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Public Debt

Debt is a critical component of a country’s public finances. When acquired and managed responsibly, debt plays an important role in a country’s economy and fiscal health. It helps finance the development of new infrastructure, emergency procurement, and economic stabilization. However, many governments do not publish sufficient debt information, leading to an increased risk of corruption, bad investment decisions, and undemocratic borrowing practices. Increasing debt integrity through greater transparency and public accountability helps ensure that debt levels are sustainable and that funds received through borrowing are efficiently allocated to meet public needs.

The National Democratic Institute (NDI) authored this chapter of the Open Gov Guide.

Open Gov Challenge: Fiscal Openness

With OGP’s 2023-2028 Strategy, OGP members are set to work toward a number of aspirational thematic reforms through the Open Gov Challenge. This section of the Open Gov Guide addresses Fiscal Openness.

Challenge prompt: Advance public oversight and inclusion reforms across the budget and spending cycle.

Actions and reforms covering budgeting, revenue, spending and auditing could include:

  • Promoting participatory mechanisms, targeting underrepresented groups, to inform spending priorities.
  • Combining online and offline tools to promote participation across the budget and spending cycle.

Key Terms

Definitions for key terms such as annual borrowing plan and public debt.

  • Annual Borrowing Plan: These plans are documents prepared by the executive branch, explaining how much and what kinds of debt that is to be contracted during the fiscal year and how it aligns with established borrowing objectives and supports fulfillment of budget priorities.
  • Contingent liabilities: Contingent liabilities are financial obligations that only materialize “if a particular event occurs in the future.” These can be implicit (e.g., a government would likely go into debt to finance a bankrupt local government) or explicit, where a government is contractually required to make payments on a debt (such as debt contracted by a state-owned enterprise).
  • Medium-Term Debt Strategy (MTDS): The MTDS is a document that outlines the government’s plans to borrow, the objectives of borrowing, and plans to manage the debt with the goal of ensuring debt sustainability. A detailed strategy includes information on repayment plans, restructuring plans, current interest rates, maturities, information on current and prospective lenders, and planned actions to reduce or maintain the existing debt burden. Lastly, the MTDS is a living document that benefits from regular updates.
  • Public debt: This is the total amount of debt a country is in from all public sources, including subnational governments and state-owned enterprises. Inclusive of all bonds, loans, internal debt (from national banks), external debt (from other countries, the World Bank or International Monetary Fund, international commercial banks), and public-private partnerships. This may also include implicit and explicit contingent liabilities.

The Evidence

Research suggests debt transparency (though nascent), and fiscal transparency more broadly, can have many positive effects, such as contributing to democratic stability and potential economic growth from increased investments.

  • Debt and fiscal transparency can improve efficiency and effectiveness in public finance management and contribute to fiscal discipline. The ability of parliament, government, and civil society to see the country’s current debt status can create pressure to limit borrowing if the situation is unsustainable. It also provides a basis for collaborative discussions on spending between government, legislature, and civil society.
  • Full awareness of a country’s debt status improves lender confidence. Transparency can reduce a lender’s perceived risk of lending to the country and improve the country’s credit rating, which means that lenders are more certain of a country’s ability to repay loans. In turn, greater investor confidence leads to lower borrowing costs and interest rates.
  • If public oversight of debt contributes to better debt performance, it has very real consequences for human development. For example, prudent debt management can also reduce the risk of high debt service costs or debt crises, which can negatively impact a government’s ability to fund public service delivery. Case studies from the UN Development Programme, the Inter-American Development Bank, and Oxfam illustrate the consequences of debt servicing on social spending, especially for vulnerable populations.

Reform Guidance

The recommendations below represent reforms that national and local governments, representatives of civil society organizations, and others can consider for their action plans and the Open Gov Challenge. The reforms are categorized according to OGP’s principal values: transparency, civic participation, and public accountability. Reforms should be adapted to fit the domestic context, and involve and coordinate with other levels and branches of government.

Reforms across policy areas are also tagged by the estimated degree of difficulty in implementation. Though progress is often not linear, the recommendations have been categorized using these labels to give the reader a sense of how different reforms can work together to raise the ambition of open government approaches.

Recommended Reforms Key

  • Transparency: Transparency empowers citizens to exercise their rights, hold the government accountable, and participate in decision-making processes. Examples of relevant activities include the proactive or reactive publication of government-held information, legal or institutional frameworks to strengthen the right to access information, and disclosing information using open data standards.

  • Civic Participation: When people are engaged, governments and public institutions are more responsive, innovative, and effective. Examples of relevant initiatives include new or improved processes and mechanisms for the public to contribute to decisions, participatory mechanisms to involve underrepresented groups in policy making, and a legal environment that guarantees civil and political rights.

  • Public Accountability: Public accountability occurs when public institutions must justify their actions, act upon requirements and criticisms, and take responsibility for failure to perform according to laws or commitments. Importantly, public accountability means that members of the public can also access and trigger accountability mechanisms. Examples of relevant activities include citizen audits of performance, new or improved mechanisms or institutions that respond to citizen-initiated appeals processes, and improved access to justice.

  • Inclusion: Inclusion is fundamental to achieving more equitable, representative, and accountable policies that truly serve all people. This includes increasing the voice, agency, and influence of historically discriminated or underrepresented groups. Depending on the context, traditionally underrepresented groups may experience discrimination based on gender, sexual identity, race, ethnicity, age, geography, differing ability, legal, or socioeconomic status.

  • Foundational: This tag is used for reforms that are the essential building blocks of a policy area. “Foundational” does not mean low ambition or low impact. These recommendations often establish basic legal frameworks and institutional structures.

  • Intermediate: This tag is used for reforms that are complex and often involve coordination and outreach between branches, institutions, and levels of government, with the public or between countries.

  • Advanced: This tag is used for reforms that close important loopholes to make existing work more effective and impactful. Specifically, “Advanced” reforms are particularly ambitious, innovative or close important loopholes to make existing work more effective, impactful or sustainable. They are often applied in mature environments where they seek to institutionalize a good practice that has already shown results.

  • Executive: The executive branch of government is responsible for designing, implementing, and enforcing laws, policies, and initiatives. It is typically led by the head of state or government, such as a president or prime minister, along with their appointed cabinet members. The executive branch’s functions also include overseeing the day-to-day operations of the government, managing foreign affairs, and directing the country’s armed forces. In democratic systems, the executive branch is accountable to the legislature and the electorate, with its powers and limitations outlined in the constitution or legal framework of the respective country.

  • Legislative: The legislative branch of government is responsible for making laws and regulations and overseeing the functioning of the government. It typically consists of a body of elected representatives, such as a parliament, congress, or assembly, which is tasked with proposing, debating, amending, and ultimately passing legislation. The legislative branch plays a crucial role in representing the interests of the people, as its members are elected to office by the public. In addition to law-making, this branch often holds the power to levy taxes, allocate funds, and conduct certain investigations into matters of public concern. The structure and powers of the legislative branch are usually outlined in a country’s constitution or legal framework, and it serves as a check on the executive and judicial branches to ensure a system of checks and balances within a state.

Examples of Reforms from OGP and Beyond

The following examples are commitments previously made within or beyond OGP that demonstrate elements of the recommendations made above. Debt transparency has so far been relatively unexplored in OGP commitments, even though debt transparency is increasingly considered a critical issue. However, a few countries have submitted commitments related to disclosing debts, particularly in 2022–2024 and 2023–2025 OGP action plans, which could signal that this topic will receive greater focus in years to come.

OGP Reforms
  • CROATIA Published Local Debt Information: Publishes the balance sheets of local and regional units (including a 17-year archive) and includes public debt information in the published annual budget. Also provides updates on the state of public debt at the beginning and end of the fiscal year.
  • GHANA Public Debt Information: Committed to publishing more information on fiscal deficits, the government’s borrowing, and debt management. Though this data is not yet accessible to the public, the commitment is an important first step. Currently, the Ministry of Finance website has a section dedicated to its public debt obligations, complete with an annual borrowing plan, reports, and MTDS.
  • KENYA Public Debt Register: Committed to increasing the amount of public debt information published on the National Treasury website, which now contains data on external debt up to June 2022 (at the time of assessment by OGP’s Independent Reporting Mechanism). Institutions and the media reported using the register for their own reporting and outreach efforts.
  • LITHUANIA Municipal Finance Data Portal: Created a data portal for all municipalities in the country related to state and local revenue and expenses, debts, and unemployment, as well as national budget details. The portal also includes public and private recipients of public funding and the use of tax revenue.
  • MALAWI Parliamentary Oversight of New Loans: Committed to mandating the referral of loan bills to the Parliament’s Budget and Finance Committee, which then presents its findings to the National Assembly to ensure parliamentarians can track new loans. Parliamentarians would also receive training to strengthen their capacity to oversee debt management.
  • MONTENEGRO Local Government Fiscal Transparency: Committed to making data on local governments’ revenues, expenditures, and tax debts more transparent, particularly through an open data format.
Beyond OGP Action Plans
  • CHILE Public Debt Office: Maintains a Public Debt Office that publishes its debt issuances as well as a debt issuance calendar.
  • NIGERIA Debt Management Office: Established its Debt Management Office in 2000, which releases quarterly updates on its debt stock and findings of its bond auctions and publishes data on subnational borrowing.
  • SIERRA LEONE Medium-Term Debt Strategy: Made strides in improving its debt management practices by publishing a 2021–2025 MTDS.
  • THE GAMBIA Directorate of Debt Management: Created a Directorate of Debt Management (DDM), which designs the national public debt strategy, conducts debt sustainability analyses, approves disbursements, and maintains a loan database, among other tasks. The DDM also regularly publishes debt statistics and debt issuance plans.

Who is working on this topic?

Abuja, Nigeria
Albania Albania
Anloga District, Ghana
Argentina Argentina
Armavir, Armenia
Armenia Armenia
Austin, United States
Australia Australia
Basque Country, Spain
Béni Mellal-Khénifra, Morocco
Bogotá, Colombia
Bosnia And Herzegovina
Brazil Brazil
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Bulgaria Bulgaria
Burkina Faso Burkina Faso
Cabo Verde
Canada Canada
Chile Chile
Colombia Colombia
Costa Rica Costa Rica
Côte d'Ivoire Côte D'ivoire
Croatia Croatia
Czech Republic Czech Republic
Denmark Denmark
Dominican Republic Dominican Republic
Ecuador Ecuador
Elgeyo Marakwet, Kenya
Estonia Estonia
Finland Finland
France France
Georgia Georgia
Germany Germany
Ghana Ghana
Glasgow, United Kingdom
Greece Greece
Guatemala Guatemala
Gyumri, Armenia
Honduras Honduras
Indonesia Indonesia
Ireland Ireland
Israel Israel
Italy Italy
Jalisco, Mexico
Jordan Jordan
Kaduna State, Nigeria
Kenya Kenya
Khoni, Georgia
Kutaisi, Georgia
Kyrgyz Republic Kyrgyz Republic
La Libertad, Peru
Latvia Latvia
Liberia Liberia
Lithuania Lithuania
Madrid, Spain
Malawi Malawi
Malta Malta
Mexico Mexico
Mongolia Mongolia
Morocco Morocco
Nandi, Kenya
Netherlands Netherlands
New Zealand New Zealand
Nigeria Nigeria
North Macedonia
Osasco, Brazil
Ozurgeti, Georgia
Panama Panama
Papua New Guinea
Paraguay Paraguay
Paris, France
Peru Peru
Philippines Philippines
Portugal Portugal
Quintana Roo, Mexico
Republic of Korea Republic Of Korea
Republic of Moldova Republic Of Moldova
Romania Romania
San Pedro Garza García, Mexico
Santa Catarina, Brazil
São Paulo, Brazil
Scotland, United Kingdom
Sekondi-Takoradi, Ghana
Semarang, Indonesia
Senegal Senegal
Seoul, South Korea
Shama, Ghana
Sierra Leone Sierra Leone
Slovak Republic Slovak Republic
South Africa South Africa
South Cotabato, Philippines
Spain Spain
Sri Lanka Sri Lanka
Sweden Sweden
Tbilisi, Georgia
Timișoara, Romania
Tunisia Tunisia
Ukraine Ukraine
United Kingdom United Kingdom
United States United States
Uruguay Uruguay
Vanadzor, Armenia
Wassa Amenfi East, Ghana

This list reflects members with commitments in the “Fiscal Openness” policy area of the Data Dashboard.

Active OGP Partners

The following organizations have recently worked on this issue in the context of OGP at the national or international level. They may have additional insights on the topic. Please note that this list is not exhaustive. If you are interested in national-level initiatives, please contact

Other Experts

The following organizations specialize in debt and debt-related topics, such as fiscal openness.

Benchmarking Data

The OGP 2023-2028 Strategy sets out the Open Gov Challenge and aims to provide clear benchmarks for performance through reliable data.

While benchmarks for individual countries and Open Gov Guide recommendations are not yet integrated, for this chapter, interested individuals may rely on the following data sets:

  • The Global Debt Database, hosted by the International Monetary Fund, collects and aggregates debt statistics across 10 indicators from 190 countries.
  • The World Bank maintains the Debt Reporting Heat Map, which outlines the level of transparency of governments’ debt information and is updated annually.
  • The Debt Transparency Monitor, published annually by the United States Agency for International Development, creates a score for governments based on the answers to 14 questions on the transparency of a country’s debt information.
  • The United States Department of State releases annual Fiscal Transparency Reports, which assess the level of government transparency on a number of fiscal indicators (including debt) and prepares individual reports for assessed countries.
  • IBP conducts the Open Budget Survey, which evaluates the degree of transparency, public participation, and oversight of budgets in over 120 countries. The survey also covers details related to debt, new borrowing, and interest costs for the budget year and prior year.

Guidance & Standards

While the list below is not exhaustive, it aims to provide a range of recommendations, standards, and analysis to guide reform in this policy area.

  • The World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have published guidance on how lenders can increase their own debt transparency and the Overseas Development Institute created this report to discuss how creditors can increase lending transparency.
  • The World Bank’s Debt Transparency in Developing Economies report discusses the major policy challenges facing all stakeholders in developing economies’ debt and proposes recommendations to alleviate them. In addition, the World Bank’s Debt and Fiscal Risks Toolkit provides practical guidance on developing several debt-related documents, including the MTDS. It pairs well with the InterAmerican Development Bank’s Toolkit to identify, measure, monitor, and conduct risk management on contingent liabilities.
  • The IMF has several resources with recommendations on this topic, such as publications on aligning legal frameworks with good practices, exploring reform options to improve public debt transparency, and strengthening public debt transaction disclosure practices.
  • IBP publishes many resources related to debt alongside its debt-related data collection as part of the Open Budget Survey. IBP also publishes a calculator tool that helps countries predict the outcome of the next survey, which can be used to guide reforms to improve budget accountability as a whole and public debt policies and processes in particular.
Open Government Partnership