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.

From Domestic Accountability to International Recognition: Fiscal Openness Reforms in the Philippines

From Domestic Accountability to International Recognition: Fiscal Openness Reforms in the Philippines

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


Florencio “Butch” Barsana Abad was Secretary of the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) of the Philippines during the period 2010-2016. Previously, he had served as Secretary of the Department of Education and Secretary of the Department of Agrarian Reform. He was also a congress member (three terms), lawyer, trade unionist, and an educator and activist. As Budget Secretary, he championed active citizenship and open government through citizen participation in planning and budgeting and making essential budget documents and information publicly available. Through the Bottom-Up Budgeting (BUB) Program, he institutionalized people’s participation in the budget process and enabled civil society organizations to partner with their local governments to address poverty in their communities.

In this interview with Paolo de Renzio, Senior Research Fellow at the International Budget Partnership, Mr. Abad recalls the range of reforms that he helped introduce while at DBM.


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

Abad: Benigno Aquino III, who came to power in 2010 and in whose government I had the honor to serve, continued her mother Corazon Aquino’s fight for good governance and against corruption. The new administration strongly believed that better governance leads to better government performance, and better performance leads to poverty reduction. Economic management improved substantively, freeing up resources for investments in infrastructure, cash transfers, and basic services. This led to a significant increase in trust in government, both from citizens and from international investors.

“The budget process was one of the key areas where innovative policies and reforms were introduced, bringing about greater transparency and accountability, and meaningful participation by citizens at all stages of the budget process.”

The first thing we did was to upload all budget documents online so that all could see how government managed public resources. We also set up a website to publicize details of “pork-barrel” projects proposed by representatives in congress, and an e-procurement system to improve transparency in the process of government contracting, from bid to implementation. We introduced Budget Partnership Agreements between government ministries and relevant stakeholders in their respective sectors to promote participation and dialogue, and created something called Bottom-Up Budgeting, to foster meaningful devolution in the definition of local projects, with decisions being taken jointly by local governments and civil society groups.

“Bottom Up Budgeting started with a budget of 8.3b pesos in a few hundred municipalities, and now covers all 1,600 plus municipalities with more than 20b pesos.”

Finally, in the past few years we have been introducing performance information in our budget process, with government ministries and departments now linking spending to inputs, outputs, and outcomes. Putting performance information in the public domain is a way to improve accountability. As a consequence of our efforts, our score in the Open Budget Index hit a score of 64 in 2015, the highest one among ASEAN countries.

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

Abad: Clearly one of the key drivers behind the reforms that we put in place was the government’s commitment — stemming from its electoral manifesto — to improve governance, reduce corruption, and manage resources to benefit the population at large. But other factors helped us, too. A corruption scandal around pork barrel projects generated a great demand for further improvements in transparency in the budget process, from the opposition, civil society, churches, and the media. Popular support and outrage ensured that people responsible were held accountable — in fact, a number of members of congress were detained — and funds had to be returned, also thanks to the intervention of the Commission on Audit. However, this also generated resistance and a populist backlash, resulting in a slowing down of other related reform processes, for example, those relating to the approval of Access to Information legislation.

 “We faced a lot of resistance to reforms, for example on the adoption of a unified set of budget accounting codes that facilitates tracking of spending.”

Another important factor motivating us to become more transparent was the need to attract foreign investment. We know that our good transparency and economic management record has affected our credit ratings, which in turn are important to attract foreign capital and investment. Such international recognition was important for the government as a seal of performance and legitimacy, especially as we struggle to overcome a tradition based on patronage and protection of vested interests.

“Vested interests are always ready to capture institutions and block reforms. Patronage needs to be countered. External pressure can help with that.”

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

Abad: GIFT should push even harder and engage more with investors and credit rating agencies to recognize the importance of fiscal transparency in budget reforms and in improving economic management and fiscal performance. GIFT could also go even further and engage the United Nations to discuss how fiscal transparency can help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.


Further Reading

The interview took place on 22 October 2015.

For more details on fiscal openness reforms in the Philippines, see:

This post also appears on GIFT’s blog here.

Starting from the Top: Political Leadership and Fiscal Openness Reforms in Brazil

Starting from the Top: Political Leadership and Fiscal Openness Reforms in Brazil

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


Jorge Hage Sobrinho was Deputy Minister of Brazil’s Federal Comptroller General (Controladoria-Geral da União, or CGU) from 2003 to 2006, and its Chief Minister from 2006 to 2014. While at CGU, he oversaw significant transparency reforms, including the launch of Brazil’s fiscal transparency portal, a user-friendly online tool for searching and downloading detailed budget information that has drawn wide praise both within and outside Brazil. During this period, Brazil has achieved the best Open Budget Index score in Latin America, and the second best score among middle-income countries.

In this interview with Paolo de Renzio, Senior Research Fellow at the International Budget Partnership, Minister Hage reflects on his time at CGU and on the transparency reforms that he helped introduce and implement.


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

Jorge Hage: Some of the most significant fiscal openness reforms in Brazil were introduced after Lula’s Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT) took power in 2003. Previous reforms, like the introduction of the Fiscal Responsibility Law in 2000, included some important fiscal transparency provisions, but were mostly instrumental and not linked to a broader policy of improving transparency and accountability. Lula created the CGU shortly after becoming president and nominated a well respected senior politician, Waldir Pires, to be its Minister for Control and Transparency. One of the PT’s electoral promises was to provide public access to the government’s financial management system (called SIAFI), so that anybody could see how public money was being spent. Given the complexity of the system, the CGU decided instead to set up a Transparency Portal where this — and other types of — information could be disseminated using a more user-friendly interface, “translating” data for public consumption.

The Portal was launched in 2004 and grew gradually over time, including an increasing number of datasets and different types of information. Apart from very detailed revenue and expenditure information which is updated daily, nowadays users can access information about individual public servants’ positions and salaries, agreements and partnerships entered into by the federal government, and a register of companies that were barred from public tenders, and can search fiscal data for specific programs — like Bolsa Familia — or for important events like the 2014 Soccer World Cup or the 2016 Olympic Games.

“Starting with less than 300,000 visitors in its first year of operation, the Portal reached 14 million visitors in 2014.”

An interesting feature of the Portal is the access it provides to information about credit card expenses for all federal public servants who hold a government credit card. This initiative was taken as a response to the large amount of denunciations that the CGU received about misuse of government credit cards. As soon as the information was put in the public domain, the number of reported cases decreased dramatically. Values involved may have been small, but the symbolic function of putting such information out in the open is very important.

Legislation that was introduced in 2009 made similar portals mandatory for all levels of government — both state and municipal — greatly increasing access to fiscal information. And the passage of Access to Information legislation in 2011 further strengthened government openness.

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

Jorge Hage: One of the key initial drivers of transparency reforms was Lula’s electoral campaign promise to open up budget information to public scrutiny. The CGU then became the champions for these commitments to become reality, with Waldir Pires as the “cobrador” — or ticket collector — ensuring everyone did their part.

“The Workers’ Party spent a long time in opposition and understood how important transparency and access to information were for democracy.”

While half of the argument in favor of transparency reforms was ideological, and based on the conviction that transparency was important in and of itself, we also had to convince the many skeptics — including many large ministries — with more practical arguments. We tried to show how transparency could be useful to public managers to better control government action at all levels, and to reduce the risk of corruption and mismanagement, which in turn meant a lower risk of political fallout from emerging scandals, etc.

To help us is in this “proselytism,” we found that we could count on both internal reform-minded allies and on pressure from outside government. Part of this strategy was the creation of a Council for Public Transparency, which included representatives from civil society organizations, trade unions, churches, professional associations, etc. It was a consultative body with no decision-making powers, but it brought reform ideas and provided important support to the government’s reform initiatives. Over time, external pressure grew. Civil society and public opinion became important to further reforms. The more information you provide, the more information people ask for. Civil society pressure came mostly from the media, giving voice to various groups or based on the work of investigative journalists. This led, for example, to the opening of special portals on spending for the World Cup and the Olympic Games, and to the use of improved open data formats.

“It was not easy. Government is not monolithic. There were many different opinions, and a lot of resistance. It was a slow and difficult process, convincing people that transparency could bring important benefits.” 

A final set of important incentives for reform comes from beyond our borders. International indices and good practice examples trigger emulation and competition. We looked at international indices like the Open Budget Index, tried to learn from others and used our good score to further motivate people within government, showing them that their efforts were being recognized. The invitation we received to join the Open Government Partnership as co-initiators was also an important recognition that kept us moving on the reform path.

 

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

Jorge Hage: I would highlight two things here. The Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency, alongside OGP and others, is already playing and important role in providing local reform champions with tools and arguments to convince political leaders (evidence of impact, good practice examples, high-level events, etc.) about the importance of pursuing transparency reforms.

Possibly, however, GIFT should try to engage at the highest political level, rather than stop at senior technical levels. GIFT needs to talk to presidents and ministers, party leaders, MPs, etc. and convince them of the overall argument in favor of fiscal openness.


Further Reading

This interview took place on 11 September 2015. For more details on Brazil’s fiscal openness reforms, see:

This post also appears on GIFT’s blog here.