By Jorge Florez — November 23, 2015.
Can citizens find and make use of the data they need to track the use of their taxes – to follow the money – in relation to particular issues? On October 24th and 25th, we gathered 10 teams of Mexican citizens interested in transparency and open government – but not experts on these issues or in fiscal governance – to see how far they could get in trying to get a full picture about the flow of public resources, from the national budget to the delivery of specific sectoral outputs.
Teams competed in five head to head challenges to follow the money in relation to the following policy issues:
- Recovery of public spaces: a program aimed at delivering improvements to the available infrastructure and community activities to promote its use.
- Scholarships for higher education: one of the scholarships awarded using resources from Mexico’s national budget.
- Infrastructure for indigenous communities: a social program that seeks to support projects prioritized by the most vulnerable indigenous communities in the country.
- Healthy communities: a program with the objective of preventing illnesses by promoting healthy conducts in selected municipalities.
- Subsidies for migrant communities: an innovative program in which the Mexican government gives 3 Mexican pesos for each one sent back to Mexico by expats, with these resources used to support projects in selected communities around the country.
In each of these challenges participants were challenged to find and use publicly available information to answer a set of six questions that will enable them to follow the money (see figure), to map the route they followed, and to make recommendations about what could be done to make it easier for citizens to follow the money.
A first step for answering our question is assessing if teams were able to find the information they deemed necessary to answer each of these questions. How far were participants able to get in finding useful information needed to follow the money? The answer varies according to participants’ skills and the characteristics of the information available for the different programs. The results reported by teams – summarized in the table below – show that despite Mexico’s progress in fiscal transparency, there is important room for improvement in the publication of information about the budget and its use to deliver public services.
It is important to note that there were no limits on the information participants could use. Participants made use of to the budget transparency website, the open data portal, the websites of different government agencies, FOI requests, and other public resources. Our goal was not to assess specific websites or other transparency tools (some work has been done on that, see Socialtic here and this paper on budget transparency), but to identify what kind of information is needed to follow the money from a citizen perspective, whether it is available or not, and if the way in which it is presented enables citizens to effectively use it.
By using the reports made by the participants, their recommendations, and our own assessment of how far it is possible to follow the money, we aim to identify what kinds of problems were faced by participants, what kind of informational gaps were found, what skills were needed to follow the money, and to use this information to develop policy recommendations to inform efforts to increase transparency around the use of public resources.
Working closely with the Instituto Mexicano de Competitividad (IMCO) and the Instituto Nacional de Acceso a la Información Pública y Protección de Datos Personales (INAI), we will proceed to analyze the results from this exercise and to support similar work on subnational governments. We are also exploring the potential of making use of this sort of approach in other countries with the aim of informing the development of more policy commitments on open fiscal governance that go beyond data availability to say more about the value and use of that data.