Devil in the detail? Budget transparency in the health and education sectors

María José Eva, Jason Lakin & Sally Torbert, IBP— May 21, 2020

Access to clean water, education, health services, housing, safe labor conditions, freedom from discrimination, and an end to poverty. The list goes on, and so does the struggle.

But why should organizations focused on maternal health in rural communities, or access to education for kids with disabilities, or the provision of water and sanitation in slums (to give a few examples), be concerned about a lack of information in budget documents?

For services to be delivered, equity to be enhanced, and rights to be fulfilled, government services must be funded – and this means looking to the budget and key budget documents. If we are investigating issues around health or education services, for example, we likely need to know how much funding has been allocated for these activities, whether it is spent, and by whom. But aggregated information is not enough – we will also need details about specific programs, by type of expenditures, distribution across regions, and by level of government. Without such information, it is difficult to hold anyone in government accountable for service delivery failures.

Lack of sufficient budget information has long been an obstacle to scrutinizing governmental decisions. Although the recently published Open Budget Survey (OBS) shows an increase in the global average of budget transparency, 86 of the 117 countries assessed still provide insufficient public information, hindering the ability of civil society to hold governments accountable for their actions relating to public resources.

While the OBS captures the general state of budget data, we know that sector advocates need more specific and detailed information. Recognizing the importance of such data to sector advocates, IBP augmented OBS 2019 with an additional module on sector budget transparency, assessing either education or health in select countries. This module builds on discussions with IBP´s partners about their interests (see image) and looks at 10 topics of relevance for a public understanding of how resources are used in a sector (or function). Specifically, it focuses on whether, or not, there is information (and the level of detail) necessary to answer questions such as:

  • What resources are allocated to the Ministry of Education or Health and how much is spent?
  • Is allocation and expenditure data for the specific sector available in central budget documents?
  • How much funding was allocated to a region or department (geographic distribution)?
  • How has the allocation of resources to a particular sector changed over the years?
  • What is the allocation to specific programs, for example, maternal health?

The module was conducted alongside OBS 2019 and assessed 28 of the 117 countries in the survey. It used the same methodology as the OBS but also included an additional 20 new indicators. The overall results of this assessment for both sectors, described in a new IBP brief, give cause for concern, even if they were not entirely unexpected. Some findings of relevance include the following:

  • Although many countries provide information on overall spending for the assessed sectors, fewer countries provide details about programs or activities implemented within them. This is critical information for actors working with specific vulnerable groups or communities. For example, we may not know how much was allocated and spent on programs to tackle malnutrition or to improve literacy rates.
  • The geographic distribution of funding for health and education sectors is presented in only six of the 28 countries, limiting the ability of civil society to track budget allocation and expenditure relating to health and education and cross-reference that information with levels of malnutrition, literacy or poverty in those regions.
  • There is generally more information available on what resources are allocated (formulation stage of the budget) and approved by the legislature than there is on how the resources are spent. The absence of information relating to both what was committed to a sector as well as what was spent raises concerns on whether, and to what extent, a government keeps its promises.
  • Being able to assess what public resources are achieving is not easy, because the links between sector policies, objectives, and performance are weak. Twenty-one of the 28 countries assessed have adopted a structure where budgets are more closely linked to the purpose of spending; however, even in those cases, less than half provide a clear narrative of sector policies and how the budget aims to achieve them.

In a nutshell, these results highlight the need for more detailed information in budget documents. As we all know, the devil is in the detail, but at the moment the details are not public.

JLwarehouse / Shutterstock.com

For all of us, including those organizations that have not traditionally incorporated scrutiny of official budgets into their work, more detailed information is taking on a new urgency. The current context demands closer attention than ever to how governments are using public funds to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments are making major decisions on how, where, and when resources are spent, and who will benefit. Yet, little information has been provided on where, how, and when that will be done, and who the beneficiaries will be.

The good news is that civil society and other actors around the globe are collaborating to bring attention to the urgent need for greater transparency in times of crisis and openness in emergency responses. Governments now have an opportunity to expand collaboration with civil society in monitoring their emergency response by providing the specific, detailed information they need to engage. Civil society can also use this moment to ask for the information they need, and make sure that critical public funds for services and economic relief do not go to waste.

You can navigate the country-level results of the sector module here:

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