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Lessons from Reformers: Municipal budget and spending data for water in the Netherlands

Lecciones de los Reformadores: Datos de presupuesto y gastos municipales de agua en los Países Bajos

Leçons à Tirer des Réformateurs : Budget municipal et données sur les dépenses municipales pour l’eau aux Pays-Bas

This case study was originally posted in the OGP Global Report.

Starting in 2015, Dutch local governments began providing financial data through a web portal at www.openspending.nl. However, this data was initially only available at the aggregate level, making it difficult to access critical detailed and local information. In 2016, as part of its action plan, the Netherlands committed to improving the availability of more detailed data (such as budgets, annual reports, income, expenditure and revenue) in a machine-readable format. While the commitment extended beyond water, water management authorities were noted specifically in the action plan.

The focus of this commitment has been providing necessary support to local municipalities and regional authorities, including water authorities. The commitment called for three milestones:

  1. Develop resources, including a handbook, an instruction video, and a promotional video;
  2. Implement three pilots with local governments to add context to open data; and
  3. Host two national workshops.

The Netherlands achieved substantial progress on these milestones and completed many on time. A comprehensive handbook that provides guidance to data providers on how to share data has been distributed to all stakeholders. Additionally, the videos were completed and the first national workshop was held as part of the Netherlands’ “How Open Festival.”

This commitment made significant progress increasing transparency of the governance process and publishing information about how water management authorities chose to invest their funds. This provides information that can increase accountability, enable advocacy, and create space for participation. The IRM recommended expanding this data provision, stating that “the government should consider developing a participatory budgeting interface.”

This experience provided lessons that may be useful for other OGP countries looking to make similar commitments:

  • Prioritize data in response to demand: The basis for this commitment was specific requests from data users (i.e. citizens, journalists, and others). Governments often have access to massive amounts of information about water and sanitation. By prioritizing data that has been specifically requested, the impact of investments in open data is assured.
  • Start small: While the original commitment called for participation of 75 decentralized authorities in 2016 and 150 decentralized authorities in 2017, this aggressive approach turned out to be infeasible. In 2017, the relevant milestone was revised to focus on three targets in order “to gain experience on a smaller scale with improving the quality and the scale-up potential.” Sharing financial data, especially data around something as critical as water services, can be politically sensitive. Starting with a small pilot can build a strong case to demonstrate that data-sharing information can be a political opportunity, rather than a risk.
  • Prepare for accelerated progress: The goal of this commitment was to improve public accountability and participation “because users know how money is spent in their government and they can participate and better use the right to challenge.” Recognizing that a key role of opening the data is to encourage participation, commitments to increase transparency should anticipate the corresponding increase in participation. Effective commitments at this level can be paired with commitments to increase platforms for participation at the same time.

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