yet to present solutions. 

Hard Work Remains

In January 2021, Gambia Participates, with support from IBP, held a workshop with key stakeholders from the Ministry of Finance, the National Assembly, civil society organizations, and the media to identify opportunities for improving fiscal transparency, budget oversight, and public participation in the national budget. Participants reviewed recommendations from the 2019 Open Budget Survey and reflected on gaps in the budget process that hindered the country’s performance.  

The outcome was a detailed roadmap that included a budget calendar to facilitate predictability and planning for the fiscal year. “When we designed the roadmap, each institution and stakeholder presented their challenges and opportunities, and then we discussed how to advocate for the roadmap to be part of the budget process,” Marr said. Gambia Participates sent the roadmap to the Ministry of Finance and the national audit office to ensure officials included it in their budget plans. All three stakeholders will hold discussions about how the government can start implementing the roadmap to fill in the gaps it has in budget transparency and public participation, and how Gambia Participates can collaborate with the government to implement the roadmap’s recommendations.  

The tide is starting to shift in The Gambia when it comes to public access to and scrutiny of budget decisions. Between Gambia Participates’ scrupulous work and the government’s willingness to improve, attention is focused on building long-term budget practices that will prepare the country for the next public health or other crisis.  

“The national budget is central to the socio-economic development of a country,” Nyang notes. “It is crucial for citizens to have a say in the budget process and to mainstream their priorities, which we continue to do at Gambia Participates by facilitating discussion between government officials and the electorate before and after the budget is approved.”  

With IBP’s support, the work carried out by Gambia Participates demonstrates that when civil society is properly equipped, open budget practices can be championed even during the immensely challenging conditions of a pandemic. When community-led organizations galvanize citizens to hold their governments accountable, the voices of those most in need are centered.  

This work forms part of IBP’s COAB initiative and is supported by the European Commission. 

Budget Trailblazers: Elena Calistru

Budget Trailblazers: Elena Calistru

In this section, we shine a spotlight on partners who are using budget advocacy to bring transformational change to their communities. This month, we talk with Elena Calistru, chair and founder of Funky Citizens, a Romanian-based NGO that builds research-based, data-driven advocacy tools. Funky Citizens was one of our research partners on the COVID-19 assessment.

Q: What inspired you to start working with budgets?

A: It was 2011 and I got a letter from the tax authorities demanding I pay extra money. And despite being a highly educated person who works in civil society, monitoring issues related to transparency, I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t find any publicly available information to help me understand why I owed this money. I ended up paying the tax without knowing why and promised myself that it would never happen to me again.

Together with people from various sectors, we started looking into government budgets. We went through thousands of tables, hundreds of PDFs, and made hundreds of public officials hate us with all the FOIA requests. But we managed to visualize data related to public budgets, sometimes did cooking shows just to explain budgets for the average citizens and worked with journalists to investigate government expenditures. Essentially, I took my vulnerability in the face of authority and decided to empower myself and others to understand where our tax money goes.

Q: What is Funky Citizens’ primary goals and mission?

A: Founded in 2012, Funky Citizens promotes active citizenship and encourages citizens to get involved in initiatives meant to make the state institutions more responsible. We often collaborate with investigative journalists, given our expertise on topics such as the judiciary, public administration and, of course, public budgets. We are well-versed in data-based advocacy, communication and civic education.

Q: What was the process you used for conducting research for the Open Budget Survey COVID study?

A: We had been following COVID-19 allocations even before we started working with IBP on the COVID module of the Open Budget Survey. IBP’s call for transparency in the COVID-19 response and relief expenditures hit close home for us and prompted us to look early on at what was happening on the legislative front. This made it relatively easy to have a good understanding of the larger context, but also to choose the package that was most relevant as a case study for how the Romanian authorities responded to the pandemic.

In the end, even though there are numerous measures that could have been analyzed, we decided on the package that was passed relatively early (a budget revision with numerous measures ranging from fiscal stimulus to unemployment benefits or social assistance to rapid funds allocation for hospitals to the wider healthcare response). Starting from that package, we investigated follow-up to these measures, complementary resources and any changes to the initial package.

Q: What challenges did you face in the research process?

A: As in most countries that were assessed in the study, Romania suffered from a lack of transparency in the emergency response. For example, as part of the state of emergency regulations, FOIA response times were doubled, and given the fact that the Romanian authorities did not provide any regular updates on COVID-19-related spending, these restrictions made data collection difficult.

Q: Why should the average citizen care about budgets?

A: In an ideal world, the average citizen shouldn’t care about budgets. They would get good public services, decent infrastructure and a great quality of life from their tax money. But I think it is obvious for everyone that we live in a far from ideal world so monitoring what is happening with the budgets is necessary in the face of misspending and sometimes rampant corruption, even during times of crisis. But what we should have is an awareness that the transparency of the budgets is essential. Citizens should be sensitive to any attempt to hide any information related to public expenditures, even if that means that the data released about such expenditures will only be “consumed” by some activist data geeks or investigative reporters. Citizens should be the allies of people engaged in this work that can “translate” for the wider public, so they understand what is happening with the taxes that they are paying.