Using OGP to promote fiscal openness: which way forward?

Nov 13, 2013

This post was written by Paolo de Renzio, Senior Research Fellow at the International Budget Partnership.

The curtain has come down on the Open Government Partnership’s (OGP) 2013 Summit — two days of intense discussions and idea exchanges. One could almost sense the excitement around this (still quite new) initiative, with governments and civil society groups trying to find a common language and better ways to work together.  Collaboration does not always come easy — as President Kikwete of Tanzania said in the opening plenary, governments and civil society “are condemned to work together” — but everyone was putting in their best effort.

Summits are important, but only action in the 61 OGP countries will make a difference in people’s lives. So what has happened in the two years since the initial OGP countries began work? The initial reports from the independent researchers charged with assessing whether these countries have fulfilled their initial commitments (some are now drafting their second Action Plans) makes for sobering reading. And, in many countries, mechanisms for ensuring dialogue between governments and civil society are still quite weak. One question emerging from the Summit asks what could be done to support the implementation of commitments and promote more ambitious action plans.

One possible answer could be in the Working Groups that OGP set up to bring together countries that have made commitments in five specific areas: 1) Access to Information, 2) Open Data, 3) Legislative Openness, 4) Extractive Industries, and 5) Fiscal Openness.

The International Budget Partnership (IBP), through the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency (GIFT), has been very active in getting the Fiscal Openness group started, building on the fact that a large number of OGP countries included fiscal openness commitments in their action plans. The group’s first meeting took place the day after the Summit closed and was attended by 40 participants representing seven OGP countries and various international organizations active in fiscal transparency, participation, and accountability.

The agenda featured presentations about some of the exciting work that governments in the room are putting into practice. On budget transparency, Mexico’s “Transparencia Presupuestaria” portal was particularly impressive, but it was the Liberian Finance Minister who spoke to the heart of the OGP — finding ways for governments and citizens to work together for the common good. He reflected on the challenges that transparency reformers face, especially in countries with weak institutions and a poor population. He highlighted how open government can foster peace and reconciliation, and the importance of citizen action in holding public officials accountable, especially at the local level where it is a struggle for the Ministry of Finance to track public resources. One of the key challenges for government in engaging citizens in a meaningful way is go beyond asking for their opinions on fiscal policies to actually including their proposals. Good models presented were South Korea’s mechanisms for ensuring that citizens and independent experts can be part of the budget process and the incipient work on “bottom up budgeting” in the Philippines.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, IBP, and GIFT gave updates on some of the existing tools and mechanisms for promoting and assessing fiscal transparency, including the IMF’s Code of Good Practices in Fiscal Transparency and the Open Budget Survey.

But, the most important conversation was how to make the Working Group an effective mechanism for sharing practices, learning lessons, and incentivizing improvements. Ideas included:

  • creating thematic subgroups focusing on specific reform areas and regional groups that could improve constructive engagement (e.g., organizing regional meetings, mirroring those planned for OGP as a whole);
  • monitoring and publishing information regularly on the degree to which countries are fulfilling the fiscal openness commitments in their action plans;
  • building on participation case studies to provide guidance on good practices, further distilling OGP country experience and possibly promoting some site visits and exchanges; and
  • linking to other ongoing work in the wider OGP context related to open data and delivery of public services.

Additionally, if OGP countries begin publishing the 20 budgets documents that they currently produce but withhold from the public, and the 20 OGP countries that don’t produce Citizens Budgets begin doing so, that could give fiscal openness an immediate boost.

All in all, a very promising start!

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