Budget analysis and advocacy is a vital step in defunding police and instituting needed reforms of justice systems world-wide

Budget analysis and advocacy is a vital step in defunding police and instituting needed reforms of justice systems world-wide

The murder of George Floyd by police officers in the United States sparked waves of Black Lives Matter protests across the country and around the world. Even in the face of a pandemic and sometimes violent government responses, marchers filled the streets calling for racial justice and an end to police abuses.

Rising out of the movement came a call, one with a specific budget emphasis: Defund the Police.

Though by no means new, defunding the police has, in the last few months, gone from a radical idea to actual policy in a few large cities in the United States. At its core, it is a call to reprioritize how public resources are used to ensure public safety by reducing the funding of police and redistributing that money to other public services, such as mental health care and housing. The goal is to redirect resources away from the police and towards these other services that can better address community needs.

Alexander Oganezov / Shutterstock.com

A crucial part of understanding what it would mean to “defund the police” is understanding police budgets. If the goal is to change the priorities of the police – and their role in the community — budget decisions are pre-cursors to any transformation. This type of budget work can be difficult, but – as examples around the world have shown – it is possible. And budget analysis and advocacy is a necessary step in reforming policing and instituting needed change.


Activists interested in engaging on police budgets will encounter a set of challenges, some of which are unique.

First, it is important to recognize that policing is but one component to a broader public safety and justice system. Other institutions – such as jails and public prosecutors and defenders – will have their own funding separate from the police. Effective reform that reduces police abuses and racial inequities in the justice system will inevitably have to engage with these institutions.

Next, who delivers policing varies greatly between countries, and often even within a single country. Overlapping jurisdictions and levels of government can police the same community, which makes tracking funding more complex than simply finding one line item in one budget. And in some countries, policing is delivered by military units or militarized police departments. Military spending is generally less transparent than other sectors, but such spending can be tracked  – one example is the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s work on military expenditure in Latin America and Africa, which intersects with police budgets.

Additionally, both the benefits and costs of policing policies are poorly understood. Though there has been some work to improve this, notably by the Vera Institute, it can be difficult for both policy makers and activists to fully understand the relationship between spending and policing outcomes.   If one knows the costs and benefits of particular policing policies and their associated budget items, it will be easier to identify what funds should be cut and redirected.

Finally, working on police budgets potentially opens activists to personal risks. As part of a country’s overall security system, policing is often seen as off-limits. In these circumstances, activists will have to fight to access the information and may have to adapt their strategies to be effective. This type of work potentially places them as adversaries to an armed government institution.

Over-policed and under-policed

In practice, the problems with policing manifest in two ways: over-policing, which is harsh police enforcement of often non-violent crimes, and under-policing, where serious or violent crimes are ignored. It is possible for a community to suffer from both issues at once – for example, police may respond with a heavy hand to enforce selling items on the street without a license, but then ignore and fail to solve serious and violent crimes.

Much of the work that civil society organizations and activists have done on police budgets has involved examining the cost of policing, highlighting increases in funding particularly when compared to other social services. This connects primarily with over-policing, as police budgets often swell as they are tasked with responding to a host of social ills, including housing insecurity or drug addiction. In the most extreme cases of over-policing, some police forces have been used to extract revenue from poor and marginalized communities.

In the United States, the Vera Institute has created a dashboard that compiles FY 2020 data on police budgets in 72 of the largest cities. Similarly, the Center for Popular Democracy, Law for Black Lives, and the Black Youth Project 100 collaborated on a report published in 2017 that examined racial disparities and police budgets in 12 cities, and they recently updated the data for 2020. The Urban Institute has also compiled data on state and local funding of police and corrections in the United States, as has the Institute for Southern Studies on major southern American cities. Several organizations have done analysis and/or advocacy on specific police departments, such as the Vera Institute in New York City, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute in Washington, DC, and People’s Budget LA, a coalition of organizations led by Black Lives Matter Los Angeles.

Similar analysis has also been done around the world, notably by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, which has looked at Uganda, Kenya, and India. And IBP recently used the World Bank’s BOOST database to compare budgets and actual expenditures in 19 countries, finding that, on average, actual expenditures on police functions were overspent by 2.2 percent, while overall budgets were underspent by 10 percent.

As policing is but one component of a wider security and justice system, many of IBP’s partner organizations have taken a more holistic approach to examining police budgets. For example, the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability provided budget analysis for the India Justice Report 2019, which examined the entire justice system, including policing, in 25 states in India. Meanwhile, BudgIt annually produces easy-to-understand infographics of Nigeria’s security budget, which includes policing. And as part of their work on public security in Brazil, INESC conducted budget analysis of Pronasci, a federal policing and criminal justice reform program.

When it comes to under-policing, perhaps the best example of civil society budget advocacy comes out of South Africa.

An IBP partner, the Social Justice Coalition, led a coalition of organizations to advocate for the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry into policing in Khayelitsha, one of South Africa’s largest townships and home to a majority of Cape Town’s informal settlement residents.  The Commission found significant problems in policing in Khayelitsha, notably that the police resources, including funding, were biased against poor black communities.

SJC and their partners took the Government to court over inequitable distribution of resources, particularly how many personnel were assigned to each precinct, and were successful, with the Equality Court returning a judgement in late 2018 that recognized that the allocation of police resources was fundamentally discriminatory against black communities. Work to fix under-policing in black communities in South Africa continues, particularly in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, with restrictions and their enforcement being applied inequitably across racial and economic lines.

A way forward

Defunding the police is fundamentally a budget question.

Activists that want to reform policing will inevitably have to address police budgets, and there is much work still to be done on this front. The allocations of the limited public resources found in the budget have a direct impact on the lives of people, particularly those living in poor and marginalized communities that are often most affected by police abuses.

Communities must be given a say in how public money is being spent by their government, including on policing. To reimagine policing, governments and communities should work together to reimagine how the budget is set.

Every day around the world activists are using public budgets to require more progressive policing and to reform justice systems. This work is transforming lives in many communities and has the potential to re-set spending priorities and their impact on marginalized communities for generations to come.

Building Budget Democracy: Fiscal Openness Reforms in South Africa

Building Budget Democracy: Fiscal Openness Reforms in South Africa

This post is part of the “In Their Own Words: Reform Champions Speak About Incentives for Fiscal Openness” series. The original interview was conducted in 2015 as part of a Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency (GIFT) and International Budget Partnership (IBP) research project. Read more posts from the series here

Trevor Manuel South AfricaTrevor Manuel was South Africa’s Minister of Finance from 1996 to 2009, serving under three different presidents. During his long tenure, he built South Africa’s Treasury into a strong and well-respected organization and introduced wide-ranging budget reforms – including many that greatly improved budget transparency, thrusting South Africa to the top ranks of the Open Budget Index.

In this interview with Paolo de Renzio, Senior Research Fellow at the International Budget Partnership, Mr. Manuel looks back at some of the reforms he introduced that turned South Africa into a world leader in budget transparency.

What were the fiscal openness reforms that were introduced in South Africa, and what was their impact?

During the apartheid regime, public finances were very opaque and fragmented, making it difficult to have a clear idea about what public resources were being spent on. This led to lots of waste and misuse, and kept citizens in the dark. The ANC [African National Congress] government that came to power in 1994 sought to overturn these practices and open a new stage of transparency and openness. When I became finance minister in 1996, we immediately set about drafting a new Public Finance Management Act, and introduced a series of other reforms to improve fiscal transparency and accountability.

“Apartheid was a system that was based on very high levels of secrecy. In order to demonstrate transparency, we started announcing the government’s spending plans four months before the budget was tabled in Parliament.”

Let’s start with budget documents. The government started publishing a Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS) in October of each year to set out fiscal policy targets and get parliament involved at the early stages of the budget process. Detailed Estimates of National Expenditure were then prepared by each government department to detail not just how much money they were going to spend but also detailing their objectives and expected results. We also started producing monthly budget execution reports which were published within three weeks of the end of each month.

Apart from these publications, the Auditor General’s office was reformed so that it could play a more effective role in providing independent scrutiny of government spending, and a number of initiatives were undertaken to promote a better informed debate around the budget. For example, we conducted a workshop for the media every year to explain to journalists where to find specific budget information, how to interpret it, and so on.

What were the key factors that shaped government incentives in adopting and sustaining these fiscal openness reforms?

First of all, I would not say that international actors played as crucial a role as they play in other African countries. Although we looked at relevant international experiences and promoted learning through peer exchanges, we did not borrow from the World Bank or the IMF, and levels of foreign aid were also negligible, which meant that international pressure was not a significant driver. In 1995 we started raising money on international financial markets, so of course it was important to have fiscal information available for that purpose. On the other hand, we always saw parliament as our key audience and aimed at ensuring that legislators — and the people whom they represent — had access to all relevant information and data, both on planned and executed budgets. This was part of our efforts to build strong institutions, and respect, and put into practice constitutional and legal provisions around public finance management — including the democratic principles that underpin them.

 “The way in which budget debates are structured does not focus sufficient attention on evaluating actual performance. We applaud the policy intent but do not interrogate the policy outcome.”

Unfortunately, budget information is not always fully utilized by parliament, especially in terms of closing the loop by using annual reports and audit reports to assess what public money actually bought, and what benefits it brought. In fact, we often felt frustrated by the lack of engagement with the budget process by various actors. Parliament has strong budget powers, but it is poorly equipped to analyze and use budget information. Newspaper reporting on the budget is weak, except for when a large corruption scandal breaks out, and universities and think tanks also do not play an important role in budget debates. For about a decade, we also had something called the People’s Budget Initiative, which brought together various social actors who marched on parliament on budget day to present an alternative budget proposal. Of course their timing was very unfortunate, because their proposals came too late for us to include them in the actual budget proposal.

That might be one of the key challenges that South Africa’s budget transparency reforms face. The Treasury has developed sophisticated systems and skills, but those are not matched by other actors, both within and outside government, limiting the potential impact of budget transparency. The Treasury might therefore need to spend more time in educating other actors on the budget process and on the content of budget documents to ensure the quality of public debate improves.

What is the role that international initiatives like GIFT could play in promoting fiscal openness?

We have many indices at international level to measure many different things — from budget transparency to income inequality — but we still lack good measures of the quality and efficiency of public spending, to help guide budget decision making and to provide citizens with ways to judge whether public resources are being well spent. GIFT could look at this matter and develop some interesting new measures, which could add a lot to existing debates moving beyond a focus on public availability of budget information.

Further Reading

The interview took place on 6 October 2015.

For more details on South Africa’s fiscal openness reforms, see:

  • Cole, N., A. Shah and G. van der Linde (2016). “Increasing Budget Transparency.” In Alam, A., R. Mokate and K.A. Plangemann (eds.) Making It Happen: Selected Case Studies of Institutional Reforms in South Africa. Washington, DC: World Bank. (pp. 37-54)
  • Friedman, S. (2013). “What We Know Can’t Hurt Them: Origins, Sources of Sustenance, and Survival Prospects of Budget Transparency in South Africa.” in Khagram, S., A. Fung and P. de Renzio (eds.) Open Budgets: The Political Economy of Transparency, Participation, and Accountability. Washington, DC: Brookings Press. (pp. 51-75).

This post also appears on GIFT’s blog here.

Supply, Demand, and Sustainability: Tracking Budget Transparency Reforms in Afghanistan

Supply, Demand, and Sustainability: Tracking Budget Transparency Reforms in Afghanistan

This post is part of the “In Their Own Words: Reform Champions Speak About Incentives for Fiscal Openness” series. The original interview was conducted in 2015 as part of a Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency (GIFT) and International Budget Partnership (IBP) research project. Read more posts from the series here

Dr. Mustafa Mastoor, Deputy Minister at the Ministry of Finance of Afghanistan Dr. Mustafa Mastoor has been Deputy Minister at the Ministry of Finance of Afghanistan since 2008. Previously, Dr. Mastoor served as Director General for Budget in the same ministry. In these functions, he has promoted a series of budget transparency reforms that resulted in impressive improvements in Afghanistan’s Open Budget Index score.

In this interview with Paolo de Renzio, Senior Research Fellow at the International Budget Partnership, Dr. Mastoor reflects on Afghanistan’s budget transparency reforms trajectory, and the challenges encountered along the way.

What were the fiscal openness reforms that were introduced in Afghanistan, and what was their impact?

Fiscal transparency and openness reforms in Afghanistan date back to the Constitution of 2002 and to the PFM [Public Finance Management] law and regulations that were introduced in 2004/5. Those provided the basis for the reforms we started introducing shortly after I joined the Ministry of Finance as Director General for Budget in 2005. The situation was not very encouraging. Budget reporting was very fragmented and often delayed — information from the provinces came by post and had to be re-entered at the central level — and it was difficult to find complete and accurate budget information. Large amounts of donor-managed funding (on-budget as well as off-budget) complicated the picture, meaning that a large share of the budget was effectively managed by expatriates. We therefore set out to ensure that: 1) responsibility for managing budgets was handed over to Afghan officials; 2) the quality and accessibility of information in the budget documents improved, so that line ministries, donors, Members of Parliament, and civil society could better understand what was happening with public money; and 3) technology was utilized to improve access to budget information.

“The information we were providing was not understandable even by ourselves. If you are not able to interpret budget information yourself, how can you ensure that it is accessible and user-friendly for others?”

At the beginning, demand for budget information was limited to line ministries and donors. More recently, as we started publishing more documents routinely, including budget proposals, financial statements, audit reports, and the Citizens Budget, we are seeing more interest coming from other actors as well, including civil society organizations.

Of course we also faced important challenges. While the legislative framework was favorable to transparency, the capacity of various actors to effectively use budget information was weak, which meant we were often faced with questions that showed that people did not really understand how to read a budget document. In some cases, budget information has been misused for political reasons, causing problems for the government. We have therefore learned that a clear and effective communication strategy is very important.

What were the key factors that shaped government incentives in adopting and sustaining these fiscal openness reforms?

First of all you should understand that we interpreted transparency and openness as a way to provide clarity to different actors, including other parts of government, about the availability of public financing for various services and activities. Secondly, transparency was important for us to argue with donors in favor of providing foreign aid as budget support. And donors wanted to make sure that the budget was transparent, so that they could see where resources were going. Recent improvements did in fact convince many donors — especially bilateral ones, as multilaterals were already on board — to provide more resources through the government budget, or to provide us with better information on their spending.

“We rarely faced questions from civil society. Sometimes questions came from the media, but mainly from parliament and sometimes unions or interest groups.”

Parliament has been the source of most demand for budget information. In presidential systems like ours, parliament has a particular interest in double-checking what the executive branch does with public resources. Usually, requests from parliament were related to such information as allocations to specific constituencies. In general terms, we did not face political hurdles and significant resistance to transparency reforms. The resistance was mostly bureaucratic and related to changing systems and practices, rather than to transparency per se.

“In our case, transparency reforms were spearheaded by technicians in the Ministry of Finance, based on conviction that transparency can be helpful in many ways, and responds to the needs of different clients.”

International assessment tools like the Open Budget Survey and the PEFA methodology were also useful for us to understand global norms and standards, and see what we could do to improve, even though clearly each country context has its own characteristics, and in certain ways various tools could be made more complementary. Our recent up-and-down performance on the Open Budget Index might be a signal that we need to do more to institutionalize our reforms — for example through legal reforms — rather than promote ad hoc improvements.

What is the role that international initiatives like GIFT could play in promoting fiscal openness?

I think that the most important role for GIFT is still that of advancing international norms and standards around fiscal openness, while at the same time recognizing the peculiarities of each country. GIFT should work on norms that are general enough to accommodate differences in country contexts.

Two other areas that deserve GIFT’s attention are building the capacity of civil society organizations to make effective use of budget information — in order to put further pressure on governments to open up budgets — and promoting the use of new, “proper” technologies that can facilitate access to fiscal information and promote accountability.

Further Reading

The interview took place on 5 October 2015.

For more details on Afghanistan’s fiscal openness reforms, see:

This post also appears on GIFT’s blog here.

Budget Transparency as a Means to Reduce Poverty: Uganda’s Fiscal Openness Reforms

Budget Transparency as a Means to Reduce Poverty: Uganda’s Fiscal Openness Reforms

This post is part of the “In Their Own Words: Reform Champions Speak About Incentives for Fiscal Openness” series. The original interview was conducted in 2015 as part of a Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency (GIFT) and International Budget Partnership (IBP) research project. Read more posts from the series here

uganda florence kuteesaFlorence Kuteesa served 21 years in the Ugandan Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development, rising from the level of economist to the post of Budget Director, which she held until December 2004. She then worked for two years in a private consulting firm, and thereafter six and half years with the International Monetary Fund’s Fiscal Affairs Department, until 2016. In the Ugandan government, she introduced a number of budget reforms that turned Uganda into a regional example in PFM systems and budget transparency practices.

In this interview with Paolo de Renzio, Senior Research Fellow at the International Budget Partnership, Ms. Kuteesa remembers the early stages of Uganda’s budget transparency reforms, and the bridges that they built between government and civil society.

What were the fiscal openness reforms that were introduced in Uganda, and what was their impact?

In 1998 I was heading the Budget Policy and Evaluation Department  at the ministry and was responsible for coordinating the budget preparation process and related reforms. As part of my work, I was tasked to oversee the development of the budget communication and transparency strategy, which was launched in 2001 (published as “Improving Budget Transparency in Uganda – A Medium Term Communication Plan”). The strategy was part of a broader political agenda of poverty eradication and was based on the understanding that promoting transparency and accountability in the management of public resources was essential in spearheading and sustaining the government’s efforts in reducing poverty.

The consultative process of developing the strategy was an eye-opener, enabling the ministry to appreciate the flaws in its communication systems. The ministry had never paused to reflect on how to support stakeholders in accessing and using budget information to demand for public accountability. This is an invaluable lesson for all budget reform champions.

“The Budget Communication and Transparency Strategy had an overall objective: enhance understanding of the budget and its contribution to poverty reduction.”

The strategy was developed after a two-year consultation process, and had three components. The first component dealt with improving internal communication within the ministry: strengthening procedures for decision making and promoting coherent messages around budget reforms. There was a lot of heated internal discussion on the need for government, especially the ministry, to be proactively transparent, collaborate with the media, and so on.  Top management eventually agreed to work toward positive engagement with our “clients,” providing a platform to deal with both their challenges and our fiscal constraints in pursuit of a shared objective: effective use of public funds to reduce poverty.

The second component related to developing a more effective engagement with various stakeholders (civil society organizations [CSOs], donors, members of parliament [MPs], media, etc.). The ministry met with and trained MPs and CSOs, and spoke with the media to explain the budget process, how it worked, how to engage with it, and the fact that public resources ultimately belong to citizens. Our budget formulation process was overhauled and made more open to include a series of consultation opportunities (i.e., national budget consultative workshops, sector working groups in sector ministries, etc.) on the definition of budget priorities and on issues of efficiency and effectiveness in the use of public funds. In addition, at the tabling of the budget proposal to parliament, the ministry produced simplified versions of the annual budget, and a newspaper pull-out with key facts about the budget.

A third and final component focused on the extent to which budget information and documentation could be made more user friendly and understandable to a general public. The reforms included: a) adding a glossary of key terms to all technical budget documents; b) publishing simplified versions of national policies, the annual budget, and the budgeting process in several local languages; and c) publishing budget releases on a quarterly basis in the local print media.

These reforms generated a shared understanding of the benefits of budget transparency and communication, which underpinned improved internal communication and coherence within the ministry, as well as more effective communication and engagement with other stakeholders. Simplified versions of budget documents became very popular and instrumental in enhancing the interest and engagement of citizens, CSOs, and MPs in the budget process. The practice was quickly adopted by sector ministries, who produced simplified versions of their sector policy and investment programs that further enhanced the transparency of public funds. The number of CSOs getting involved in budget policy discussions also increased.

Enhancing budget transparency, however, proved to be an expensive venture. Overtime, it was not possible to sustain all the citizen engagement activities, some of which were originally supported by the World Bank and other donors. The political commitment for transparency has also somewhat dwindled over time. Nonetheless, many of the gains were retained, as shown by Uganda’s continued good performance on the Open Budget Index, even though documents have become very voluminous and more complicated, and therefore less useful.

What were the key factors that shaped government incentives in adopting and sustaining these fiscal openness reforms?

The main driver behind the reforms was high-level political commitment to poverty reduction, and to the key role of effectively using public resources for that purpose. A Poverty Eradication Action Plan (PEAP) was formulated and launched in 1997 to guide budget allocation and implementation, increasing funding for priority sectors that could have an impact on poverty. However, reductions in poverty levels were not as strong as expected. A tracking study carried out in collaboration with the World Bank revealed that public resources were not getting to where they were needed — i.e., to the schools and health posts that were providing services — so fiscal decentralization and transparency were identified as important additional components of public finance management (PFM) reform. These reforms were meant to ensure that resources were transferred directly to service delivery units, and create mechanisms for citizen control over these resources. Some civil society groups like the Uganda Debt Network jumped on this possibility, and started monitoring how resources targeted at poverty reduction were being spent. This provided further incentives for government to become more open.

“Political commitment came all the way from the President, but we had strong support from the top levels of the Ministry of Finance as well. That commitment was matched by a team with good analytical skills, strong passion for the work, and reform-mindedness.”

Getting government to work with CSOs was a difficult task, as many were initially against it. We had to bring in the more competent organizations that knew how to engage government in dialogue. At the same time, building a positive and constructive relationship required innovative undertakings to build capacity of interested CSOs to engage in budget policy dialogue, and funding to enhance the coverage of their work to communities in the districts. My own experience as a voluntary member and chairperson of a policy advocacy organization working on women’s initiatives a few years prior helped a lot in that respect. Through my engagement with that CSO, I understood the importance and usefulness of engaging with civil society groups to improve policy making. But many in the ministry could not understand why government should open up. Showing the usefulness of civil society inputs, and how these could in fact make the government’s job easier was important in convincing skeptics.

Donor agencies were important in Uganda as providers of financing and technical assistance. Of course, given their support to the PEAP, they were also interested in budget transparency, in order to know how and where resources were being spent, as well as their impact on poverty reduction. But in many ways, rather than provide direct incentives, their influence was more indirect, through policy dialogue and expertise, or through supporting civil society groups in accessing and using budget information to demand for accountability, especially at lower levels of government.

What is the role that international initiatives like GIFT could play in promoting fiscal openness?

I think that, in general, external actors have played a positive role in recent times, both in setting norms and standards and in providing support to — and putting pressure on — governments to become more transparent. In this way, they are helping to ensure that transparency reforms are included in governments’ agendas. It is not clear to me, however, to what extent politicians really understand and believe in the value of fiscal openness, undermining reform success. Many PFM reforms – take IFMIS for example – look good on paper but do not deliver real improvements.

Fiscal openness should be linked to demand for budget accountability and ultimately improved access and quality of basic public services. Showing the real value and benefits of fiscal openness — and linking it to issues that are important to each specific country situation — is therefore key to convincing governments to take reforms seriously, and in this area international actors and initiatives could play an important role. Support is required to undertake studies designed to examine the impact of budget transparency initiatives on citizens’ demand for accountability and government accountability mechanisms.

Finally, fiscal openness should cease to be seen solely as a Ministry of Finance initiative. Sector ministries and agencies at all levels of government have a critical role to play in promoting transparency in the use of public funds. GIFT could therefore reach out to other actors, to ensure that fiscal openness really becomes a government-wide undertaking, where different actors and stakeholders play well articulated and complementary roles.

Further Reading

The interview took place on 21 January 2016.

For more details on Uganda’s fiscal openness reforms, see:

This post also appears on GIFT’s blog here.

Weaving a New Narrative: How Budget Transparency Reforms Took Hold in Mexico

Weaving a New Narrative: How Budget Transparency Reforms Took Hold in Mexico

This post is part of the “In Their Own Words: Reform Champions Speak About Incentives for Fiscal Openness” series. The original interview was conducted in 2015 as part of a Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency (GIFT) and International Budget Partnership (IBP) research project. Read more posts from the series here

budget-transparency-reforms-mexico-benjamin-hillBenjamin Hill Mayoral held a series of important policy positions in the Government of Mexico, both in the Ministry of Public Administration (Executive Secretary of the Inter-Ministerial Commission for Transparency and Corruption Control, and Head of the Transparency Policy and International Cooperation Unit) and at the Ministry of Finance (Head of the Performance Evaluation Unit). While at the Ministry of Finance, Mr. Hill oversaw the creation of Mexico’s budget transparency portal, an award-winning initiative that has greatly improved citizens’ access to budget information.

In this interview with Paolo de Renzio, Senior Research Fellow at the International Budget Partnership, Mr. Hill recollects his efforts to build the portal and other related reforms.

What were the fiscal openness reforms that were introduced in Mexico, and what was their impact?

The starting point for many of the reforms in Mexico is the year 2000, when for the first time in 70 years an opposition party won the elections, opening the doors to a period of reform and renewal, with Access to Information (ATI) reforms being among the first to be enacted. Despite the recognized quality of Mexico ATI legislation, we saw that it was not sufficient to improve Mexico’s rankings in a number of international indices like the Corruption Perceptions’ Index published by Transparency International. We therefore started thinking about other, more proactive forms of disclosure that could better respond to social demand for information. Access to information can be very broad, and citizens sometimes do not always have a clear view of what information they may need, what kind of information the government has, and which specific institution they need to approach to ask for relevant information. Citizens also need information on policy formulation and ongoing initiatives, rather than the post facto information that citizens can usually access through ATI requests.

“Access to information reforms are not enough to ensure transparency and accountability. They are reactive in nature. We felt the need to shift to a more proactive transparency policy.”

The effects of the global financial crisis in 2008/9 led to a heated debate in the Mexican congress about allocating scarce resources. Transparency again became important in the justification of important policy choices. We therefore looked at a few examples from around the world, from the Brazilian transparency portal to Australia’s Economic Stimulus Plan portal, and especially at the U.S. portal recovery.gov, based on Obama’s economic recovery plan. We wanted to develop a user-friendly tool using simple language and geo-referenced information to facilitate dissemination of information and ultimately accountability. Requests in a similar direction were coming from civil society groups as well.

We faced both political and technical challenges in our endeavor, but we gradually managed to overcome them, and with support from the IADB we set out to design our own budget transparency portal. The portal was eventually launched in 2011 with high-level support from the Minister of Finance himself. This helped gradually shift the culture in the Ministry of Finance, which was very opaque and suspicious of transparency initiatives. A few years later, there is a lot more commitment to transparency and openness in the budget process. The portal has become an important tool for both governments and CSOs, has won prizes and contributed to improvements in the Open Budget Index score for Mexico. Also, the portal has helped improve the level of public debate on budget policies, with more media stories, more research using budget information, and so on.

What were the key factors that shaped government incentives in adopting and sustaining these fiscal openness reforms?

Initially, many people were not convinced about the need for further transparency reforms, questioning the need for proactive disclosure, given the strong Access to Information procedures already in place. Incentives therefore were not very strongly in favor of reforms. What we did was start constructing a new narrative that eventually turned the creation of the portal into a political necessity. The new narrative was based on three elements: a) government had all of the information needed to populate the portal, and all it had to do was organize it in a more user-friendly manner; b) there was demand from the media and civil society for fiscal information; and c) other countries — including some in the region — had already created their own portal, showing that it was possible and leaving Mexico lagging behind. We argued that it was only a matter of time before nongovernmental actors were going to use publicly available information — or ATI requests — to set up a separate portal, showing the lack of government commitment to transparency and to responding to citizens’ demand for information.

“High-level political support was needed to send the message that the portal was an important project for the Ministry, and that everyone had to align behind the Minister’s statement that proactive transparency was the way forward.”

Pressure from civil society came mostly through the media and helped build support for reforms within government. Some civil society groups and think-tanks are quite influential and respected in Mexico, speaking on TV programs, writing op-eds, and more generally influencing public opinion. But given some of the overlapping interests we had with some civil society groups, we set up meetings and working groups to see how the portal could better respond to information needs, and in return we could understand how to showcase the portal and use it to improve Mexico’s score in international indices like the Open Budget Index. Congress, on the other hand, did not get actively involved in the reform discussions.

Getting political support for the portal gradually became easier, combining the expected benefits of adopting the reforms and the costs of not adopting them in a single, powerful narrative. The culture shift that followed came from a combination of continued top-level political support and from the increase in legitimacy that came from international recognition.

What is the role that international initiatives like GIFT could play in promoting fiscal openness?

GIFT could ensure that international comparative indices — like the OBI — are used for putting issues on the public agenda in different countries, and help indicate reform paths. International comparisons can be quite powerful for creating some competition and motivate governments to reform. In the case of Mexico, I can tell you that one of the best ways to get the Mexican government to do something is to say that Brazil is already doing it!

Further Reading

The interview took place on 1 September 2016.

For more details on Mexico’s fiscal openness reforms, see:

  • Salamanca, M. and T. Takahashi (2015). Opening Lanes: Budget Transparency and Innovation in Mexico. Washington, DC: Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency.
  • Ackerman, J.M. (2013). “Budget Transparency and Accountability in Mexico: High Hopes, Low Performance.” in Khagram, S., A. Fung and P. de Renzio (eds.) Open Budgets: The political economy of transparency, participation, and accountability. Washington, DC: Brookings Press. (pp.130-157).

This post also appears on GIFT’s blog here.