Open Budgets: Backsliding and the use of budget data

Alan Hudson
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January 31, 2018

Alan Hudson, Executive Director


TL/DR: Greater attention to the use and impact of budget data – as well as its availability – might support more sustainable progress towards more open budgets that facilitate the tracking and shaping of public resource flows.


The launch of the International Budget Partnership’s Open Budget Survey has been a big date in the calendar of campaigners for transparency and open government since its launch in 2006. This year is no exception, with the survey findings published yesterday (30th January) revealing significant backsliding, particularly amongst countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Faced with these findings, the International Budget Partnership (IBP) and other organizations working to support progress towards more open fiscal governance, are confronted with a challenge: understanding why backsliding is occurring, and figuring out how to sustain progress towards more open budgets.

This post offers one explanatory hypothesis which we think could be useful to explore. That is, that the risk of backsliding is greater when there is less use of, and demand for, budget data. And, conversely, that when governments make available data that citizens and other players in the accountability ecosystem can really use to track and shape the flow of public resources in relation to problems they care about, this can set in motion a virtuous circle of data availability, data use, and impact.

Backsliding on open budgets is certainly a cause for concern, not least in the context of challenges to democracy and open governance in many countries around the world, including the USA. But the release of the 2017 Open Budget Survey (OBS) also presents an opportunity for organizations focused on open fiscal governance to consider whether it might be worth giving greater attention to questions of data use and impact, in addition to assessing levels of budget transparency and the scope for participation.

A simple and straightforward approach to broadening the analysis in this way would be to select a number of countries – backsliders and countries that are making steady progress towards more open budgets – and explore who is using budget data, what are they using it for, and whether it is providing them with useful information and insights. This would be in line with the helpful analysis in box 2.2, p.16 of the OBS, which focuses, by way of example, on three simple questions that people might turn to budget data to address: how much does my government propose to spend on health care?; is my government implementing the budget as it was approved by the legislature?; and, what is the government trying to achieve with the money it collects and spends?

A more dynamic and engaging approach would involve undertaking and supporting action research in specific countries. This would mean: working with stakeholders from civil society, government, and other actors in a given country to identify specific questions (or sectoral challenges) in relation to which they want to make use of data about the flow of public resources; and then supporting those stakeholders as they actively explore, through a structured action research and learning process, whether they are able to find the data that they need.

Such an approach would build on IBP South Africa’s pioneering bottom-up open budget survey, reported on in IBP’s Annual Report for 2014. In this initiative, IBP and local partners’ starting point was specific challenges in the sanitation and education sectors. They used the bottom-up survey to assess whether civil society organizations were able to find the budget data that they needed to track resource flows to that sector (See also this piece from Public Service Accountability Monitor, noting that despite high open budget ratings in South Africa it can be hard to find the data that is needed to track the flow of public resources in a suitably disaggregated manner).

This approach would also build on the survey conducted by IBP in 2016 on how civil society uses budget information. However, the approach we are proposing would go beyond a survey, emphasizing instead action research, accompanying the efforts of various stakeholders to track resources in relation to specific challenges. This is an approach which has strong similarities with our recent work with Making All Voices Count grantees in Africa and Asia. Such an approach might fit well with the action research planned as part of IBP’s emerging Strengthening Public Accountability for Results and Knowledge (SPARK) program.

The approaches outlined above – both the dynamic action research variant, and the more static assessment of who is using budget data, for what and with what impact – provide ways of exploring the hypothesis that progress is more likely, and backsliding is less likely, when there is not only the capacity and willingness to produce key budget documents and the data therein, but when stakeholders – including government stakeholders – find the data useful and as a result express their demand for continued, and additional, publication. This can play an important role in building and strengthening coalitions pushing for greater transparency and openness – for instance through the Open Government Partnership – and enabling such coalitions to shift the political dynamics and incentives for reform.

We’re looking forward to discussing, with IBP and others, why budget backsliding is occurring, and what might be done to address it. A stronger focus on the use and impact of data would build on the recognition on p.14 of this year’s Open Budget Survey that “no one cares about budget documents or transparency scores per se”. What really matters, as IBP make clear, is the budget information that is made available for citizens – as well as other stakeholders in the accountability ecosystem – so that they can track and shape the use of public resources.

Reshaping the Open Budget Survey to focus additional attention on the use and impact of budget data would be a bold move, but one that has the potential to support virtuous cycles of data availability, use, and impact, and – by shifting incentives and nudging the political dynamics – to drive faster progress towards open budgets that really do transform lives. We’d be happy to help, facilitating collaborative learning and action in and across countries about the use of budget data, or, more ambitiously, about the use of joined-up data on aid, extractives revenues, contracts, illicit financial flows, tax and – most importantly – results!

Global Integrity’s work on data, use and impact

At Global Integrity, we think that assessments that focus on the availability of data, or the space for participation, are most helpful when complemented by assessments of the usefulness, use, and impact of data in relation to specific problems or challenges that local stakeholders confront. This is the angle we’ve taken in our “Treasure Hunts” work on fiscal governance in Mexico and plan to take as regards the use of open contracting data. Our work on governance assessments is also evolving in this way, as we increasingly focus on generating information that is useful for local stakeholders, rather than simply conducting cross-country comparisons against benchmarks of assumed best practice. (See, for instance,“Toward governance assessments 2.0”).

In a similar vein, we’re pleased to be playing our part in the evolution of the open data agenda, working with colleagues at organizations including the Open Data Charter (see their 2018 focus on “publishing with purpose”), the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, the Latin American Open Data Initiative (see Fabrizio Scrollini’s recent piece on the impact gap, echoing Tim Davies’ earlier comments on open data as strategy), and the Open Contracting Partnership, to support and encourage a stronger focus on the use of data to address specific problems.

As a contribution to this evolving debate, we set out a proposal for collectively exploring “how data can make a difference”, an exploration which could initially involve organizations focused on open fiscal governance, perhaps with the Open Gov Hub and its networks providing a suitable forum. To us and many others, greater attention to the use of data offers a way of trying to close the “impact gap”, so that data – including budget data – really does make a difference. (See also this awesome piece recently published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review on “Can measures change the world?” which, amongst other things, makes the important point that the path from data to impact does not always lead through accountability).

Alan Hudson
Alan Hudson
Executive Director

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