What Have We Learned from Tracking Budget Transparency More Frequently?

By IBP, essays from the 2014 Annual Report— Jun 23, 2015

This post appears as an essay in our 2014 Annual Report.

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Since 2006 IBP has published the Open Budget Survey (OBS), the only independent, regular, and comparative assessment of budget transparency and participation worldwide. Over the years, users of the OBS — including civil society, donors, and the private sector — have asked us to update it more frequently. However, producing the full Open Budget Survey in less than the current two year schedule would be challenging, given the investment of time and resources required to conduct such comprehensive research. That said, IBP recognizes the value in providing more frequent updates on certain fundamental information on budget transparency. Thus in 2014 we developed and launched the Open Budget Survey Tracker (or OBS Tracker) — an online database that provides monthly updates on whether governments in select countries are producing and publishing on time the eight key budget documents assessed by the Open Budget Survey.

What Is the OBS Tracker, and How Does It complement the Open Budget Survey?

The OBS Tracker is designed to complement the Open Budget Survey by providing regular snapshots of budget transparency developments in countries. The key distinction between the OBS Tracker and the full Open Budget Survey is that the Tracker only monitors whether a government releases the eight key budget documents to the public; it does not assess the level of detail provided in the documents. Though the Open Budget Index (OBI) score, calculated using a subset of OBS questions, is still the most comprehensive measure of budget transparency in a country, the monthly updates provided by the OBS Tracker allow internal and external stakeholders to monitor progress toward meeting basic international standards.

IBP is running the OBS Tracker as a pilot project in 30 countries, most of which were selected from the countries that received low OBI scores in the Open Budget Survey 2012. When the pilot ends in July 2015, IBP will assess its impact and decide whether, and how, to continue or discontinue the project. In order to make this decision, we have commissioned case studies in six countries included in the Tracker pilot. The case studies will establish a baseline of budget transparency prior to the launch of the OBS Tracker and monitor the changes that have occurred since it was introduced. This will enable us to identify factors that may have contributed to any such changes.

Early Lessons from the Tracker

Preliminary information suggests that, since the OBS Tracker has gone live, several different audiences have used the data, including:

  • civil society activists, who can assess their government’s budget transparency practices in near real time and develop advocacy campaigns accordingly;
  • transparency champions in governments, who can compare their country’s performance against other countries more frequently than the Open Budget Survey alone would allow; and
  • bilateral and multilateral donors, which can assess aid recipients’ compliance with budget transparency requirements throughout their budget cycles.

We are also finding that the OBS Tracker enables us to identify trends in government transparency behavior that might  be obscured in a biennial  survey. A key finding from the OBS Tracker is the fluidity in government budget disclosure practices (i.e., frequently, and with little or no notice, governments begin publishing previously withheld documents or stop publishing those that had previously been made available).

During the research period, the status of more than one quarter of the documents assessed in the Tracker has changed. This includes:

  • A total of 42 budget documents have been published for the first time ever. Half of these had been produced in the past, but only for internal use.
  • Conversely, governments ceased publishing 11 documents that had, according to the Open Budget Survey 2012, been published in the past. Six of these documents continue to be produced but are now for internal use only.
  • Further, governments began producing five documents for internal  use that they had not previously produced. But, six documents that had been produced in the past for internal use only, were no longer produced at all.

These OBS Tracker findings reveal a complex pattern in which improvements in budget transparency are not always sustained by governments. This fluidity in government budget transparency practices has serious implications for accountability — it is nearly impossible to monitor expenditures for a particular program or service over time when there is inconsistent and unpredictable access to the relevant information. These early findings indicate that IBP and other proponents of open budgeting need to better understand the incentives governments face not only for becoming more transparent but also for maintaining and sustaining improvements. Identifying  the fluidity in budget disclosure practices through the OBS Tracker allows us to monitor trends and examine issues more deeply. We will do so in case studies, through other research, and through our engagement with stakeholders.

More in-depth research will enable IBP to understand why governments change their budget disclosure practices. It is already clear, though, that open budget proponents cannot rest on short-term gains in budget transparency: we need to put as much effort into maintaining advances as we do in getting them. The OBS Tracker will help us to do so.

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