Using data for social good: transparency of public finances is vital

by Claire Schouten, Senior Program Officer, International Budget Partnership— Jun 16, 2020

This post also appears on Publish What You Fund’s website.

When it comes to government finances, we, taxpayers and donors alike, want to know what’s happening with our money. How much is there, where is it going, where is it coming from and is it serving its intended purpose for the wider public good? As governments rush to respond to the pandemic, the need for transparency, inclusion and oversight of budget decisions and the money flows are critical.

Yet, according to the latest Open Budget Survey (OBS), 86 out of 117 countries assessed (roughly 74%) fail to publish sufficient information on how public resources are generated, allocated, spent and, ultimately, what results are achieved.

What about information on donor assistance, in particular? Data on sources of both financial and in-kind aid is also difficult to find in government budget reports. Twenty-six surveyed countries (~25% of those receiving any aid) provide no information on aid in their Executive’s Budget Proposal – the blueprint for how the government will raise and spend funds to meet its economic and social policy goals – or in any other supporting documentation. The paucity of information provided may be exacerbated by the difficulties in predicting donor flows and the complex reporting requirements placed on recipients of aid.

Further, OBS findings on health and education budgets show that countries are lagging when it comes to publishing detailed information needed to assess service delivery, including data on actual spending, and information linking sector policies, budgets and performance. Data on the extent and use of donor financing for sectors is scarce, too. Only four of the 24 countries receiving aid and reviewed closely for this information in the survey provided information on how much funding each donor contributes to their country and how much goes to specific sector budgets.

The lack of transparency of governments’ revenues, spending and results limits opportunities for public engagement and effective oversight by the legislature and national audit offices. The OBS global average score for public participation in the budget process is just 14 out of 100. Where mechanisms, such as public hearings, do exist, they are rarely open to vulnerable and underrepresented communities, those who may be most in need of public services.

Civil society puts the data it can find to good use

In countries where aid is flowing in, civic organizations and communities are calling for information and opportunities to ensure public policies and programs serve those most in need.

In one example, civil society organization Integrity Watch Afghanistan engages communities in the monitoring of the quality of health services in more than 50 hospitals and 1000 health centers. They capture data on a real-time basis, including on the level of available resources and compliance with guidelines, through a newly developed COVID App. The data generated can be used to prioritize funds based on the needs identified through these surveys. As the government plans to amend the budget in response to COVID-19, this more timely, detailed information on the budget and contracts can help build trust and direct spending towards communities in need.

Across Cameroon, The Gambia, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Nigeria and Zimbabwe, Follow The Money is tracking government spending and international aid in rural grassroots communities. The group monitors announcements of grants and donations for communities with limited means, and contacts the government, agency, or individual responsible for the grant to provide a breakdown of how they plan to spend the money leveraging the access to information law (FOIA). They also visit communities to check if they have received any funding or medicines based on the information received from the donors. Results are published and discussed on social media using #FollowCOVID19Money and radio stations and addressed with responsible authorities.

These activists join the myriad of organizations around the world who are advocating for transparency in response funds, more inclusive government responses, expanded and properly targeted support and more progressive systems. As detailed financial data are often lacking in the public domain, they use various channels, including community feedback and official media reports, to track responses and inform policies and programs. This important work of ensuring the effective use of public funds and building trust can be greatly enhanced by providing timely, comprehensive information and opportunities for meaningful public engagement.

How can we move forward?

While there have been gains in transparency over the last fifteen years, we still have a long way to go. Current levels of accessible information are too low and the pace of improvement too slow to help us ensure we’re on target to attain the Sustainable Development Goals and to live up to the Paris Climate Accord, let alone the pandemic response and recovery.

This is why a broad collective of actors, across social movements, think tanks and international organizations (including Publish What You Fund), are calling on governments to:

  1. Publish information on how public resources are generated, allocated and spent – in a timely manner that is accessible to all. This means relevant and useful information that people need, such as information on service delivery and debt burdens.
  2. Create opportunities for all people, particularly those from marginalized communities, to provide input into the budget process. We want meaningful and inclusive public participation, at least one practice in each of the executive, legislature, and supreme audit institution.
  3. Strengthen monitoring and oversight of budget execution through independent institutions. With careful documentation of expenditures, we need strong external audit functions and government follow-up.
  4. Sustain improvements achieved on open budgeting, protecting them from political shifts. Gains can be sustained through institutionalizations in law and regulations and strengthened coordination and capacities.

These targets are ambitious, but achievable over the next five years. Most countries have the technical skills, the data to share – and the champions to inspire change. Tools, such as the OBS and Aid Transparency Index, promote these goals and measure progress.

This agenda is one that can unite actors across sectors and countries. While speed is of the essence in these challenging times, so is an informed, inclusive approach to ensure funds deliver as needed in the coronavirus era and beyond.

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