This deceptively simple question is in reality quite complex. For budget information to be of value to the public, it must be available to them and it should be available soon enough to be of use to them. Why? Late and hidden information prevents the public from participating in these decisions.
So to be considered ‘publicly available’ in the Open Budget Survey, a government budget document therefore has to meet two basic criteria:
- It must be published within a reasonable timeframe by the institution or agency responsible for producing the document; and
- It must be available at minimal cost to any person who wishes to access the document (i.e. the government must not make documents available selectively, or only to certain individuals or groups).
Budget documents should be timely
The Open Budget Survey (OBS) specifies the timeframe within which each of the eight budget documents it assesses should be released. Guidelines issued by the IMF and the OECD recommend good or best practices for when different budget documents should be published by governments. The OBS draws on these guidelines but it also recognizes that not all countries are currently in a position to meet them. Therefore, we distinguish between those governments that publish documents within a reasonable timeframe and those that publish documents so late after the recommended release period as to make public access to these documents almost meaningless.
For example, even though best practice guidelines recommend that the Year-End Report and the Audit Report should be published within six months of the end of the budget year, the OBS allows for a maximum of two years for these documents to be published. A complete list of the Survey’s timeframes for each of the eight key budget reports is available in the Guide to the Open Budget Questionnaire 2010 on the IBP’s website.
Budget documents should be freely available
Assessing whether a document is freely available to anyone who wishes to access it can be a complicated task for. When a government makes its budget reports available on the website of the relevant agency, the reports’ release dates are clearly identified (and fall within the specified timeframe), there is no ambiguity about the public availability of the document. But many cases are not that straightforward. For example, while a majority of governments assessed in the Open Budget Survey 2010 make most of their published budget reports available on the Internet, some governments only make hard copies of these documents available. In other cases, it is unclear when a budget document was uploaded on the government’s website, so it is difficult to assess whether the document was publicly released within the timeframe used by the Open Budget Survey.A few examples of barriers to access to budget documents in countries included in the Open Budget Survey 2010 are described below. Despite these barriers, all the referenced documents were treated as publicly available by the Survey.
- In Kenya a copy of the Executive’s Budget Proposal is available on payment of approximately US$125. This document is not published on any government website; however, copies of the document are available for viewing in public libraries and at public information desks throughout the country.
- In Zambia a copy of the Executive’s Budget Proposal is available on payment of approximately US$50. But copies of this proposal are in short supply and sometimes not available even for purchase by those who can afford to pay this fee. The Executive’s Budget Proposal is not published on any government website.
- In Mali hard copies of the budget documents can viewed at a national public library, but anyone wishing to have a personal copy must pay the cost of photocopying them. Since the Executive’s Budget Proposal and supporting budget documents in Mali comprise more than 1,000 pages, photocopying these documents in their entirety can cost more than US$100 — in a country with a per capita income of approximately US$1,200. These documents are not published on any government website.
- In Malawi the Executive’s Budget Proposal is available for free from the Ministry of Finance office on the day the budget is presented to the legislature. Typically, however, there are not sufficient copies of the document to meet demand. The Executive’s Budget Proposal is not published on any government website.
- In Albania the Executive’s Budget Proposal is published on the Ministry of Finance website when the document is presented to the legislature. However, the ministry removes the document from its website when the budget is enacted into law and does not archive prior years’ proposals.
- In Mongolia the Supreme Audit Institution (SAI) publishes Audit Reports on its website; however, the website was not working for almost a year during the Survey research period.
The Open Budget Survey has been easy on governments up to now
The IBP believes that many of these problems would not exist if governments simply published budget documents on their websites (and ensured that these websites function properly).
Even though the Open Budget Survey 2010 records all of the documents from the examples presented above as “available,” some are clearly more “available” than others. In future rounds of the Survey, the IBP intends to establish and apply more refined criteria regarding what constitutes “public availability” to ensure that all nuances surrounding availability are captured and to ensure true comparability across countries on this issue. It is possible that once these criteria are established, countries that continue to follow practices such as those cited above may not be scored as making certain documents “publicly available.”