Open Budgets for the Sustainable Development Goals

By Claire Schouten, International Budget Partnership— Sep 23, 2015

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The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set an ambitious development agenda for the next fifteen years. The SDGs comprise 17 goals and aim to address the three aspects of sustainable development – economic prosperity, social development, and environmental protection. They present a clear opportunity for governments to deliver in critical sectors, such as health and education, and make an impact on people’s lives.

Budget transparency and participation are key to ensure that governments plan and spend effectively to meet the SDGs and that all stakeholders have the means to influence, monitor, and learn from the process.  Evidence shows that budget transparency, monitoring, and accountability can contribute significantly to better development outcomes.

The SDGs: Ensuring Financial Accountability 

One of the key shortcomings of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was that participating governments were not required to openly, regularly, and comprehensively report on the public financial resources being invested in pursuit of the goals. This includes how these resources were raised, how they were spent, and what results were achieved. Without this data it has been very difficult to monitor MDG commitments, investments, and outcomes — and to understand why specific goals were or were not achieved.

The current language in both the SDGs and Financing for Development documents commit governments to an open and accountable SDG process. This includes providing the public with full information and opportunities to engage throughout the budget process.  How can we make this a reality?

This is a critical moment for action. In the next couple of months governments will design country-specific frameworks for ensuring accountability, including how the public can engage in the process. At the same time, the United Nations, through U.N. Stats, will design an overarching monitoring framework that will apply to all countries and must be included in the country-specific accountability framework. To ensure that citizens are at the core of this accountability process, we provide the following recommendations.

What Should Governments do?

It is essential that governments publish comprehensive, timely, accessible, and open data on their SDG-related revenues and expenditures.  As indicated by the recently released Open Budget Survey, most governments have a considerable way to go to meet this yardstick.  Indeed, the Survey found that nearly 70 percent of the world’s population does not have access to key budget documents, from expenditure plans to execution and audit reports, which enable citizens to fully understand and monitor government use of public resources.

“Governments should provide effective mechanisms for the public to use this data to engage in the budget and SDG processes.”

There are clear and widely accepted international standards for budget transparency as required by the International Monetary Fund, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, World Bank, and as set out in UN resolution 67/218.  These standards require government to publish eight core budget documents providing information across all stages of the budget cycle. All countries should be required to progressively publish these documents with full and comprehensive information.

Indeed there are effective, low-cost measures that governments can take to improve budget transparency. Many of the poorest performers can make rapid progress simply by publishing budget information that they already produce for their internal use.  A second step is to improve the comprehensiveness of published budget information by providing details on actual programs, non-financial data on program performance targets, and information linking policy goals with budgeted expenditures. This information is critical for citizens to plan and track development goals, allocations, spending, and results.

In addition to providing open data, governments should provide effective mechanisms for the public to use this data to engage in the budget and SDG processes. Such mechanisms, tested in countries around the world, include participatory budgeting, social audits, and public hearings where citizens can testify during the budget process.  Evidence shows these practices can contribute to greater trust between the state and citizens, enhanced domestic resource mobilization, and more equitable and effective use of scarce public resources.

What can the U.N. do?

It is essential that the United Nations set clear and measureable indicators that require countries to regularly and comprehensively report on their financial revenues, investments, and outcomes.

“It is essential that the United Nations set clear and measureable indicators that require countries to regularly and comprehensively report on their financial revenues, investments, and outcomes.”

To this end, the United Nations Statistics Division has proposed an indicator framework for the Sustainable Development Goals that is due to be approved by March 2016. The International Budget Partnership participated in the consultation process to review the indicators and is continuing to engage in these discussions ahead of their finalization.  We are particularly interested in the proposed indicators for monitoring Goal 16, as this is a major opportunity to integrate transparency, participation, and accountability into the SDGS.  While we support the indicators proposed by UN Stats (see table below), we argue that additional indicators should be added to ensure that citizens are able to understand, participate in, and monitor public resources raised and spent on the SDGs. The table below provides both the current indicators proposed by U.N. Stats and those proposed by IBP, together with a rationale for each additional indicator proposed.

The SDGs provide an opportunity to achieve major gains in development and accountability. Comprehensive, timely, reliable, and accessible budget information, coupled with greater opportunities for public participation and strong, independent oversight, are all critical to this effort. These elements will enable all actors to meaningfully engage and ensure the effective use of public funds for the achievement of the sustainable development agenda.

Sustainable Development Goals, Targets, and Indicators

Goal 16: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels

Target 16.6: Develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels.

Current UN Statistics indicator IBP Proposed indicator Comment
Primary government expenditures as a percentage of original approved budget Regular public reporting on budgeted versus actual revenues and expenditures, disaggregated by type of revenue and by sector/sub-sector. Transparent, comprehensive fiscal reports are critical for accountable institutions and effective planning, monitoring, and evaluation

Target 16.7: Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels

Current UN Statistics indicator IBP Proposed indicator Comment
Proportions of positions (by age, sex, disability and population groups) in public institutions (national and local legislatures, public service, and judiciary) compared to national distributions Extent to which the executive and/or the legislature receive inputs through written submissions or public meetings from citizens during the budget cycle, and provides feedback on the use of such inputs. [Refinement of indicator ‘Extent to which legislature conducts public hearings during budget cycle’ proposed by EOSG/RoLU, PBSO, UNDP, UNODC (in consultation with others)] Support for public participation in budgeting has been affirmed by the High Level Principles on Fiscal Transparency issued by the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency and endorsed by UN General Assembly Resolution 67/218. The IMF included public participation as an indicator in its revised Fiscal Transparency Code, as did the OECD in its Principles of Budgetary Governance. The International Budget Partnership surveyed public participation in the budget process in 100 countries for the Open Budget Survey 2012 and 102 countries for the 2015 Survey.

Target 16.10: Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements

Current UN Statistics indicator IBP Proposed indicator Comment
Proportion of countries that address young people’s multisectoral needs with their national development plans and poverty reduction strategies Percentage of government revenues, procurement and natural resource concessions that are publicly available and easily accessible in open data format proposed by EOSG/RoLU, PBSO, UNDP, UNODC (in consultation with others) Extent to which budget information, including expected and actual on-budget and off-budget revenue and expenditure, procurement, and natural resource concessions, is publicly available and easily accessible in open data format. Governments should publish eight budget documents in a timely manner, according to international good practices. These include the Pre-Budget Statement, Executive’s Budget Proposal, Enacted Budget, Citizens Budget, In-Year Reports, Mid-Year Review, Year-End Report, and Audit Report. Each should be broken down by expenditure allocated and spent towards each of the SDGs.

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