Ask Your Government! Initiative

Publication Type: Case Studies, Papers

The International Budget Partnership’s Ask Your Government! initiative began in January 2010, when 100 civil society organizations launched an ambitious effort to document public access to budget information in 80 countries. The core question behind the effort was simple: What happens when citizens ask their government for specific budget information relating to key international development commitments to which the government is a signatory?

The answer is that most of the time, governments do not respond with sufficient information — or at all. In fact, when governments were asked six questions by their citizens about how much money they spend on development priorities, only one of the 80 countries provided substantive answers to all six questions.

Citizens used official channels to request information from government agencies and were diligent in following up these requests. Many went to great lengths to insist that government make the required information available, often visiting ministry offices on multiple occasions. The majority of governments questioned in the Ask Your Government! initiative did not adequately respond to citizen demands for access to public budget information. This finding indicates a major problem for transparency and accountability.

The Ask Your Government! initiative was coordinated jointly by the International Budget Partnership (IBP), Access Info Europe (AIE), and the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD). Campaign partners at the international level are White Ribbon AllianceFamily Care International, the Averting Maternal Death and Disability Program at Columbia University, Publish What You FundOxfam AmericaDevelopment InitiativesWorld Resources Institute, and the International Institute for Sustainable Development. The coalition of international organizations supporting the Ask Your Government Initiative! includes Greenpeace International and the International Human Rights Internship Program.


Access To Budget Information: The Six Questions And The Logic Behind Them

Because governments fulfill their policy goals and commitments in large part through decisions about how to raise and spend public funds, budgets are at the heart of the Ask Your Government! initiative. The partners in this research and advocacy initiative asked their government to provide specific budget information for six questions covering issues relating to maternal health, aid effectiveness, and environmental protection. Organizations in these fields played an important role in defining the focus and ultimately designing the six questions that were asked from all 86 governments.  The questions posed were:

Maternal Health

Q1. What was the total amount actually spent nationwide during the last two fiscal years on purchasing/procuring each of the following medications: magnesium sulphate used for eclampsia, and uterotonics used for post partum hemorrhaging? Please specify which uterotonic (such as oxytocin, misoprostol, ergometrine, etc.) was purchased. Please also include amounts spent by sub-national governments, or indicate clearly if you do not have this information.

Q2. What was the total amount spent during the last two fiscal years for pre-service training of midwives (or midwife equivalents) and how many midwives graduated from pre-service training?

Aid Effectiveness – For Aid-Recipient Countries

Q3. What was the total amount of overseas development assistance received during the last fiscal year from the European Development Fund, the World Bank, and the following three US government agencies: the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Were you notified and if so, what were the dates (month and year) on which each of these agencies notified you (recipient government) about the assistance?

Q4. What is the total amount of overseas development assistance committed for the next three fiscal years by the European Development Fund, the World Bank, and the following three US government agencies: the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Were you notified and if so, what are the dates (month and year) on which each of these agencies notified you (recipient government) about the assistance?

Aid Effectiveness – For Donor Countries

Q3. What was the total amount of overseas development assistance actually provided during the last fiscal year (not your fiscal year, but the fiscal years of each of the relevant recipient government) to each of the following governments: Rwanda, Liberia, Ethiopia, Colombia, and Vietnam, and what were the dates (month and year) on which you notified the governments about the assistance?

Q4. What is the total amount of overseas development assistance committed during the next three fiscal years (not your fiscal year, but the fiscal years of each of the relevant recipient government) to each of the following governments: Rwanda, Liberia, Ethiopia, Colombia, and Vietnam, and what were the dates (month and year) on which you notified the governments about the assistance?

Environmental Protection

Q5. As a share of the national budget, what was the total amount actually spent on all national agencies in charge of environmental protection and conservation during the last two fiscal years?

Q6. What was the total amount actually incurred during the past three fiscal years on subsidies for oil, gas and coal production and consumption?

To learn more about the logic and desired response for each question, read this document.


Assessing Government Responses to Budget Information Requests

The goal of the Ask Your Government! initiative was to illustrate the real-life experiences of citizens going through the process of requesting budget information from their governments. Results of the initiative offer concrete evidence on the problems civil society faces in accessing public budget information in a wide range of countries.

Government responses were assessed on two levels:

  1. Whether or not the government responded at all to the query.
    Citizens gave government agencies up to three opportunities to respond to their inquiries. If no formal response was provided in a reasonable time frame, or officials refused to provide an answer to the question posed, the result was categorized as a failure to respond to the citizen information request.
  2.  Whether the response addressed all aspects of the inquiry.
    When governments did respond to citizen requests, the information provided was analyzed based on whether or not it substantively addressed all aspects of the inquiry.

Based on these criteria, government responses were grouped into four categories:

  • All questions were answered, and all requested budget information was provided.
    Government responses were strong on both levels; they adequately attended to citizen information requests and provided substantive budget information that answered all the questions posed.
  • All questions were answered, but not with all the required budget information.
    Government responses were strong on only one of the two levels measured. Though they responded to all of the citizens’ formal requests for public budget information, the answers provided did not substantively address all aspects of the questions posed.
  • Only some of the questions were answered, and not all budget information was provided.
    Government responses were weak on both levels. Governments only responded to a portion of citizen requests, leaving at least one question unanswered. They also did not provide all the required budget information requested.
  • None of the questions were answered and, therefore, none of the required budget information was provided.
    The worst possible outcome. It implies the government failed completely on both levels. In these cases, all information requests went unanswered, and none of the required budget information was provided.

Results

All questions were answered, and all requested budget information was provided:

Only one country, New Zealand, answered all six requests substantively, by providing budget information that clearly answers the questions posed. Requests to the New Zealand government needed to be submitted only once, and responses were provided quickly, in a succinct and easy- to-understand format.

All questions were answered, but not with all the required budget information:

An additional 22 countries (28 percent of the total) offered an official answer to all six information requests, though with varying degrees of comprehensiveness: Armenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Georgia, Germany, Guatemala, India, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Moldova, Montenegro, Namibia, Philippines, Russia, Serbia, Slovenia, South Africa, and Ukraine. Despite responding formally to citizens’ information requests, all of these countries struggled to provide some of the required budget information. Key pieces of the requested budget information were not provided, not available, not held centrally, or not organized in a way that allowed the responsible agencies to respond to the question as it was posed.

  • Serbia answered all six questions but noted that training for midwives is not performed through the Ministry of Health, and the information provided on fossil fuel subsidies was difficult to understand and did not fully respond to the question posed.
  • Germany also responded to all six requests but could not provide data on the amounts spent on life-saving maternal health drugs, or training for midwives.
  • Albania, Canada, Georgia, Guatemala, India, Namibia, Philippines, and South Africa to name only a few, responded in a similar incomplete way to several questions.
  • In Mexico researchers could not get clear and comprehensive responses, although an attempt was made by government to answer all six questions. Agencies routinely passed responsibility for answering the question back and forth without providing much concrete data, and often responded that the requested information “does not exist.”
Only some of the questions were answered, and not all of the budget information was provided:

In the majority of countries (46 countries, or 58 percent of the total), government agencies answered some questions, but failed to provide any answer to at least one of the questions posed: Albania, Angola, Argentina, Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Botswana, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Chad, Chile, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, France, Ghana, Honduras, Italy, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgyz Republic, Macedonia, Malawi, Malaysia, Mali, Mongolia, Morocco, Mozambique, Norway, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Spain, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Turkey, Uganda, United States, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Some countries provided comprehensive answers to a few questions, while ignoring others, or provided incomplete information to four or less questions. On balance, researchers were provided with only a portion of the budget information requested. In many cases, requests were met with answers promising that the information would be delivered, or that researchers should return (sometimes repeatedly) at a later date.

  • In Tajikistan researchers were told over the phone not to address the Minister with requests for information on maternal health drugs.
  • In Chad after six personal visits to the Department of Planning in the Ministry of Finance, the researcher was told, “Come back, if you want.”
  • In Ghana researchers returned nine times to the Ministry of Environmental Science and Technology to request information on environment protection expenditures but were unable to obtain any information in response to the question posed.

Many responses indicated that the agency in question did not possess the information requested.

  • In Azerbaijan the Ministry of Health declined to provide information on expenditures for midwife training, citing a lack of suitable statistics.
  • Zimbabwe referring to the same question, replied that “it would be difficult to locate a person who could give such kind of information within the Ministry.”
  • When asked about aid received during the last fiscal year and anticipated for the upcoming three years, the Ministry of Finance of Russia replied that this kind of information is “beyond the competence of federal executive governmental agencies of the Russian Federation.”
  • In Argentina a response regarding aid received and expected was sent, but it referred only to funding from the World Bank, ignoring all other agencies specified in the request. On a follow-up attempt to obtain the missing data, the question went unanswered.
  • In Uganda officials reported that information on the notification dates of aid was “practically” impossible to obtain, given existing information systems. According to the official, the request was “unrealistic.”
  • On aid received during the last fiscal year, the official replying to the request in Zambia noted that the question was very complex and time consuming to answer. Some information on projects underway was provided, but no comprehensive answer was offered.
None of the questions were answered and no budget information was provided:

In 11 countries (14 percent of total), government agencies did not respond to any of the six information requests: Algeria, Bangladesh, Cameroon, East Timor, Iraq, Liberia, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuela, and Yemen. These included cases where access to budget information was explicitly denied, or where the requests were ignored, or where no response at all was made to the researcher who had posed the question.

  • In Nigeria officials at the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of the Environment denied the researcher access to information, while the Ministry of Finance ignored the request. Nigerian officials were reluctant to put any response in writing, treated researchers with suspicion, referred in informal conversations to the requested health information as “sensitive” and “controversial,” and indicated that officials would not be willing to “expose themselves” by providing the data on environmental spending or fossil fuel subsidies. The researcher from Nigeria put it best when he wrote:It is always difficult to get any information from these ministries as they always view non-ministry staff or citizens as outsiders. They never see themselves as serving the people. They see themselves as being answerable only to their direct bosses. (E-mail exchange, September 4, 2010).
  • In Yemen researchers simultaneously submitted all six requests to the Ministry of Finance, as well as directing each request to the relevant issue-specific agency. For all six questions, the Ministry of Finance orally refused to provide any information, claiming that such information is private and cannot be requested. The issue-specific agencies did not respond to the requests.
  • In Nicaragua and Trinidad and Tobago, where access to information legislation exists, repeated submissions using established procedures went unanswered.
  • In Venezuela where information rights established in the constitution were recently severely limited by a Supreme Court ruling, no response was provided by the government to any of the questions.

ask-you-gov-pie-chart

See the results by question in each country »


Implications for Budget Transparency and Accountability

The Ask Your Government! results show that good practice is possible even in contexts of low capacity and scarcity.

  • Namibia provided answers to all six questions, albeit with incomplete answers for some.
  • Guatemala provided substantive answers on the amount of money spent, the drugs purchased, and the number of midwives trained during the last two years.
  • Malawi and Ecuador responded substantively to questions pertaining to past aid disbursements, and Ecuador also responded comprehensively with information on future aid commitments.
  • While the process for obtaining information was convoluted, India ultimately provided a good answer to the question about fossil fuel subsidies – one of the most complicated questions to answer.

Ultimately, Ask Your Government! is a test of government responsiveness to public enquiries for budget information. Unfortunately, the majority of governments – across the development spectrum – performed poorly. When governments fail to respond or provide incomplete responses to their citizens’ requests for information, the implications for budget transparency and accountability are of great concern.

Public debate about the investment of public funds in development is enriched by informed citizen participation. After all, informed citizens are best positioned to make demands on how the government can be more responsive to their needs. And they hold information that can improve the quality of public service delivery. If the government limits citizen participation by restricting access to information, citizens forgo their right to participate, and the quality of service delivery is likely to be compromised.

Whether officials declined to provide the information, or the government agency was not able to produce a timely or complete response, the end result is that citizens are not informed about how public funds are spent. This gap is particularly troubling when the information sought relates to governments investments in development. Questions related to public investments in reducing maternal mortality are revealing in this respect. Many Ministries of Health reported that information detailing public expenditures on life-saving maternal health drugs is not held centrally. Ten African countries with the highest maternal mortality rates in the world did not even bother to respond to these questions.


Recommendations

  1. Governments should proactively publish timely, accessible, and useful budget information in formats that reflect the international commitments they make. Far too often, government agencies responded that the requested information was not available in the formats it was requested. The six questions posed through this initiative were carefully crafted to reflect international commitments that each government had made to advance development. Whenever a government makes a commitment, citizens have the right to know exactly how those commitments are translated into actions and investments. If the government does not maintain information that allows citizens to track what is concretely being done to meet these commitments, it is impossible to know whether public funds are being channeled toward realizing them.
  2. International institutions overseeing and monitoring development commitments should require budget information in their reporting requirements. International development commitments are often monitored through an international body; for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) it is the United Nations. Detailed budget information on what governments are spending to achieve the MDGs is not clearly included or prioritized in the existing reporting structures. Where reporting requirements exist, or in cases where international agencies commission studies and evaluations directly, concrete and detailed budget information about how governments are spending public funds to meet development commitments must be included. All the information included in these reports should be presented in accessible formats and made available to the public.
  3. People must Ask Their Governments! what they are spending on development, and how those investments are being applied in practice. Citizens must take a proactive role in holding governments accountable for their commitments. It is not only about government responsibility. If citizens do not take the initiative to ask questions and demand answers, the availability of information about development investments is unlikely to improve. Only through active citizen participation will public spending on development be made transparent, enabling citizens to hold their governments accountable for the use of public funds.

Downloads

Fact Sheet

This fact sheet summarizes the findings of the Ask Your Government! initiative where 100 civil society organizations asked their governments for specific budget information relating to key international development commitments in 80 countries. A table shows how often citizens were actually provided with the budget information they requested as well as significant variation in how government agencies within a country responded to the information requests. A list of the participating organizations and recommendations on how to improve budget transparency and accountability are also provided.

Ask Your Government: Request Protocol

The following documents are the Information Request Protocols that were provided to the researchers in all 86 participating countries. Written by freedom of information experts at Access Info Europe and the Centre for Law and Democracy, the Protocol was drafted based on international best practices and established standards regarding the right to access public information. The purpose of the Protocol is to guide the process of formally submitting information requests for each question to the responsible government agencies. Options are provided for procedures in countries with and without access to information laws. Guidelines were also provided for following up on each request, and keeping detailed records of the process and experience for each participating organization. To learn more about the process outlined for requesting information see this flowchart.

Multimedia

ASK YOUR GOVERNMENT! INITIATIVE RADIO SERIES

The Ask Your Government Initiative aims to reveal the extent to which governments are actually fulfilling their commitments in the areas critical to development, such as maternal health, aid effectiveness, and environmental protection.  As part of the initiative, five partners in Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Uganda, and Zambia recorded audio diaries of their efforts to request and obtain budget information from their governments on these issues.  Based on the audio diaries, the IBP produced a five-part series of radio programs.  Meet the researchers in these countries as they tell their stories, find out if their governments answered their questions.

ASK YOUR GOVERNMENT! INITIATIVE SLIDE SHOW

This slide show on the Ask Your Government! initiative summarizes the main goals and achievements of this effort as seen through the eyes of the five African researchers in Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Uganda, and Zambia who recorded audio diaries of their efforts to request and obtain budget information from their governments on areas critical to development, such as maternal health, aid effectiveness, and environmental protection.


Implementing Partners In 86 Countries

Country Organization
Albania Centre for Development and Democratisation of Institutions (CDDI)
Algeria Association Nationale des Finances Publiques (A.Na.Fi.P)
Angola Episcopal Justice and Peace Commission of Angola and S. Tome Bishops Conference (Comissão Episcopal de Justiça e Paz da CEAST (CEJP)
Argentina Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia (ACIJ)
Armenia Association “For Sustainable Human Development”
Azerbaijan Public Finance Monitoring Center (PFMC)
Bangladesh The Hunger Project-Bangladesh
Belarus Ecological Association “Green Network” Working Group “Climate Change and Belarus”
Bolivia Centro de Estudios para el Desarrollo Laboral y Agrario (CEDLA)
Bosnia-Herzegovina Centar za promociju civilnog društva and Centar za istraživacko novinarstvo
Botswana Botswana Institute for Development Policy Analysis (BIDPA)
Brazil Instituto de Estudos Socioeconômicos (INESC)
Bulgaria Access to Information Programme (AIP-Bulgaria)
Burkina Faso Centre pour la Gouvernance Démocratique (CGD)
Cambodia The NGO Forum on Cambodia
Cameroon Budget Information Centre (BIC)
Canada Center for Law and Development
Chad Groupe de Recherches Alternatives et de Monitoring du Projet Pétrole Tchad-Cameroun (GRAMP-TC)
Chile Fundacion Pro Acceso
Colombia Corporación Foro Joven
Costa Rica La Fundación para la Paz y la Democracia (FUNPADEM)
Croatia Institute of Public Finance (IPF)
Dominican Republic Fundación Solidaridad
DR Congo Reseau des Organisations Partenaires de FIFES (ROPI)
East Timor Lalenok Ba Ema Hotu (LABEH)
Ecuador Transparencia Ecuador
El Salvador Jaime López
France Association de Journalistes Européens
Georgia Transparency International Georgia
Germany Netzwerk für Osteuropa-Berichterstattung n-ost
Ghana Integrated Social Development Centre (ISODEC)
Guatemala Asociación Centro Internacional para Investigaciones en Derechos Humanos (ACIIDH)
Honduras Centro de Investigación y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos (CIPDH)
India Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA)
Indonesia Bandung Institute of Governance Studies (BIGS)
Iraq Iraq Institute for Economic Reform (IIIER)
Italy Transparency International, Italy
Kazakhstan Sange Research Center
Kenya Social Development Network (SODNET)
Kosovo Organizata për Demokraci, Antikorrupsion dhe Dinjitet “Çohu”
Kyrgyz Republic Reproductive Health Alliance Kyrgyzstan
Liberia Actions for Genuine Democratic Alternatives
Macedonia Florozon-Association for Protection of Natural Environment and Sustainable Economic Development
Malawi Malawi Economic Justice Network (MEJN)
Malaysia Centre for Public Policy Studies, Asian Strategy & Leadership Institute
Mali Great Mali
Mexico Fundar, Centro de Análisis e Investigación
Moldova BIOTICA Ecological Society
Mongolia Open Society Forum (OSF)
Montenegro MANS-The Network for the Affirmation of the NGO Sector
Morocco Transparency Maroc
Mozambique Centro de Integridade Publica (CIP)
Namibia Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)
New Zealand Transparency International New Zealand
Nicaragua Centro de Información y Servicios de Asesoría de Salud (CISAS)
Niger Alternative Espaces Citoyens
Nigeria Civil Resource Development and Documentation Centre (CIRDDOC)
Norway Chr Michelsen Institute (CMI)
Pakistan Omar Asghar Khan Development Foundation
Papua New Guinea Institute of National Affairs
Paraguay Instituto de Derecho y Economía Ambiental (IDEA)
Philippines Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ)
Poland The Gdansk Institute for Market Economics
Portugal Amnistia Internacional Portugal
Romania Centre for Independent Journalism
Russia Foundation for the Support of Information Freedom Initiatives
Senegal Universite de Dakar
Serbia Transparency Serbia
Sierra Leone Konima Development Association and Freedom of Information Coalition
Slovenia The Peace Institute, Institute for Contemporary Social and Political Studies
South Africa Institute of Democracy in South Africa (IDASA)
Spain Access Info Europe
Sri Lanka Public Interest Law Foundation
Sudan Juba University, Sudan
Sweden Access Info Europe
Tajikistan Jahon
Tanzania Women’s Dignity
Trinidad y Tobago University of the West Indies
Turkey Cyber Law / Cyber Rights
Uganda Uganda Debt Network (UDN)
Ukraine International Centre for Policy Studies (ICPS)
United States International Budget Partnership
Venezuela Transparencia Venezuela
Yemen Cultural Development Program Foundation (CDPF)
Zambia Economics Association of Zambia (EAZ)
Zimbabwe Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA)

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