The public finance system of the Republic of Serbia is not accessible to ordinary citizens, particularly at the subnational level. According to the Public Administration Reform Strategy in the Republic of Serbia (“Official Gazette” RS, 9/2014, 42/2014), there is a significant lack of transparency in local budgetary policies, with local governments failing to meet their responsibilities to provide citizens with comprehensive, accessible, and timely information on how public resources are allocated and spent in their cities.
In response, the Center for Education and Transparency (CETRA), a Serbian civil society organization, decided to create a web platform that would analyze and visualize open data related to planned and executed budgets of a sample of Serbian cities that were willing to participate in the project. In partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Serbia, CETRA implemented “Open Budget in Your City.” available here.
Our organization developed this platform during the second half of 2017 in order to make information on budget plans and policies for eight selected Serbian cities publicly available in a transparent, widely accessible, and interactive way. Our main motivation was to raise the level of transparency of the budget processes in our country and to contribute to establishing an effective and efficient system of public accountability for raising and spending public funds. We wanted to enable all interested citizens and civil society organizations to analyze and compare the budgeted revenues and expenditures of these cities for a given year with the actual funds raised and spent. By presenting this information, we wanted to:
- strengthen the fiscal transparency of local-level Serbian governments, and
- raise awareness among the cities’ citizens about the importance of transparent and open public budgeting in ensuring that governments are managing public resources effectively and with full accountability.
Prior to beginning this project, we consulted citizens on the types of budget data they thought should be presented visually on our web portal. We tried to use their advice and opinions how to simplify the portal and make it more accessible and interactive.
One challenge we encountered was data quality. In order to visualize open budget data on our platform, we required adequate, machine-readable data sets. We asked the participating governments to provide data in a machine-readable format (.csv files). However, the .csv files governments provided were light years away from currently accepted open data standards. The files actually represented optically scanned (OCR) .pdf budget report documents of the cities — rendering them useless for our project’s purposes because they were not machine-readable. Thus my team and I had to manually enter budget figures into new .csv files in order to create the needed open data sets ourselves. In December 2017, after three months of hard work, CETRA successfully finished and launched the Open Budget in Your City platform that, among other things, visually presents for each city the amount of budget surplus or deficit it has in a given budget year.
Although we are satisfied with the results to date, we are absolutely aware that the Open Budget in Your City project is a pioneering initiative in building the fiscal transparency and accountability ecosystem in Serbia. We plan to promote the platform by organizing trainings for civil society representatives who work on transparency and other governance issues. Our aim is to establish partnerships with organizations that work with the citizens of specific local communities. We believe that sharing knowledge will empower citizens by reducing the asymmetry of fiscal information that characterizes existing local budget decision making and implementation. We also believe that our work will contribute to the development of sustainable dialogue between citizens and representatives of local authorities and to stronger formal systems of municipal public finance accountability.