After a decade of steady progress, the International Budget Partnership’s (IBP) Open Budget Survey (OBS) 2017 shows a modest decline in average global transparency scores. This means governments are making less information available about how they raise and spend public funds than they did in 2015. Halting progress toward greater transparency is particularly discouraging in light of the finding that roughly three-quarters of the countries assessed in this year’s survey publish insufficient budget information. Given the inadequacy of the information that governments make available about public spending and revenue, this is the time for accelerated progress, not stagnation.
In addition to these transparency challenges, the OBS 2017 assessment of budget oversight finds that most countries have limited or weak legislative oversight practices, though most have the basic conditions needed for auditors to fulfill their roles. The OBS 2017 also reveals that most governments fail to provide meaningful opportunities for the public to participate in the budget process.
This combination of opaque budgets, limited oversight, and closed budget processes weakens public financial management. More important, it undermines democracy, weakening the link between citizen priorities and government action.
In recent years, there have been a number of signs that the bridge between citizens and states is weakening in countries around the world. In the wake of corruption scandals and rising inequality, many people are questioning traditional institutions of representative democracy or channeling their support to leaders whose commitment to democratic institutions is dubious. Instead of addressing the public’s frustrations, many governments have tightened controls on civil society. Restrictions on civic spaces and media freedom signal a weakening of the key instruments of democratic accountability that should cause concern for people around the world.
Against this backdrop, the OBS 2017 findings constitute another signal of the erosion of the relationship between governments and citizens, but the findings also outline a way to begin to rebuild. While government abuses of power and a lack of accountability for the use of public resources have fueled democratic disengagement and widespread disillusion with government around the world, the centrality of government budgets to the relationship between citizens and states makes them an obvious focus for efforts to restore public trust and repair the citizen-state rift.