This post is part of a blog series we are running over the next few weeks to highlight core open government issues and give you ideas to consider as you develop your new action plan. Perviously we looked at open government through a gender lens to highlight how action plans can engage women's voices and ensure gender-sensitive commitments. This week we look at how fiscal governance treasure hunts can be used by citizen-participants to access and use fiscal information with the goal of uncovering issues.
-The OGP Support Unit
If citizens can’t follow the money, then governance is not open. Despite welcome progress opening budgets and advancing the open data agenda, in many countries citizens remain unable to get a full picture of the flow of public resources or to use that information to track and shape the way public money is spent.
Experience from an increasing number of civil society organizations (including the International Budget Partnership, the Follow the Money Network, and Global Integrity, particularly for its work in Mexico) shows that budget information can enable citizens to demand accountability and to request governments to use public resources to deliver specific solutions – such as building a school or improving the delivery of health supplies – to problems affecting their lives. However, it is hard for citizens to make use of budget information; data is often incomplete and difficult to understand, providing only partial coverage of the flow of public resources, and it is a limited basis for proposing ways of addressing problems.
In order to explore these issues, we developed and successfully piloted a participatory assessment about the quality and usability of fiscal information called “Fiscal Governance Treasure Hunts”. This approach takes a citizens’ perspective towards open fiscal governance by setting citizen-participants the task of accessing and using fiscal information on particular issues and to then report back on the challenges they face in doing so. These challenges relate not only to the availability of information, but also to its quality, the way it is presented, and the capacities needed to understand and use the information. The approach delivers insights that inform the engagement of in-country reformers in efforts to overcome challenges around data and its use. This approach also goes beyond budgets, connecting the dots among different pieces of the public resources puzzle – such as revenues, contracts, expenditure and data about results – needed by citizens to understand and shape the use of public resources.
Stocktakings on OGP commitments point to the need to improve the quality of information and connect it to issues that are relevant for citizens: the IRM report on open data calls for increased alignment between data supply and demand, and for a greater focus on data use, and the OGP Fiscal Openness Working Group recommends that governments publish more data, strengthen oversight, and provide meaningful opportunities for citizen participation. In 2016 fifty-one countries will be developing OGP National Action Plans. This is an opportunity that must be seized by government and civil society reformers to press for commitments to release and improve the quality and usability of fiscal information from a citizen perspective.
Many countries have made important progress on commitments to release budget information. Participatory assessments of fiscal governance – “treasure hunts” – are a tool to build on this progress by informing efforts to improve accessibility and usability of budget data and to design commitments to release data on particular issues. Treasure hunts take a citizen perspective and focus on particular problems deemed important by people, and their results deliver valuable insights that can be used to develop more focused commitments aimed to address specific issues that stand in the way of citizens’ use of budget information.
Treasure hunts can also be used to advance towards open legislatures and open judiciary by making evident for citizens how those institutions use public resources to accomplish their legal mandates. These participatory assessments are also useful to promote open government at the subnational level. We – in close collaboration with in-country partners – have supported civil society and governments in Mexican states and municipalities to engage in efforts to implement commitments to improve access and usability of fiscal data on particular issues such as security, education, and health.
Some illustrative commitments to use participatory assessments to move towards open fiscal governance include:
- Use participatory assessments of the extent to which citizens can access and use information about resources used to deliver health services, to improve the release of data about investments in health infrastructure [or the prioritized program or issue].
- Conduct participatory assessments to identify and release the information needed by citizens to understand how the legislature [or other branch of government] uses public resources.
- Promote the use of participatory assessments about access and use of budget information by subnational governments to improve their efforts to release data on investments made to deliver police services [or another prioritized issue].
Some resources to inform efforts to design and implement these commitments are:
- The Follow the Money Network (you can join it by contacting me at firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Civil society experiences following the money.
- The Fiscal openness and the open data OGP working groups.
- The Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency.
- The Open Government Guide chapter on budgets.
- Global Integrity’s blog where we will keep posting news and insights about our follow the money work.
OGP commitments to improve access and usability of budget information on particular issues can enable countries to close the gap between the supply and demand of fiscal data and to make significant progress towards more open governance.