Follow the Money: Putting People & Problems First

Jorge Florez
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By Jorge Florez — October 8, 2015.

How do citizens use budget information to address particular problems they deem important? For us this is a key question for the fiscal transparency movement and one which, with some interesting exceptions (see here, here and here), has not received the attention it deserves. If citizens are not able to get a full picture of the flow of public resources and use that information to follow and shape the way public money is used, then governance is not open. Efforts to open fiscal governance need to give greater attention to data use and users’ needs – as well as data availability – if their promise to bring about significant change in people’s lives is to be realized.

Recent reviews about  transparency, participation, and data on fiscal governance (see this, this and this) highlight the progress made towards disclosing budget information and improving ways to deliver it. Yet those reviews also identify gaps in existing knowledge about fiscal governance: How is opening up information empowering citizens? How is open data being used to move this process forward? And how, and under what conditions, does transparency and participation lead to improved fiscal governance? Others question current approaches to assessing participation and call for caution in assuming straightforward relationships among participation, transparency, accountability, and development outcomes.

What is clear, and has been for many years, is that transparency and participation are neither magic bullets nor things that can be taken out of the equation. The application of these concepts has the potential to transform the way citizens and governments address the challenges they face and as such each – and the relationship between them – needs to be further understood and tried out. Recently we have been going deeper in trying to understand these issues with citizens, around real problems, and in particular contexts.

On the one hand, as part of our Follow the Money work in Mexico we have developed a participatory methodology to assess whether people are able to use information to get a full picture of the flow of public resources and put it to use in relation to specific priority issues. We will be trying out this method – Tracking My Taxes! – just before the OGP Summit, with the aim of delivering insights about the way citizens interact with budget information, to refine our methods, and to inform public policy and citizen efforts on the subject.

On the other hand, last week we presented an idea to the Knight News Challenge, in collaboration with Open Knowledge (UK and Germany), to use our citizen-centric assessments as starting points to catalyse innovative projects targeted at transforming available budget data into interesting, easy, and impactful information. We invite you to take a look at our idea and give us feedback or ping us if you are interested in discussing about it.

Our work on fiscal governance is focused on understanding  and easing the processes that lead – or can lead – from more available information, to citizens using it to press for changes that can improve their lives. Ultimately, what we’d like to see, is countries make progress not only on making budget data available, but on providing citizens with the information they need, in the formats they require, to use it to follow and shape the flow of public money so as to address real problems they face. Stay tuned for more on following the money and tracking your taxes!

Image from: thelifeline.com

Jorge Florez
Jorge Florez
Manager, Fiscal Governance

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