Opening Up On Fiscal Governance: Our feedback on OSF’s new strategy

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March 27, 2018

Alan Hudson, Executive Director (and the Global Integrity team)

Over the last few months, we’ve spent quite a bit of time providing feedback on donors’ strategies as regards transparency and open governance. Here are our thoughts about the Hewlett Foundation’s sub-strategies on “Active Citizens and Accountable Governments”, and our feedback on the associated draft learning strategy. And here is our blogpost from February about DFID’s revised transparency strategy.

We’re excited that more donors – including members of the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (TAI) – are opening up their strategies. More openness about strategies, their implementation and their impact has the potential to support learning, strengthen collaboration, and drive greater collective impact amongst organizations working to promote transparency and accountability.

So last month we were thrilled to see the Open Society Foundations make public their fiscal governance strategy, through two blogposts on the shifting landscape and what’s new in OSF’s work on open fiscal governance, and a strategy document that packs an impressive punch in just five pages.

There’s a lot to like in OSF’s new strategy. Beyond the hugely welcome fact that the strategy has been made public, there are four aspects that we were particularly struck by.

First off, the serious attention given to reviewing the shifting landscape of governance. Such a review is an essential step in any strategy process, particularly given the major, recent setbacks as regards open governance in countries including the US and the UK, closing civic space around the world, and dwindling support for multilateral action on issues including climate change, human rights and global trade.

We found it refreshing that the review of the shifting landscape focused on changes in the real world, rather than limiting itself to the evolution of thinking about governance and development. We appreciated the attention the review gave to the encouraging progress that is being made as regards tax justice and financial secrecy. We were pleased to see reference to the various national manifestations of a growing global anti-corruption movement, in countries including Brazil, Guatemala, Romania, Slovakia, South Africa and Ukraine. And personally, as a Board member of both, I was thrilled to see the innovative work of the Accountability Lab and BudgIT get a special mention!

We were slightly disappointed that the review did not consider the possibility that learning, adaptation and major progress against poverty can take place in environments where open governance is at a premium, a possibility highlighted by Yuen Yuen Ang’s recent work on “How China escaped the poverty trap”, including in an event we held at the Open Gov Hub in September (see here for a note from that eventhere and here for a couple of recent contrasting pieces that caught my eye on China’s governance model, and here for a thought-provoking piece from the Economist on the open/closed divide).

Second, the plan to better integrate work on tax and budgeting, as part of a larger portfolio on equitable and accountable fiscal systems. This as a very welcome effort to break down the silos that can hamper effective collaboration – and data use – across the fiscal value chain, or, put differently, the follow the money system. This is a move that we – along with a number of other leading organizations working on various elements of the fiscal value chain – have been encouraging for a number of years, including through our lead role in the Follow the Money Network (rolling notes here), and through our work on fiscal governance and open contracting. So we’re excited to see OSF take an important step in this direction.

That said, we would like to see still more ambition, and movement towards an integrated approach which looks across the fiscal value chain from resource inputs (including taxation, development assistance and extractives revenues), through resource allocation and spending (budgets, procurement and contracts), not forgetting resource leakages and illicit financial flows, and leading to service delivery results in particular sectors. OSF, with expertise, investments and relationships across the fiscal value chain, at global and national levels, is uniquely well-placed to lead the way on this sort of systemic approach to opening fiscal governance, joining the dots – and helping citizens and governments to join the dots – to maximize the impact of public resources.

Third, the emphasis on the use of data, and, more specifically, people-centered data use for accountability. Our work focuses on supporting the use of data, in locally-led processes of innovation, learning and adaptation, that have the potential to shift the political dynamics and incentives around governance-related challenges. So, we have been very pleased to see the open data agenda evolve in recent years to increasingly focus on the use of data, by particular users, to address specific problems (see for instance the 2018 strategy of the Open Data Charter). And we’ve been keen to encourage progress in this direction, across the fiscal value chain, in relation to the use of budget data, and as regards the potential for virtuous circles of data availability, use and impact to address governance-related challenges. So, it’s great to see OSF increasingly focused on the use of data, for accountability, particularly at country level, and especially to see the emphasis on not just testing the hypothesis that transparency leads to accountability, but also working alongside partners to support the use of data to drive accountability and impact.

Beyond making more explicit the potential of supporting data use in an integrated manner across the fiscal value chain – including in relation to natural resource governance, and open contracting – there are two inter-related issues that we feel might have merited additional emphasis. One, that the data that is currently available is not necessarily the data that potential users need, and that therefore efforts to support data use need to go beyond encouraging the use and uptake of existing data. And two, that involving potential users at an early stage, so that they can help to determine and signal what data they would find useful to address the problems they are trying to solve, might be very useful (see, for instance, our work on Treasure Hunts, which involves potential users exploring the data landscape). On both these points, we are encouraged by the description of the new multi-country multi-year partnership with other TAI donors, which suggests that these points – as well as the importance of making the connections between country level needs and global and local advocacy on transparency – are already part of OSF’s thinking.

Fourth, the extremely welcome and suitably ambitious emphasis on learning. As an organization that is focused on exploring the value of data-driven and learning-centered approaches to addressing governance-related challenges, the emphasis on learning – and learning as support for effective implementation and greater impact – is music to our ears. OSF’s new strategy on fiscal governance includes the stark acknowledgement that “lack of evidence, well-tested models, and widespread dissemination of lessons learned are three central challenges that cut across all of the fiscal governance program’s portfolios and grantees”.

It then sets out a number of steps that are being taken to help to address those gaps, to strengthen field capacity for monitoring, evaluation and learning, to increase the learning capacity of the OSF team, and to invest in demand-driven and action-oriented research and evidence as regards the journey toward more open fiscal governance. These steps include: making the strategy public; boosting the monitoring, evaluation and learning capacity of OSF’s fiscal governance program; supporting and encouraging grantees’ efforts to become better learning organizations; and committing to a four-year independent strategy evaluation. The explicit commitment to continued close collaboration and coordination with OSF’s TAI donor peers is also hugely welcome.

So, there’s really lots to like in what is a very impressive commitment to putting learning at the center of OSF’s fiscal governance program. However, we would have liked to see a little more emphasis not only on boosting OSF’s own capacity for learning, and helping OSF’s grantees to be better learning organizations, but also on helping OSF grantees to support and strengthen the capacity of other organizations who may not be OSF grantees but who are on the front-line of dealing with governance challenges (see our blogpost on Learning and Power: Whose learning and adaptation counts? and our Learning to Make All Voices Count work). And, we’d have liked to see a more explicit commitment to strengthening the capacity of organizations, not just to figure out what technical solutions might be most appropriate in their contexts, but also to navigate and shape the complex political dynamics and incentives that are at the heart of governance-related challenges.

There’s more to like in the strategy too; the new focus on corruption, the emphasis on defending civic space, and the continued commitment to invest in multilateral processes. And there are intriguing comments about the continued reliance on international NGOs to help deliver on OSF’s plans, and the intent to work more closely with OSF’s regional offices. We have more to say on all of these areas; if this post has piqued your interested, our full unfiltered comments are here. We hope that our feedback will help to inform the evolution of donors’ strategies, and encourage further steps towards collaborative learning and more effective action across the transparency and open governance agenda. Kudos to OSF for joining the growing list of donors who not only champion transparency and open governance, but who also make their own strategies open!

Alan Hudson
Executive Director

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