This post was written by Paolo de Renzio, Senior Research Fellow for the Open Budget Initiative at the International Budget Partnership.
At the IBP, we believe that people have a right to know what their governments do with public resources. We also think that budget transparency has a transformative potential to reshape the relationship between governments and their citizens. When governments publish more information on their fiscal operations, citizens can better monitor government actions and hold them accountable for how they raise and spend public resources. The huge and persistent obstacles that citizen groups and civil society organizations face in accessing budget information were behind our efforts to set up the Open Budget Index. The OBI is based on the biennial Open Budget Survey, which assesses, measures, and compares levels of budget transparency, accountability, and participation across the world. Showing and denouncing the dismal state of budget transparency through the Index was, and remains, a fundamental step in pushing governments to be more open about how they manage public finances.
In addition to simply advocating for more budget transparency —but also to strengthen that advocacy — we needed to understand more about when and why governments adopt and implement transparency-enhancing reforms, and demonstrate that enhanced transparency does in fact lead to citizen engagement and improved accountability. Therefore, over the past three years, the IBP embarked on an ambitious research program aimed at deepening our understanding of the causes and consequences of budget transparency. Teaming up with some of the best researchers in the field, we promoted both quantitative analysis using OBI data (available here) and a set of qualitative case studies looking at how budget transparency had evolved over time in varied country contexts.
The results of these case studies are now available in a book called Open Budgets: The Political Economy of Transparency, Participation, and Accountability, published by Brookings Institution Press. The key findings can be summarized as follows:
- Four main factors stand out as contributing to improvements in fiscal transparency and participation in different countries. These are: a) processes of political transition toward more democratic forms of political contestation and alternation; b) fiscal and economic crises that force governments to put in place enhanced mechanisms for fiscal discipline and independent scrutiny; c) widely publicized cases of corruption that give reformers political space to introduce reforms that improve public access to fiscal information; and d) external influences that promote global norms that empower domestic reformers and civil society actors. (These external factors that support action toward greater transparency are in contrast to those that undermine domestic reform processes with interventions that bypass local institutions and seek fiscal information to satisfy external demands rather than to inform a domestic public debate.)
- The four factors above often interact in complex combinations to shape the trajectories in different countries by fostering or impeding advances in fiscal transparency and participation. Brazil and South Korea, for example, have developed institutional mechanisms and capacities that guarantee not only that a large amount of fiscal information is disclosed to the public but also that opportunities exist for different actors to engage with the budget process at various levels of government. In countries like South Africa, Mexico, and Kenya, trajectories have been more contradictory and outcomes more limited. While all of these countries have seen some improvement in their level of fiscal transparency, corresponding increases in active participation and oversight have not fully materialized. Finally in countries like Vietnam and China, where the autocratic nature of the political regime is not favorable to fiscal transparency and participation, improvements have been much slower and more gradual.
- There is more limited evidence of how greater public availability of fiscal information — and related opportunities to engage with the budget process — may affect government accountability, broader public finance management, and quality of service delivery compared to the above findings. There are various examples of legislators becoming more demanding vis-à-vis the executive, and of civil society campaigns achieving significant but isolated success, but the evidence for the positive impacts of transparency on accountability and responsiveness remains far from systematic or definitive.
The puzzle presented by the third finding will be of key importance looking forward. Those active in the transparency field should recognize that their next challenge will be to develop improved methods of assuring that budget information is well used by local and international actors and that adequate opportunities exist for citizens and other actors to engage meaningfully in different stages of the budget process, and that such participation in turn brings about increased accountability. Two encouraging trends keep us optimistic. First the international context of players, norms, and incentives has dramatically evolved and is increasingly contributing to changing domestic dynamics on the ground, which work in favor of enhanced opportunities for participation and accountability. This includes the notable increase in civil society’s interest, capacity, and engagement with fiscal and budget issues. Second, in other research promoted by the IBP, we have started gathering additional evidence on the ways in which civil society actors have been able to affect government budget policies and processes. We hope that this will generate further useful insights that policymakers and activists alike can rely upon to further the cause of fiscal transparency, participation, and accountability.
Order your copy of Open Budgets: The Political Economy of Transparency, Participation and Accountability here.