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Backsliding on Budget Transparency: A Wake-up Call to Tackle Political Drivers

This blog is modified from remarks made by OGP Chief Executive Officer Sanjay Pradhan at the World Bank’s launch of the Open Budget Survey 2017 on January 20th, 2018.

Yesterday marked  the global release of the Open Budget Survey 2017 – the world’s only comparative and independent assessment of fiscal transparency, participation and oversight.  The results are troubling.  For the first time since the International Budget Partnership (IBP) began to collect a data through its Open Budget Index (OBI), the 2017 survey finds that the global level of budget transparency has actually fallen (especially in Sub-Saharan Africa), after a decade of steady, albeit incremental increases.  Scores on participation and oversight continue to be low.  Together, they convey a troubling picture of poor and declining public access, participation and oversight of the budget – a decline in the ability of people around the globe to influence and oversee how their money is raised and spent. It remains to be seen if these results are one-off or reflective of of a medium-term trend.  But these unprecedented results this year, combined with dramatically troubling global trends, raise some important concerns about the deeper political economy drivers that will be useful to examine and tackle in future work.

Deeper country-level research will examine what has led to the decline in budget transparency.  But on the surface, troubling global trends could suggest possible political economy drivers that these results reflect.  

  • On the supply-side, Freedom House’s recent report warns that the world’s nations are becoming more autocratic, more dictatorial, less open, and more repressive.  Does the rise of authoritarianism reflect an increasing imperviousness and indifference of governments to make themselves open and accountable to their citizenry?  If the OBI plateaus off across countries after they reach a modest threshold of transparency that initially respond to external incentives or donor pressures, does this reflect the imperative to generate new domestic, demand-side pressures for greater transparency and accountability?

  • On the demand-side, there are troubling signs that declining civic space may be impinging on the ability of civil society organizations (CSOs) to monitor and hold government to account.  Civicus reports that basic civic freedoms have been attacked in over 100 countries.  This would underscore the imperative of improving the enabling environment of CSOs beyond the knee-jerk tendency of development partners to prioritize minor changes, like financing a few NGOs to oversee budgets, or focusing only on issues of NGO registration and financing from foreign sources.  It calls for deeper reforms targeting the fundamental freedoms of assembly and expression that empower citizens, civil society, journalists and public interest groups to mobilize, broaden coalitions for collective action, express their views freely and hold government to account. The OBI findings also reveal weak demand from legislatures that needs to be more frontally tackled –  40% of parliaments surveyed didn’t make an amendment to the budget, and more than a third didn’t request audit reports.

The OBI findings present a wake-up call for donors, because the budgets that donors are directly or indirectly financing have very poor and declining access, participation, and oversight by citizens and other stakeholders. Donors have traditionally found solace and comfort in supporting technocratic public finance management reforms, underpinned by fiscal indicators like OBI or PEFA.  The OBI findings blow this technocratic cover for donors who felt that run-of-the-mill public finance management projects were sufficient to assure them that their money was being well used, irrespective of the malaise in the broader governance environment which now clearly takes center-stage.  

In the context of sobering results from OBI, as well as other indices, the question is: who will make change happen?  The final chapter of the IBP report calls on government, oversight institutions, and civil society to take corrective actions.  But this begs the question of whether there is willingness to address the challenges:  how do we help tackle deeper political economy drivers that may contribute to these troubling trends?  How do we support coalitions of reformers who can overcome these challenges against vested interests?

And that is where country-owned platforms like the Open Government Partnership (OGP) provide hope.  Even in challenging governance contexts, we find that reformers from government and civil society are able to join forces and forge coalitions to make government more open and participatory.  While OGP countries have their share of problems, they had on average (even after removing OECD countries from the sample) twice the score on OBI that non-OGP countries had on transparency and participation, one-and-a-half times the score on oversight, and they declined one-third less than non-OGP countries.  Within OGP, there are several inspiring examples of transformative commitments on fiscal transparency, participation and oversight made by reformers in government and civil society in OGP national action plans – commitments that empower citizens to access, shape and oversee the budget.   

  • In Georgia, citizens use the Budget Monitor platform – collaboratively developed by the State Audit Office and civil society – to visualize how public funds are spent online, report cases of corruption, and identify which government agencies they would like to see audited.

  • Nigeria is trying to bring the budget closer to citizens by embedding citizen participation throughout the budget cycle, including pre-budget statements, budget proposals, public hearings in the legislature, and then mobilizing citizen feedback through NGOs on implementation and service delivery, so that the government can take corrective actions.   A number of subnational governments in Nigeria and other countries are leveraging the OGP platform to undertake participatory budgeting where citizens directly set budget priorities.

  • In the Philippines, government disclosed spending for roads and schools online, often geo-coded.  Civil society then mobilized citizen feedback with the Commission of Audit through the use of social audits to see if these roads existed, mandating government response and saving potentially $300,000 per ghost road.  

These are inspirational reforms that make the budget more citizen-centric and show a more hopeful way to reshape citizen-state engagement around the budget.  But they are too few and far between.  We need government, civil society, and donor partners to more systematically support these country-owned platforms, coalitions, and action plans to scale up these transformative reforms so that they can constitute a countervailing force to the troubling trends that we see globally, including in fiscal transparency.

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