The Open Budget Survey: Data-Powered Advocacy
There are lots of rankings and indexes, but this is one that has triggered change from the global level down to the street.
Alexander Cooley, author of “Ranking the World: Grading States as a Tool of Global Governance,” says he has stopped keeping track of international indexes because there are just too many. Countries get index fatigue, he says. They don’t know where to prioritize, become complacent and even refuse to pay attention to them.
There are exceptions, however—global rankings that have outsized impact, from influence on global norms and standards down to daily life on the ground. IBP’s Open Budget Survey (OBS) is among those, as this story shows.
See the results of the latest Open Budget Survey, which looks at transparency, oversight and public participation in over 120 countries.
One story: demanding accountability in education spending
Throughout 2015-2017, Senegal was rocked repeatedly by street protests. A common local method of expressing public outrage, this time the focus was the government’s failure to pay teachers at all levels of education the salaries they’d been promised, the increasing number who were awarded temporary (and thus insecure) contracts, and the delay in delivering vital scholarship funds to needy students.
“Everyone united against the government,” recalls Cheikh Cissé, who heads the governance unit for ONG-3D, a civil society organization in Senegal founded to assure good governance and accountability in response to decentralization. “Parents, students and trade unionists were in the media constantly and schools shut down at one point for as long as four months.”
Protests by teachers, parents and students rocked the country.
The various protesters came together under one umbrella, an association called COSYDEP, to maximize their impact. COSYDEP came to ONG-3D, which had been active in monitoring education spending at the local level. The request: “Money was allocated in the budget for us but we don’t know where it is going. Help us by mediating with the government so they consider our demands.”
In the past, the Senegalese government had responded to protests with violence, often resorting to teargas. Now it was different: “The government was up against a wall,” explains Cheikh. “The protesters had the upper hand, closing schools and dominating the media.”
The bigger picture
Like ONG-3D, International Budget Partnership was established during a time ripe with both challenge and promise.
“A whole range of countries during the 1980s and 1990s were moving further toward democracy, making it easier for civil society organizations to form and operate,” explains Vivek Ramkumar, IBP’s senior director of policy. “At the same time, there was a much greater focus on decentralization, especially in public finances—which meant more money was released for decision-making at local levels.”
Nevertheless, the default position of many governments was secrecy when it came to opening up the books. In fact, as CSOs and others tried to analyze the root causes of the 1990s economic crises in Mexico, Southeast Asia and elsewhere, they encountered a stark lack of information on just what governments were doing with public funds.
“The time was right for IBP to come in and help them push to change that,” recalls Vivek, who joined the organization not too long after. “Billions of dollars are collected and spent every year by our national governments; budgets demonstrate whether their promises about reducing inequality and creating opportunities for the marginalized are just rhetoric or actual practice.”
However, the CSOs that IBP began to train on budget analysis soon reported they couldn’t access the underlying numbers in their countries. “We knew there was a need to give them more leverage when seeking to influence their governments,” says Vivek.
In 2006, IBP fielded its Open Budget Survey. In its first round, the survey assessed the degree of transparency (public accessibility) and independent oversight of national budgets in 59 countries, along with the extent of citizen engagement. Over the past 13 years, the survey has expanded to 117 countries across six continents, becoming the only ongoing, independently conducted, comparative assessment of what is now widely referred to as “open budgets.”
“We use a network of local civil society organizations, expert peer reviewers and government assessors, rather than rely only on self-reporting by governments,” explains Anjali Garg, head of IBP’s Open Budget Survey. “We see governments as important stakeholders in the dialogue, but the data-collection process is kept as independent as possible.”
Fielded every two years, the OBS allows comparisons over time both within and across countries and regions—a unique and vital niche in an expanding field of study and activism that includes other prominent stakeholders, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Organization for Economic Development (OECD) and PEFA (Public Expenditure and Financial Accountability program).
IBP has joined with a wide variety of other international and local civil society organizations to issue a Call to Open Budgets, urging governments everywhere to commit to transparency, oversight and public participation.
One score, outsized impact: global and regional norms
When IBP chose the parameters to assess in its Open Budget Survey, the starting point were the standards already adopted by the IMF, World Bank and regional heavyweights such as the OECD.
“We drew our survey indicators from these established standards because we wanted to make sure our civil society partners could defend the OBS to their governments,” says Vivek.
But from the very beginning, the OBS also has served as an influencer in its own right. “We’ve helped push the envelope by introducing concepts like the need for citizens’ budgets—documents that are understandable by the general public—and community participation in budget-setting and monitoring,” Vivek explains. “And now, we are beginning to introduce a focus on specific sectors such as health.”
For example, when the IMF first introduced its fiscal transparency code in the late 1990s, it lacked a focus on information that could be understood by non-technical audiences. That came later, with the 2006 revision, in part due to the launch of the OBS. The IMF modified its code again in 2014 to incorporate public participation, largely due to the urging of IBP. In fact, IBP was invited to be one of the lead civil society speakers at the meeting convened to discuss potential revisions.
But global standards and guidelines are often just that—guidelines, unless they are tied to loan or grant approvals. More substantial pressure often comes at the regional level, such as from the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU). In 2009, says Quentin Gouzien, technical advisor for Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), the WAEMU adopted six directives that constituted a “harmonized framework for public finance.” Member states were mandated to incorporate the directives into their national legislation, with most complying by 2014.
“Since 2015, WAEMU staff has visited all member states annually to evaluate implementation of the directives,” explains Quentin. “The WAEMU directives drive the agenda of public finance management in the region.”
In turn, the WAEMU’s directives were heavily influenced by both the IMF’s fiscal transparency code and IBP’s OBS. In fact, says Quentin, the WAEMU requires that seven of eight documents specified in the OBS be publicly available. “The requirements are not as stringent in terms of timing, though, and the directives are still too silent on public participation. So, we have a ways to go yet, and the OBS will be an important motivator.”
One of the WAEMU’s member states is Senegal. It was first included in the OBS in the 2008 round, earning a very low score—3 out of 100. The government committed to a concerted effort to improve its scores.
This is what success looks like
At the same time that the new WAEMU framework was being implemented, donors such as the U.S. and the European Union started pressuring governments to be more open.
“Everything came together: USAID (the U.S. Agency for International Development) referred to the OBS and its results. Civil society organizations were using the OBS and its results. And the Ministry of Finance began to rely on the OBS and its results,” says Maleine Amadou Niang, IBP’s country manager for Senegal and a former staffer for ONG-3D. “There are a lot of other standards out there, but the OBS is more user-friendly, making it a powerful tool for civil society organizations that aren’t really budget groups. It allows them to understand quickly the dynamics of budgets, to identify the challenges and the opportunities, and put them on the table.”
Charles Ciss, director of finance for Senegal’s Ministry of Economy, Finance and Planning, adds, “The OBS has brought about a revolution in our relationship with civil society. We have for a long time been reluctant to share fiscal information. But when CSOs started talking to us using evidence from the survey, we understood how important it was for us to engage with them. Today, transparency ranks high among Senegal’s priorities.”
In 2015, the country’s Open Budget Index score (derived from the survey and specific to transparency) rose to 43. In 2017, it was 51. However, such dramatic improvements often don’t continue in a linear fashion; due to changes in administrations, competing priorities, etc., it’s common for progress to plateau or for scores to even regress a few points.
What about ONG-3D and the students, teachers and parents it sought to help?
One of the first things ONG-3D did after being approached by COSYDEP was to talk to its contacts at USAID, which supports the civil society organization. Investigating national education spending was a new focus for ONG-3D, and USAID officials recommended that its team start by learning more about the IBP’s Open Budget Survey (OBS). It is, said USAID staff, the gold standard when it comes to assessing the transparency of government budgets.
Senegal first began participating in the OBS in 2010, but ONG-3D was not very familiar with it beyond the name.
“Learning more about the OBS, and Senegal’s performance in it, educated us on the eight main budget documents the government should be publishing,” Cheikh explains. “The two we found the most helpful are the enacted budget (approved by the legislature) and the in-year (progress) reports. And we quickly discovered that the latter didn’t include breakdowns—like, for teacher salaries, for example. So, we wrote to the Ministry of Finance and began pushing for the in-year reports.”
He continues: “We pushed until we got what we needed to get a full picture of what had been allocated and what was being spent—information the OBI told us how to find. With COSYDEP, we put all this data together and brough the trade unions to the table with the government. We ended up coming to a consensus agreement that led to a budget modification so the government could fulfill its promises. The Monday after our meeting, the teachers and kids were back in school.”
The benefits for ONG-3D and the constituents it serves were even more long-lasting than that.
“Since that time, we get the reports we need without having to ask,” Cheikh says. “We get invited to meetings. Our relationship with the government has completely changed. The collaboration we established in the wake of the protests has lasted.”