How to Bridge the “Participation Gap” in Government Budgets

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This is the first post in “Unpacking the Open Budget Survey,” a series of blogs exploring the richness of the Open Budget Survey data and some of the different ways they can be used.

Holding governments to account is no easy feat. The capability of citizens to monitor and influence how their governments manage public resources, and to ensure that their needs and priorities are adequately reflected in budgets, likely depends on two crucial ingredients:

  1. access to detailed and timely information on all aspects of fiscal and budget policy; and
  2. opportunities to engage state institutions in a constructive dialogue on defining policy priorities and assessing their implementation.

The former (transparency) has historically received a lot more attention than the latter (participation). Yet, as many of our case studies on when and how civil society campaigns have an impact on government budgets show, budget transparency alone is not sufficient to bring about positive change. Civil society organizations (CSOs) need to be able to use fiscal information to put pressure on governments. This often, though by no means only, happens through institutionalized participation channels.

In other words, if there are few avenues to participate in budget processes by presenting analyses and advocating for change, budget transparency may end up being irrelevant. On the other hand, participation without transparency risks being ineffective if demands and debates around budgets are based on limited information.

Measuring Opportunities for Participation

For this reason, the International Budget Partnership (IBP) has been encouraging governments to not only disclose more budget information, but also to open channels and opportunities for citizens and CSOs to participate in the budget process. Beginning with the Open Budget Survey 2012, we started measuring the extent to which governments provide such opportunities. A set of 16 questions gauge the extent to which the executive, the legislature, and the supreme audit institution provide opportunities for citizens, CSOs, and others to engage with the budget process.

As with the 109 transparency-related questions used to build the Open Budget Index, we can construct a similar index from the participation questions. The figure below plots transparency and participation scores for all 102 countries included in the Open Budget Survey 2015. The red line marks where transparency and participation scores are equal; the purple line marks where participation scores are 30 points below transparency scores:

Budget Transparency and Participation in 2015

Budget Transparency and Participation in 2015. Click to enlarge.

What does this figure show us? First, the two measures are positively correlated – more transparent countries tend to provide more opportunities for participation. Second, it illustrates what we call the “participation gap,” a recognition that countries tend to do much better on transparency than they do on participation. In most cases this gap remains within 30 points — most dots appear between the red and purple lines — but in some cases the gap is greater than 40 points.

These differences should not be simply taken at face value; there are far fewer participation questions than transparency ones and the two indices measure very different (though interrelated) concepts. Looking at some examples may help to shed light on what happens in countries that show unusually large gaps between their transparency and participation scores.

Higher Transparency, Lower Participation

Mali and Russia are both extreme examples of the “participation gap.” Each perform far better on transparency than on providing opportunities for participation.

Mali’s OBI score is well above the regional average, yet the only opportunity for budget participation is when parliament invites a few experts from civil society to present their views during budget hearings. This situation is quite common across Africa, such as in Morocco and Mozambique, two other countries with large “participation gaps.”

In Russia, while the executive has taken some initial steps to introduce consultations with CSOs on fiscal matters, neither the legislature nor the supreme audit institution have created mechanisms for citizen engagement. In all of these countries, the public availability of budget information may not lead to accountability due to the lack of participation opportunities.

Higher Participation, Lower Transparency

Interestingly, a few countries present the opposite situation. Venezuela and Vietnam are both examples where participation is significantly stronger than transparency, despite the fact that both countries don’t fare very well on either dimension.

Venezuela, in particular, publishes only two of the eight key budget documents that the survey considers and even those contain limited details. Yet the 2014 Anti-Corruption Law now requires the executive to submit drafts of both the Multiyear Budget Framework Law and the Budget Law to public consultation before they are presented to the National Assembly. Citizens and CSOs also have the right to participate in the formulation, evaluation, and execution of the budget.

Vietnam does slightly better than Venezuela on the transparency front, publishing five out of eight budget documents. It also provides citizens with some interesting opportunities for participation, both through the legislature and the audit agency. The Grassroots Democracy Ordinance of 2007 established these opportunities by opening up spaces for dialogue and participation at local level, including on budgetary matters. The key challenge in both countries is to ensure that spaces for participation are backed up by adequate disclosure of relevant budget information.

High Transparency, High Participation

There are, however, two countries that exemplify more virtuous models of combining transparency and participation: South Korea and Sweden.

South Korea scores top marks on participation. It is one of the countries that best embodies the idea that multiple opportunities should exist for citizens to engage with the budget process at its various stages (see case study). The finance ministry has established an advisory council that includes civil society experts and runs an open suggestion system through which citizens can provide policy ideas and report cases of wasteful spending. Budget hearings at the National Assembly are televised, include testimony from the public, and result in published minutes. The audit institution, which runs a hotline for reporting fraud and irregularities, regularly conducts audits based on the tip offs it receives from the public.

Sweden is an example of a country with great levels of transparency — it ranks second on the Open Budget Index — coupled with reasonably strong participation mechanisms. These are not necessarily specific to budgets but do give citizens ample opportunities to engage with the government on budget matters.

The Philippines is also making efforts to jointly promote transparency and participation (see case study). The country has improved its Open Budget Index score while opening up participation opportunities through its Bottom-Up Budgeting initiative.

How can Governments Improve?

In general, it makes sense for governments to start by improving budget transparency before they turn to participation. But they should be careful to not let the participation gap become too wide by striking a balance between the two as they gradually open up their budget processes.

Here are a few things governments can do to start addressing this gap:

  1. Enshrine participation mechanisms for both budget formulation and execution in laws or regulations, and ensure they are implemented.
  2. Provide the public with adequate information on available participatory processes and with feedback on how their inputs have been used.
  3. Ensure that parliamentary budget hearings are open to the public and provide spaces for citizens and CSOs to comment and present testimony on all aspects of the government budget, including on audit findings and reports.
  4. Create mechanisms for citizens and CSOs to contribute to the definition of the supreme audit institution’s audit plan, and to the actual audit investigation where possible.
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