Over the past 20 years, there has been a dramatic growth in the role and capacity of civil society to provide oversight of and to influence decisions regarding the collection and expenditure of public funds through government budgets and broader fiscal processes. The International Budget Partnership supports a network of innovative, independent organizations that specialize in budget analysis and advocacy in over 100 countries across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In the United States, the influential, non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities provides timely, credible, and accessible information on federal budget priorities and coordinates the State Priorities Partnership – an impactful network of 43 state-based, independent budget-focused organizations. Yet, to date there is no network of organizations focused on holding governments to account for public budgeting practices in Europe and only minimal participation of European organizations in the global movement for budget justice.
To address the European gap, IBP commissioned a scan to identify European civil society organizations engaged in the analysis of and/or advocacy around public budgets. Our initial research found a range of organizations that, to differing degrees, sought to engage policymakers, the media, and the public to broaden participation in, and influence the outcome of, debates over budget priorities. Our research also indicated that work around public budgets in Europe takes a range of forms, from policy advocacy rooted in a social justice tradition, such as Social Justice Ireland, to alternative budgets developed through broad-based coalitions, as in Italy’s Sbilanciamoci and Austria’s Wege aus der Krise, to independent think tanks, including Macedonia’s Center for Economic Analysis, to gender-focused efforts, such as the UK Women’s Budget Group and Austria’s Femmes Fiscal. Networks such as the European Anti-Poverty Network engage low-income individuals to advocate for “pro-poor” budget allocations that strengthen social safety nets. The initial scan also identified a wealth of activity around participatory budgeting, mostly at the local level, but extending to the national level in Portugal. As in many parts of the world, the participatory budgeting advocacy community was largely distinct from that of budget advocacy. Similarly, we identified a body of work on “open budgets” that largely functions independently of that on budget priorities. We also found that, despite the number of organizations engaged in budget work, few opportunities existed to share strategies and learn across and, often times, within countries.
Based on these findings, IBP invited leaders, practitioners, and thinkers from European civil society organizations to convene in Amsterdam in April 2018 to broaden our understanding of how these groups work to address fiscal accountability and to explore opportunities for future collaboration.
Specifically, the meeting sought to:
- Reflect on the impact of broader social, economic, and political challenges and their implications for civil society organizations that seek to influence public budget priorities;
- Share tactics, strategies, and best practices that civil society organizations deploy to make governments more transparent, equitable, and accountable;
- Discuss what opportunities might exist for ongoing collaboration, knowledge sharing, and capacity building in Europe; and
- Explore how the experience of European organizations could inform work in other parts of the world.
Representatives of two dozen civil society organizations from throughout Europe attended the meeting. For many participants, it was their first chance to reflect upon their role in working with public budgets to build more equitable and inclusive societies and to share strategies, tactics, and best practices with peers facing common and divergent challenges in pursuit of a common goal. Participating organizations brought a wide array of approaches and experiences and ranged from think tanks, such as Croatia’s Institute for Public Finance, to policy advocacy organizations, such as Social Justice Ireland, to Austria’s labor-affiliated AK Europa to academics with one foot in research and another in practice.
Out of a day packed with rich, spirited, and wide-ranging conversation, a number of themes emerged:
- Budgets as a tool for more equitable and inclusive societies. Most of the participating organizations approach public budgets as a tool for building more equitable and inclusive societies. For some organizations, this approach emerged out of the financial crisis as a response to fiscal rules that privileged austerity over public investment, including those imposed by the European Union. This focus, which includes a strong economic analysis, is similar to that of U.S. organizations, such as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and its State Priorities Partnership network, but stands in contrast to other parts of the world where budget work often involves a significant focus on transparency and public participation.
- The rise of economic nationalism. The rightward turn of a number of governments, coupled with the rise of populist and nationalist movements, constrains the operating space for civil society in Europe as in the rest of the world. In many countries, conservative governments have promoted cuts to the social safety and/or labor, environmental, and other protections. The rightward turn has also forced organizations that traditionally relied on close relationships with sympathetic policymakers to devise new advocacy strategies.
- Policy analysis in the service of advocacy. While research-focused organizations shared a commitment to fact-based, independent analysis, this work was generally closely tied to policy advocacy efforts. In some instances, organizations function as “think-do” tanks, while in others, advocacy occurred through allied coalitions or networks consisting of civil society organizations, labor unions, and social movements. In several countries, including Italy and Austria, coalitions develop alternative budgets that provide a policy blueprint and shared framework for advocacy.
- Lack of financial support. Both the pre-meeting scan and meeting participants identified the lack of philanthropic and other financial support as a barrier to greater impact. Some organizations operate entirely, or primarily, with volunteer labor, while others had minimal, but inadequate, paid staff. Donor support was nominally more robust in the Balkans, due to European Union support. Think tanks affiliated with political parties enjoyed greater financial support, but few resources are available for nonpartisan, independent research and advocacy.
- The absence of a cross-country platform for budget work. Currently, there is no network or platform where European organizations committed to making public budgets more equitable and inclusive can share experiences, strategize, and develop common approaches and campaigns. While some networks, such as the European Anti-Poverty Network and Civil Society Europe, exist these networks operate largely in isolation from other organizations that see budgets as a means for achieving similar aims. Moreover, organizations that focus on policy analysis and advocacy and broadening participation in budget debates have minimal, if any, overlap with those focused primarily on transparency.
There was broad agreement around the need for an ongoing platform for shared learning and strategizing. The assembled leaders quickly saw that the challenges they faced in their country work were shared by colleagues across Europe and that the impact of this work would be strengthened by continued dialogue. Areas for potential collaboration included:
- Developing a “toolkit” of best practices in budget analysis, advocacy tactics, communications approaches, and strategy development.
- Commissioning research on the role of the European Union’s fiscal rules in shaping domestic budgets and defining the space for civil society engagement.
- Engaging in shared research around narrative development.
- Conducting a more extensive mapping of organizations engaged in budget analysis and advocacy and reaching out to build a broader network.
- Holding a budget academy that would build the capacity of a broader range organizations to participate in and advocate around budget policymaking.
- Providing a place for shared learning and information exchange.
- Building collaboration between researchers and social movements and non-expert CSOs.
- Raising public awareness of the importance of budgets to active citizenship.
- Developing an alternative EU budget.
- Encouraging analysis of subnational budgets and sharing methodologies and approaches for doing so.
- Engaging in joint fundraising efforts and outreach to donors to build financial support for increasing European civil society capacity for budget analysis and advocacy.
Several natural peer networks also emerged. Balkans’ based think tanks identified shared challenges related to their countries’ accession to the European Union, as well as similarities of budget culture. Organizations that develop alternative budget proposals also saw value in continued networking. The IBP agreed to provide initial support for continued collaboration.
To build on the interest expressed by meeting participation in continued engagement and shared learning, IBP is considering pursuing the following next steps:
- Preparation and dissemination of materials from the meeting to ensure that European donors, as well as broader civil society in Europe is aware of budget work on the continent.
- Exploring, in collaboration with participants and potential donors, a joint project on the impact of European Monetary Union (EMU) policies on the budgets of member states, specifically focusing on ways in which EMU rules increase or decrease fiscal space for progressive budget policies.
- Looking for opportunities for mutual learning by involving meeting participants in the activities of international budget networks throughout the world.
- Supporting greater collaboration among budget-focused organizations in sub-regions where there is strong interest in networking and a common budgeting system, such as in the Balkans.
- Providing targeted assistance in response to requests generating in response to the meeting.
Budgets are at the center of the divergent visions of the role of government. Across Europe and throughout the world, civil society organizations have provided a counterweight to calls for austerity, advocating for budgets that reduce poverty, promote inclusion, and improve governance. This work has taken multiple forms ranging from nonpartisan analysis of national budgets to citizen engagement in local budget processes through participatory budgeting. The collective experiences represented at the European Civil Society Meeting, along with the collective experiences of IBP’s partners and allies throughout the rest of the world, demonstrate that when citizens and civil society have information, skills, and opportunities to participate in public budget processes they can promote real improvements in people’s lives.