The Importance of When: How Timely is the Publication of Key Budget Documents Across the World?

This is the third 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.

The Open Budget Index — the part of the Open Budget Survey that measures transparency — assesses the public availability of eight key budget documents. To be considered publicly available, a document must be published by the government within an acceptable timeframe. For example, unless an Executive’s Budget Proposal is published before it is enacted into law, citizens have no chance to influence its content, and it would therefore not pass the threshold of public availability. Similarly, a Year-End Report published more than twelve months after the end of the fiscal year that it refers to loses its relevancy, and would not be considered publicly available.

In 2013, the Open Budget Survey’s minimum standards for timeliness were updated to align with other existing international assessment tools, including the Public Expenditure and Financial Accountability (PEFA) framework and IMF’s Fiscal Transparency Code. The standards for public availability are:

  • Pre-Budget Statement: one month before the Executive’s Budget Proposal is submitted to the legislature for consideration.
  • Executive’s Budget Proposal: while the legislature is still considering it and before it is approved.
  • Enacted Budget: no later than three months after it is approved.
  • Citizens Budget: no later than three months after the publication of the document that it refers to.
  • In-Year Report: no later than three months after the reporting period ends.
  • Mid-Year Review: no later than three months after the reporting period ends (i.e., three months after the mid-point of the fiscal year).
  • Year-End Report: no later than 12 months after the end of the fiscal year that it refers to.
  • Audit Report: no later than 18 months after the end of the fiscal year that it refers to.

A deeper dive into the Open Budget Survey 2015 data reveals a number of interesting findings regarding the availability and timeliness of budget documents.

First, roughly one-third of all the documents examined in the Open Budget Survey 2015 were found to be not publicly available. As the figure below shows, 53 percent of these documents were not produced by the government, 34 percent were produced for internal use and not published, and 13 percent were published too late to be considered publicly available by international standards:

Public availability varies greatly across budget documents. Ninety-five percent of countries surveyed were found to make Enacted Budgets publicly available, while only 34 percent of Mid-Year Reviews met the minimum criteria. Differences also emerge when the stages of the budget cycle are compared: 72 percent of documents related to the budget formulation and approval stages were publicly available (the Pre-Budget Statement, Executive’s Budget Proposal, Enacted Budget, and Citizens Budget) compared to 63 percent of execution and oversight documents (In-Year Reports, Mid-Year Review, Year-End Report, and Audit Report). Governments seem to find it easier — or more convenient — to publish documents that contain planned, rather than actual, revenues and expenditures.

Turning to timeliness, relatively few budget documents (6 percent of all surveyed documents) were published too late to be considered publicly available. But the minimum standards are somewhat generous, often not enough to guarantee that information can be used effectively for accountability purposes. Data from the Open Budget Survey allow for a more detailed assessment of the timing of the publication of budget documents. The good news is when countries do publish documents, they tend to do so far enough ahead of the deadlines to be considered good or best practice; more than 80 percent of publicly available budget documents meet that mark.

This average, however, hides some more worrying findings. As shown in the figure below, 34 percent of the Executive’s Budget Proposals that are considered publicly available only meet a minimum standard for timeliness. These are published less than two months before the beginning of the budget year, with an even shorter period before parliament has to approve it, seriously limiting the public’s ability to meaningfully participate in shaping the contents of the budget:

Click to enlarge »

Click to enlarge »

Looking at how different regions perform is also revealing. As the figure below shows, less than a third of budget documents published by countries in the Middle East and North Africa meet best or good practice for timeliness. Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia also do poorly, with less than half of published documents being published according to best or good practice standards:

Click to enlarge »

Click to enlarge »

To be useful, budget information needs to be made publicly available within a reasonable timeframe. Standards for the timeliness are therefore a critical component of assessing budget transparency. The Open Budget Survey 2015 shows that there is still much work to be done in making more government budget documents publicly available, and in improving the timeliness of different budget documents and across various regions of the world.

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