Governments could easily be more transparent: Key findings of the Open Budget Survey

Oct 20, 2010

The 2010 Open Budget Survey finds that:

  • Budget transparency is generally improving,
  • The overall state of transparency remains poor,
  • That  dramatic improvements could made if governments simply released information that they already have at their disposal.

The Survey’s key findings follow below. Read more detail here.

If you are interested in detailed information about specific countries, click here.

Finding 1: The overall state of budget transparency is poor. A small number of countries have open budgets while a large number provide grossly insufficient budget information.

Only 20 of the 94 countries in the 2010 Open Budget Survey (OBS) had scores above 60 and can be characterized as providing their citizens with enough budget data to enable them to develop a comprehensive analysis and understanding of their national budgets.

About one-third of the countries (33) provide some information, scoring between 41 and 60, though this information is far less than what is required to obtain a clear understanding of the budget and to provide a check on the executive.

Even when budget documents are made public, essential information is often absent. Only 17 of the countries examined, for instance, provide comprehensive budget information on policies intended to alleviate poverty. Another 41 countries provide no information on extra-budgetary funds in their Executive’s Budget Proposals even though, on average, extra-budgetary funds account for nearly 40 percent of central government expenditures in transitional and developing countries.

Finding 2: The general trend toward open budgets is nonetheless favorable. Budget transparency is improving substantially, especially among countries that provided little information in the past.

The series of Surveys (2006, 2008, and 2010) record substantial, improvements in budget transparency practices over the past four years.

Progress has been particularly notable among several countries that previously performed very poorly on the Open Budget Index (OBI) and are generally regarded as challenged by poverty and instability. The average OBI score for the 14 countries that performed worst in the OBI 2006 has gone up from 25 to 40 in the OBI 2010. Notable improvers include Egypt, Mongolia, and Uganda. Similar improvements were also found in some of the countries assessed for the first time in the OBI 2008, including Afghanistan, Liberia, and Yemen.

Some of these governments — especially those that scored very low in earlier rounds of the OBI — largely achieved these improvements by taking one basic and inexpensive step: they began to make available on their websites the budget documents that they previously produced but had made available only to internal government audiences or to donors. In many cases, these governments began to publish their Executives’ Budget Proposals.

Finding 3: Budget engagement by the audit institutions and the Legislatures is weak

The Open Budget Survey 2010 finds that budget oversight is weak in a significant number of countries assessed.  Legislatures in such countries often do not have adequate powers to amend the budget developed by the executive and are not provided sufficient time to comprehensively assess the Executive’s Budget Proposal before approving it into law. In only 27 countries do legislatures have unlimited powers to amend the budget presented to them. In 22 countries, legislators are provided with the Executive’s Budget Proposal less than six weeks before the start of the budget year, thus not leaving them enough time to engage with an Executive that often took up to 18 months to prepare the budget.

Finding 4: There are many simple steps to opening up budgets that governments are failing to undertake.

In certain respects, improving a country’s budget system can be a complex, technical task. It can require creating new data systems or producing new reports for which the lack of technical expertise can be a barrier. But the Survey finds that budgets around the world can be opened up considerably if countries start with some relatively simple actions.

Most notably, governments are producing a surprisingly large number of documents for internal purposes or for their donors that they are not publishing. Of the budget documents that surveyed governments fail to publish, 42 percent are in fact produced but only used for internal purposes. Simply releasing such documents would improve budget transparency exponentially.

The SAIs and legislatures are not using their existing legal authority to the fullest. SAIs typically score much lower on OBI questions assessing the comprehensiveness of their published Audit Reports than they do on those assessing their independence. This suggests that, even given their institutional limitations, SAIs could publish more information in their audit reports. SAIs can also do more to involve the public, for example, through establishing fraud hotlines or other systems to solicit suggestions that can be used to determine their audit agendas.

Legislatures in only 26 countries provide the public with formal opportunities to provide testimony during budget discussions. More disturbing is that in 35 countries, all discussions about the budget between the legislatures and the executive, including hearings, are entirely closed to the public (including the media), and no public record of such meetings is subsequently provided. In other words, legislatures themselves are often following practices that do not enable public understanding and participation, even though most legislatures could do more to foster engagement within their legal powers, such as holding public hearings.

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