Role of Civil Society Budget Work

Civil society organizations (CSOs) play an important role in public budgeting. They can help improve budget policies by providing information on public needs and priorities through their connections with citizens, communities, and sectors. CSOs (along with legislators, auditors, the media, and the broader public) also can play an important role in holding the executive accountable for how it uses public resources. When CSOs and others lack access to budget information or opportunities to engage in budget processes, it opens the door for the executive to choose unpopular or inappropriate programs, waste money, and allow or engage in corruption.

When CSOs can combine an in-depth knowledge of a policy issue, such as health or education, with a solid knowledge of budgets and an effective advocacy strategy they can positively influence policy decisions. Strengthening civil society’s ability to analyze budgets and participate effectively can play an integral role not only in policies and service delivery but also in constructing a more open and participatory democratic society.

By engaging in the budget process from formulation through implementation and audit, civil society can:

  • contribute critical information on the public’s needs and priorities that can lead to stronger policy choices;
  • draw more people into the debate by collecting, summarizing into easily understandable formats, and spreading budget information;
  • train members of the public to understand and analyze government budgets themselves;
  • supplement government’s capacity to budget effectively by providing technical support;
  • give an independent opinion on budget proposals and implementation;
  • hold public officials accountable for using public resources efficiently and effectively to achieve desired outcomes; and
  • develop important new allies in government, including program managers in government agencies, legislators, and auditors.

However, the ability of civil society to participate in the budget discussion can be thwarted by legal, institutional, and political barriers. This, combined with the general lack of publicly available information on budget issues has seriously hindered the efforts of national and local organizations attempting to participate in the debate on the use of public resources. Although the challenges remaining are substantial, there is increasing energy pushing governments to open their budgets through information and participation.

Support for Open Budgets Is on the Rise

Just 20 years ago, the prevailing wisdom promoted by leading international development institutions was that public budgets should be drafted and managed by the finance ministry and take place largely behind closed doors. Civil society and other nongovernment actors were to be shut out of the process, and even legislatures were to play only an extremely circumscribed role. A transparent and inclusive budgeting process was considered inefficient at best and economically dangerous at worst. The penalties for ignoring such wisdom, it was argued, were severe. Markets would fluctuate wildly, investors would seek stability elsewhere, deficits would balloon with pork barrel spending, and economic growth would plummet to the detriment of all citizens.

How the world has changed. Common wisdom has shifted 180 degrees: all major international institutions now promote fiscal transparency as good practice, and there is a growing acceptance that the active engagement of citizens, civil society, and the media in budget processes is a good thing. A transparent and inclusive budget process is now seen as essential to facilitating investment, ensuring efficient outcomes, and holding government accountable for managing public resources. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) are now champions of open fiscal systems and practices. Recently they have even begun trumpeting the benefits of citizen participation in the budget.

This is good news. Between 2008 and 2012 the average score for the 40 countries included in both rounds of IBP’s Open Budget Index — the only regular, comparative, global measure of budget transparency — rose 10 percent. Whereas we previously looked exclusively to Europe and the U.S. for best practice with regard to transparency and participation, many countries in the developing world are catching up. Some have become global leaders in open and accountable budgeting. Brazil and Timor Leste provide real-time expenditure information down to the municipal level; Mexico maintains one of the most impressive and accessible fiscal information portals, including the salaries and assets of public servants; India and the Philippines deploy thousands of trained citizens to monitor the provision of public services and entitlements; and South Africa publishes federal budget documentation to rival any other country.

We appear to be in the midst of what could be called a spreadsheet revolution, driven by the fundamental principle that citizens have the right to hold government to account for its use of public resources.

Despite such meaningful and broad progress, there is still some distance to go. The average score for the 100 countries included in the Open Budget Index 2012 is still below 50 out of 100. 20 countries included in the Open Budget Index do not even publish the government’s budget proposal, the most basic document outlining government plans for raising and spending resources to meet the country’s needs. At the current rate of improvement, it will take over a generation for the majority of countries in the Open Budget Survey to reach even moderate levels of budget transparency. The challenge facing us is how to broaden the gains that have been made and increase the pace of progress.