The latest round of the Open Budget Survey — the world’s only independent, comparative assessment of budget transparency, participation, and formal oversight — reveals the vast majority of countries surveyed have inadequate systems for ensuring that public funds are used efficiently and effectively. Of the 102 countries assessed, 98 fall short on at least one of the three core pillars of budget accountability: transparency, participation, or oversight. A concerning 32 countries fall short on all three pillars.
This lack of strong budget accountability systems pose a threat to the implementation of critical international agreements such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and the international agreement expected to come from the 2015 Paris Climate Conference.
Transparency (the Open Budget Index)
The 2015 findings reveal large gaps in the budget information that governments are making available to the public. A mere 24 countries — less than one in four — were found to be providing sufficient budget information (with scores of more than 60 on the Open Budget Index, the part of the survey that assesses transparency) to enable civil society and the public to monitor public finance.
Alarmingly, the 78 countries that provide insufficient budget information are home to more than two-thirds of the world’s population. Worldwide around one in three budget documents that should be made available to the public are not and, even when documents are published, they often lack sufficient detail to allow a full understanding of public finances and hold government to account.
However, consistent with the results of previous rounds, the 2015 survey finds that budget transparency is improving around the world. For the 100 countries with comparable data the average OBI score has increased from 42 in 2012 to 45. Progress was particularly robust among some countries and regions that were previously not as transparent, including the Kyrgyz Republic (its OBI nearly tripled), Tunisia (its OBI effectively quadrupled), and Francophone West Africa.
But this progress is from a low base and far too many countries with unacceptably low levels of budget transparency are failing to advance reforms. For example, Algeria, Bolivia, Cambodia, Chad, China, Equatorial Guinea, Fiji, Iraq, Myanmar, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam have been among the least transparent countries (with OBI scores of 20 or less) every single year they have been in the Survey.
In looking at public access to budget information over time, the Open Budget Survey research has also identified unacceptable volatility in government transparency practices that creates challenges for those attempting to understand and monitor national budgets.
Public Participation and Formal Oversight
Compounding the widespread lack of transparency is a lack of opportunities for the public to participate in how public finances are managed and voice concerns. There are also serious deficiencies in the ability of oversight institutions to play their role in holding government to account. A disappointing 95 of 102 survey countries fall short in providing opportunities for public participation. But there have been some promising innovations in this area, including public hearings, social audits, citizen audit request systems, fraud hotlines, and client surveys.
Formal oversight institutions remain far too weak in many countries. The survey finds deficiencies in legislative research and analytic capacity, as well as poor quality assurance systems among national audit bodies. These factors compromise the ability of oversight institutions to be effective guardians of the public purse.
But improvement can and must happen
The good news is that progress can be achieved quickly and often at little or no cost to the public coffers. For instance, most countries that score poorly on transparency already produce significant budget information, but fail to make it available to the public. Major gains could be made by simply posting these documents on online.
The means and mechanisms to establish these budget accountability pillars are readily at hand. Ultimately, advancing transparency, participation, and oversight almost always comes down to a question of political will.
The right package of reforms varies from country to country, but certain recommendations are frequently applicable:
- Increase the number of budget documents published and their comprehensiveness.
- Preserve gains in transparency by institutionalizing reforms in budget laws and regulations.
- Develop mechanisms to obtain public input on budgets and how they are implemented.
- Provide legislatures with better access to research and analytic capacity, and tighten up quality control among national audit bodies.
Ultimately it is governments that must act to strengthen the three pillars of accountable budget systems. But doing so will require engagement from a range of actors. Civil society groups, donors, investors, and international institutions each have a role to play in spurring governments to enact reforms.
“Budget accountability can no longer be pushed aside as a technical concern of bureaucrats,” says IBP Executive Director Warren Krafchik. “With the amount of funds likely to be mobilized through the new international development goals alone, and potentially through climate change agreements, the world has an unprecedented opportunity to address poverty, inequality, and other global challenges — but this will only happen if these resources are managed transparently and accountably.”