More Than Numbers: Open Budgets and the Data Revolution

This post was written by Jamison Crowell and Ryan Flynn, International Budget Partnership

Last week hundreds of representatives from governments, CSOs, and academia met up at the Cartagena Data Festival to discuss ways to implement a “data revolution.” The Overseas Development Institute (ODI), which jointly hosted the event, also published a new report which takes a comprehensive look at what the data revolution means for sustainable development.

ODI’s report has a welcome emphasis on the imperative of data serving the needs of citizens. Drawing on IBP research, the report also recognizes that without access to information on both development finance and government budgets it “will be impossible for stakeholders to hold governments and other actors accountable for funding delivery of the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals].”

Governments already produce a great deal of budget information, they just don’t make it available to the public.

The data revolution has generated a great deal of momentum around the idea that open, accessible, and better quality information is needed to improve development outcomes. And the promise the movement holds – a better understanding of the world we live in, and of the needs of the poorest amongst us – is tantalizing.

But when it comes to public finance, “data revolutionaries” sometimes overlook two important points: governments already produce a great deal of budget information, they just don’t make it available to the public; and the narratives contained in official budget documents are crucial for gaining a better understanding of how public finances are being managed.

More than Numbers

Open data activists have tended to emphasize the need for budget data to be published in machine readable formats. While this is an important innovation that can enhance the ability of actors outside government to do independent analysis, it can sometimes overshadow the need for narratives to accompany the numbers.

As development economist Morten Jerven has pointed out, “data is not the same as numbers.” Indeed, when it comes to understanding how public money is being used, numerical data is rarely sufficient. Numbers can give us the “what,” but to piece together the story of the budget we also need the “why.” The best place to get this is from the narratives contained in the budget documents governments produce and use themselves.

Without these narratives, determining justifications for expenses, linking policies and budget allocations, and understanding differences between actual and estimated expenditures is essentially reduced to guesswork. Each key budget document is a part of this story, and the gritty details contained in their narratives are imperative for budget information to be meaningful.

The good news is that improving the availability of fiscal data doesn’t always require deep investments in National Statistics Offices. The even better news is that if official budget documents are published, civil society can help scrutinize and improve the information contained within. This will not only improve accountability and foster greater trust, but also stands to improve government’s own picture of how public finances are being managed.

Budget Information is Low-Hanging Fruit

The data revolution has been successful at capturing the imaginations of governments around the world. In March, finance ministers from all across Africa released a joint statement (PDF) embracing an, “African data revolution […] built on the principles of openness across the data value chain and a vibrant data ecosystem driven by national priorities and inclusive national statistical systems.”

Yet, as pointed out by Mo Ibrahim in an article for the Financial Times, “Only 3 per cent of African citizens live in countries where governmental budgets and expenditures are made open, according to the Open Budget Index.”

Governments that wish to drive the data revolution forward can do so remarkably quickly and at very little cost: publish the budget documents that are being produced.

Why is this the case? One big reason for the paucity of budget data is so much simply goes unpublished. This is by no means a problem confined to Africa: of the hundreds of budget documents found by the 2012 Open Budget Survey to be unavailable, 40 percent were produced by governments but remained off limits to citizens. This fact is reinforced by data collected by the IBP in its monthly Open Budget Survey Tracker.

There are clearly issues of capacity (many important budget documents are not produced at all). But governments that wish to drive the data revolution forward can do so remarkably quickly and at very little cost: publish the budget documents that are being produced.

So You Want to be a Revolutionary?

The ambitions of the data revolution stretch well beyond public finance. Data hold the promise of improving our collective understanding of our world. Our ability to marshal this understanding to improve the lives of poor people is a crucial test of the age we live in.

But as governments contemplate how to build the capacity to better understand the needs of their citizens, there is a simple, timely, and revolutionary act they can make. Commit to open budgets as a part of the post-2015 agreement, and encourage other governments to do the same.

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