Transparency and Accountability Initiatives in South Asia
From the Annual Report
Transparency and Accountability Initiatives in South Asia
In 2014 Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, a civil society organization based in Bangalore, India, launched the Open Works initiative to address the systemic issues that manifest themselves in the poor quality of life in Indian cities.
The Open Works initiative seeks to engage citizens, elected representatives, and government officials on data at a hyper-local level. The ambition is to help cities in India establish levels of financial and operational transparency comparable to New York City, Boston, London, and Durban. The project objectives assume added relevance against the backdrop of the Indian government’s newly announced 100 Smart Cities Mission, which will see cities compete for central funds of INR 1 billion (US$16 million), and citizen participation will be made an integral part of urban planning.
The project cycle begins with the announcement of the city budget at the start of each financial year. Janaagraha produces Budget Briefs that aim to demystify the city budget by analyzing allocations across electoral wards and departments for such infrastructure investments as roads, drainage, and parks. Information like this, including this map which examines per capita budget allocations across wards in Bengaluru for 2015-16, helps citizens see how their tax money will be spent over the coming year.
Keeping a Hawk’s Eye on Civic Works
The next step is to help citizens and elected representatives understand how works are progressing. The Open Works initiative advocates using an online system to track the progress of city projects and initiatives. Such information can be used by citizens to understand what projects are being executed in their neighborhoods, by which agencies or contractors, and what payments are being made against completed works. A “digital citizen audit” could close the feedback loop by allowing users to provide comments on the satisfactory completion of projects as well as allow them to recommend and vote on works they would like to see in their neighborhoods in instances where participatory budgeting is in place. The works module is currently published as open data sets containing information on every ongoing project in the city.
Measuring the Quality of Streets…One Footpath at a Time
An analytical basis for budget allocation requires a yearly measurement of the quality of infrastructure and services at a neighborhood level. To advocate for this, Janaagraha conducts the Street Quality Score survey. Where possible, data collection is crowdsourced by smartphone-wielding citizens through a custom built online platform. The result is a comprehensive set of scores at street, ward, and city level that measure the quality of infrastructure and services, such as roads, water, sanitation, and safety.
An Online Citizen Engagement Platform
The medium-term plan is to make all this data together available through an online civic engagement platform. This will present an integrated view of a city’s budget, works, infrastructure, and services to citizens, elected representatives, and officials. Here’s how it might look:
The end game for the Open Works initiative is to enable participatory budgeting in Indian cities, with a portion of ward funds being set aside for projects suggested by citizens. The online platform will be central to the task of bringing citizens together in meetings with their elected representatives and government officials.
Janaagraha has started the initiative on their home turf with a vision to scale up to other Indian cities and, eventually, to cities across the world where citizens suffer similar problems.
For more information on the Open Works initiative, contact Ambar Nag at [email protected].
Ensuring responsible budgeting practices requires vigilance. It may also require institutionalizing mechanisms to make budget decisions more transparent. This applies not just to spending but also to budget decisions that affect revenue.
Take the case of Sri Lanka where excise taxes on products such as cigarettes and alcohol are a significant source of government revenue. Each year, revenue from the excise tax on cigarettes alone generates around LKR 60 billion (approximately US$ 440 million). Mishandling the decisions related to these taxes can result in the government forgoing billions in potential revenue.
Vigilance and Publicity can Increase Accountability
In Sri Lanka the decisions on adjusting the excise tax rates are primarily in the hands of bureaucrats within the Ministry of Finance, and this responsibility has been mishandled — with serious impact on revenues. The cigarette excise tax for the most popular brand (which has captured 80 percent of the market) has declined as a percentage of price from 70.8 percent in 2006 to 59 percent in 2012.
Being vigilant about monitoring budget and revenue streams can expose such lapses, and publicizing those identified can strengthen accountability. Verité Research accomplished this in 2014 on cigarette taxes and in October of that year the Ministry of Finance increased the excise tax rate back to 2006 levels.
Without Extreme Vigilance the Public can be Misled
However, the apparently corrective response was only skin deep. At the same time that the excise tax rate was restored to former levels, the government took away the value-added tax (VAT) and other turnover taxes that applied to cigarettes — effectively cutting taxes by about 14 percent.
Therefore extreme vigilance must be sustained to prevent backsliding and evaluate whether government’s ostensibly favorable responses to problems exposed are genuinely corrective or only serve to cover up the problems.
Transparent Mechanisms are Valuable
Verité Research analysis revealed that the gradual reduction of taxes on cigarettes has cost the government LKR 76 billion (nearly US$ 558 million) over the last eight years. This is as much as eight years’ worth of total government spending on the country’s largest support program for the poor.
The lack of transparency in the setting these taxes allowed the rate reductions to go undetected. In addition to the need for vigilance and publicity, governments need to institute transparent mechanisms that guide and enable accountability for such decisions. (For more on this see “Parliament should have a formula for regulating Cigarettes.”)
Revenue Decisions are as Important as Spending Decisions
Advocates for better governance, policies, and outcomes in Sri Lanka, and the world over, tend to focus mostly on the expenditures side of the problem — asking the government to allocate a greater share of the budget for public services and support for the poor. But these calls are often rebuffed by pointing to budget constraints and responsible macroeconomic management. The present case study shows that also focusing on the revenue side of the budget, vigilantly monitoring and advocating against unnecessary tax breaks and other reductions that limit the public resources available to address needs, is also critical to increasing budget accountability.
For more information contact Nilangika Fernando at [email protected].
From the Annual Report
Early on in IBP’s work with CSOs around the world, it was clear that a common and persistent hurdle faced by our partners was a widespread lack of access to government budget information. This is where IBP, primarily through the Open Budget Survey and related activities, and other public finance stakeholders have focused recent efforts. And this work is beginning to bear fruit. Multiple rounds of the Open Budget Index have shown a gradual improvement in budget transparency practices worldwide. However, the job is far from done.
Around the world, CSOs have increasingly used expanded access to information on government budgets to hold their governments to account. Still, while there have been notable successes, greater disclosure of budget data by governments has not always led to effective participation in budget processes by civil society or brought about increased accountability on the part of governments. There are several factors at play here, including the limited capacity of civil society and the timeliness and level of detail of the budget information that is published. But a crucial barrier to citizen and CSO engagement is a lack of formal opportunities to meaningfully participate in the budget process.
To assess the level to which governments are engaging the public in budget processes, IBP expanded the number of questions related to the formal spaces governments provide for public participation in the 2012 Open Budget Survey. The results revealed that governments’ practices in fostering participation lag significantly behind their transparency practices. This finding is reinforced by findings from other IBP research studies that have shown that budget laws that specify only transparency requirements are more common than laws that also require public participation in budget processes.
IBP has used these findings in the past two years to explore why there has been so little progress on improving participation within countries. Our discussions with governments and other public finance stakeholders over this time have helped us to better understand the resistance to public participation in budgeting and to identify some good models of participation mechanisms that are being implemented by some countries.
Support for Public Participation Is Building Gradually
The Open Budget Survey 2012 finds that government practices to foster public engagement in budgets are generally inadequate to facilitate greater accountability — and in some countries completely absent. However, since the 2012 OBS, some important steps have been taken by international standard-setting bodies in support of expanded public participation in budgeting to complement greater transparency.
In 2012 GIFT issued 10 high-level principles on fiscal transparency, including one that specifically supports public participation in budgets. GIFT’s principles were subsequently endorsed in a resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. Since then GIFT has published more detailed reports describing key elements of public participation along with a set of case studies that describe public participation practices in Brazil, the Philippines, and South Korea.
Other international standard setters have followed suit. In 2014 the OECD issued its “Principles of Budgetary Governance” and emphasized that “debate on budgetary choices should be inclusive, participative, and realistic.” Also in 2014, the IMF published its revised Code on Good Practices on Fiscal Transparency and encouraged “government [to] provide . . . citizens with an accessible summary of the implications of budget policies and an opportunity to participate in budget deliberations.” Finally, in 2013, one of the guidelines issued by the International Organization for Supreme Audit Institutions identified several instruments and tools to promote citizen participation in the auditing process. So the pieces seem to be coming together, even if the progress is slower than IBP would prefer.
What We’ve Learned About Public Participation: Concerns and Possible Solutions
Because engagement of citizens and CSOs in budget processes is so central to IBP’s work, it has been critical for us examine the widespread resistance to providing space for this to happen. The reasons governments most often cite for why they are not prioritizing public participation in budgeting generally fall into the following four categories:
Public participation is impractical at the national level because it requires the creation of systems that can accommodate the engagement of millions of citizens. There are a number of solutions available to mitigate concerns about overwhelming budget decision-making processes with citizen engagement. If a government wants to open spaces for large-scale participation, technology can help. Various levels of government in the U.S. have held virtual town hall meetings at which citizens can directly communicate their concerns and priorities on budgets. South Korea and other countries have set up fraud hotlines for citizens to report corrupt practices to budget oversight agencies. Examples from other countries show that certain stages of the budget process are more amenable to large-scale participation than others. For example, the Brazilian government pioneered broad citizen engagement through participatory budget formulation, while the Indian government has used social audits to involve tens of thousands of citizens in monitoring budget implementation.
But, mass public participation is not the only option. For more technical or narrowly focused budget decisions, such as those on a specific tax policy or social program, it makes more sense to seek the participation of representatives from relevant CSOs, trade unions, and universities, among other experts. Through the use of such targeted consultations, the government can consider a variety of views, including input from those closest to the issue on the ground, before making its decision.
To facilitate these processes, some governments maintain standing lists of individuals and CSOs interested in particular issues. The governments can then contact these individuals and organizations when issues that concern them are being considered. The success of such lists depends on the government ensuring that these interested parties receive clear and timely information on how they can join the lists and that the lists are compiled without discrimination or arbitrary exclusions and include ample representation of disadvantaged or marginalized communities.
Public participation will lead to demands for greater budget allocations or subsidies that will make budgets fiscally unsustainable. Those who hold this view sometimes suggest that public participation should be focused on budget implementation and not on planning and formulation. However, IBP’s research into public participation in budgeting has yielded nothing that points to a causal relationship between democratic practices of engagement and higher budget deficits. While there is some evidence that legislatures with unfettered powers to amend budgets are linked to higher spending and larger deficits, even this is not a given. There are cases in which a strong legislative finance committee has amended total proposed expenditures so as to check higher budget deficits. In a similar way, public participation could be designed in ways that could mitigate concerns of uncontrolled budget deficits. The benefit of broad participation is that government decision makers are exposed to a greater diversity of views on the budget before making the inevitable choices between competing priorities.
Direct public participation in budget decision making may undermine the constitutional role of legislatures to approve and oversee budgets. Many argue that popularly elected legislators are adequately representing the public’s priorities and so there is no need to further engage citizens in budgetary matters. What IBP has learned from its work with countries around the world is that mechanisms for public participation can complement legislative oversight by bringing new knowledge and information into legislative budget deliberations. Furthermore, in many countries the capacity of legislatures to analyze budgets is weak. The capabilities of the academic community, and the resources of civil society, can augment this capacity and so bolster the legislature’s decision-making ability.
It is difficult to measure public participation and to ensure that participation mechanisms are truly empowering citizens to participate in budget decision making. This is mostly a concern that the measures for public participation do not address the barriers faced by disadvantaged communities and thus further empower the more affluent sections of society. This is an important concern but one that is not impossible to address. To meet this challenge, legal frameworks can be created to ensure that disadvantaged segments of the population have adequate opportunities to have their voices heard. Furthermore, either the executive or the legislature could organize public hearings during which budget policies that are intended to benefit a country’s most disadvantaged populations are discussed. Discussions at these hearings could feature displays of expenditures disaggregated by gender, age, income, or region to show the impact of policies on different groups of citizens, or, as is done in some countries, legislators could tour the country to gather input from those who cannot travel to the capital. After such public hearings have been conducted and as budget deliberations proceed, the government should provide feedback to the public on how their inputs are being used to develop budget plans and improve budget execution.
It is heartening to see those in international groups coming to recognize the importance of public participation in budgeting. The debate seems to be shifting from “Should we do this?” to “How can we best do this?” However, concerns about full participation at the country level are real, and the challenge remains for proponents to develop and promote mechanisms that effectively enable all citizens to engage meaningfully with their governments in budget decision making. IBP is keenly aware that the dearth of meaningful mechanisms for participation could undermine the fight for greater transparency, so this is a major priority for us going forward.
First, we will use the Open Budget Survey to clearly establish the nonnegotiable need for public participation in budget processes if there is to be real accountability. We will increase our emphasis on participation through the Survey by developing a participation index that will provide a regular, comparable rigorous tool for measuring and tracking government performance at the country level. This index will enable governments, domestic CSOs, donors, and other accountability actors to monitor and promote improvements against a common set of benchmarks.
IBP also will continue to play a leading role in GIFT’s ambitious agenda in 2015 to document practical and meaningful examples of public participation from around the world through case studies and to use these examples to develop guidelines for public participation. We are planning to discuss the draft guidelines at four country meetings at which governments and local CSOs will consider the relevance of the principles for their particular country context. GIFT will use the feedback from these meetings to modify the guidelines before pushing ahead to develop a menu of good practices, which could be the foundation for a set of international norms, as well as measures to assess country-level performance.
Third, IBP will use the results, standards, and good practices to push international and regional development institutions to promote greater transparency and public engagement in budgeting within member countries and to support partners in their advocacy to open spaces for participation at the country level.
In 2013 IBP edited a book of case studies that examined the political economy of fiscal transparency. In particular, the volume assessed the factors that have led to major improvements in budget transparency in such countries as Brazil, South Africa, and South Korea. The research found that a key factor driving improvements in budget transparency was the desire on the part of governments to show both the domestic private sector and the international financial markets that they were serious about their fiscal responsibilities. The publication also reported a strong relationship between increased budget transparency and higher credit ratings and lower borrowing costs on government bonds. These findings reinforced IBP’s view that the investor community, particularly investors in sovereign bond markets, can play an important role in motivating governments to improve the transparency of their budget practices. However, we still need to better understand why investors might be interested in fiscal transparency so that we can better engage them in efforts to promote more open budgeting.
In 2014 IBP achieved two important breakthroughs in its discussions with the investor community. First, Bloomberg L.P., the financial software, data, and media giant, signed an agreement with IBP that enables Bloomberg to make complete data from all four rounds of the Open Budget Survey available to its clients through its data terminals. The company contacted IBP about providing data from the Open Budget Survey because it sees the relevance of such data to assessments of the risk of investing in a particular country.
Second, the Emerging Markets Investors Alliance (the Alliance) — a nonprofit group of professional investors that seeks to promote good governance practices in the emerging markets in which they invest — initiated a collaboration with IBP and GIFT. Founded in New York in 2010, the Alliance membership includes investment analysts, portfolio managers, and investment bankers who share its philosophy of “actionable intelligence for responsible investing.”
In December 2014 the Alliance organized an event in New York during which IBP staff members, along with GIFT members from the IMF, World Bank, and GIFT’s secretariat, discussed the state of fiscal transparency in emerging markets with investors. Following this discussion, the Alliance helped IBP conduct a survey of 10 of its member analysts from different investment houses, in order to dig deeper into the private sector’s interest in fiscal transparency. While we recognize that, as Alliance members, those surveyed do not necessarily represent the broader investor community, IBP was able to glean four key insights into the types of data investors seek, as well the role they can play in encouraging governments to expand budget transparency.
Investors want more fiscal and budget data to be published by governments.
Most of the survey respondents consider fiscal transparency to be an important issue that influences their decisions on whether and how much to invest in a country. However, those surveyed are generally dissatisfied with the amount of fiscal data they are currently able to obtain from governments, primarily from the central finance ministry but also from national statistics agencies. For investors, less data being available may be a signal of potential undisclosed fiscal weaknesses.
Almost all respondents expressed a strong preference for making data on a government’s budget and fiscal conditions publicly available to all interested parties. One respondent commented, “It makes me uncomfortable to get confidential data due to the ethics around the fact. Other investors should get access as well, and I make it a point to say so.”
Investors are interested in a diverse set of data on fiscal plans and results achieved, rather than just macroeconomic aggregates.
It is often argued that investors are only interested in data at the level of macro-aggregates, but our survey data argues that investors are interested in a much wider range of fiscal data. The survey asked respondents about their interest in each of eight budget documents assessed through the Open Budget Survey. Among government budget planning documents, survey respondents expressed interest in data contained in the Pre-Budget Statement, the Executive’s Budget Proposal, and the Enacted Budget. Among budget execution documents, the respondents found Mid-Year Reviews to be more valuable than monthly or quarterly budget execution reports. Given that Audit Reports provide an independent assessment of the government’s budget implementation, IBP was surprised that respondents were less interested in them than in Financial Statements and Annual Budget Reports.
Information on macroeconomic forecasts, revenue sources, and the extent and composition of debt was also important to the respondents. They were less interested in information on the sensitivity of a government’s budget to changes in macroeconomic assumptions or data on the sustainability of revenue. Further, data on assets and non-debt liabilities are considered more important than data on projected long-term obligations, such as social security, pensions, etc. The respondents also found performance information and other non-financial data more valuable than program-level budgetary information.
Both the public finance sector and private sector emphasize the need for planning. Thus it was interesting that the respondents consider information on actual results from the two prior budget years to be more important than the medium-term framework for expenditures, which contains information on the budget plans for the next two years beyond the current budget year. Clearly, investor’s value fiscal management capacity, rather than vision.
Finally, emphasizing their interest in a diverse range of fiscal data, respondents would like access to more than just central government budgets. They also want information on off-budget fiscal activities and entities, subnational government budgets, and non-financial public corporations.
Investors are making minimal use of reports on fiscal transparency in emerging markets published by the World Bank, IMF, and IBP.
It appears that the interest investors have in a wide range of government budget data has not translated into a corresponding interest in external assessments of budget transparency. With a few exceptions, respondents were unfamiliar with IMF’s fiscal transparency evaluations (formerly known as the Fiscal Reports on Observance of Standards and Codes), IBP’s Open Budget Survey, or reports issued by the World Bank-hosted Public Expenditure and Financial Accountability (PEFA) Program.
Respondents who were aware of these reports indicated that the most important feature of the reports is “consistency and comparability across countries,” followed by “wide coverage across countries” and “quantitative ranking.” They considered such features as “assessments of the quality of reported fiscal data” and “inclusion of recommendations on priorities for reform” to be less important. In light of these responses, IBP, IMF, and the PEFA Program should make a stronger effort to disseminate the Open Budget Survey and other related research on transparency to investors.
Investors are interested in communicating the importance of fiscal transparency to governments in a variety of forums.
Almost all of the respondents indicated that they were already communicating with — or were willing to communicate with — government officials about gaps in fiscal transparency or weaknesses in the quality of fiscal data. However, respondents are also enthusiastic about learning specific ways in which they could help promote greater fiscal transparency and about the types of data available in the assessment reports issued by IBP, the IMF, and the PEFA Program.
Survey respondents also described the ways they currently communicate the importance of fiscal transparency to governments. Many cited face-to-face meetings; others mentioned their participation in investor associations. Several cited “road shows” (when governments planning a new bond issue send a team from the finance ministry and central bank to New York to pitch to investors) as the best opportunity to discuss transparency issues. Another opportunity to meet with government officials occurs during investor conferences, such as those organized around the World Bank-IMF meetings in Washington, D.C. Finally, in some instances, investors organize their own meetings with government officials when they visit a country.
Both the Alliance meeting in New York and the subsequent survey of investors provided insights into how the investment community currently thinks about fiscal transparency. This new information will help IBP and GIFT to determine how to work more closely with the private sector to promote fiscal transparency.
With the formal inclusion of the Alliance as a GIFT member, IBP and GIFT have an important ally in expanding discussions with investors about budget transparency. The Alliance plans to alert IBP and GIFT to bond issuances as they are announced so that IBP can produce customized reports on the state of fiscal transparency in the countries issuing the bonds. Such reports will include information on the key gaps in fiscal transparency in the countries and provide the specific information that our survey indicates investors value. The Alliance will then seek opportunities to discuss these reports with the relevant governments. IBP is excited about the potential of this collaboration, having different stakeholders work together to achieve shared priorities enhances the likelihood of making real improvements in budget transparency.
In addition to the work IBP plans with the Alliance, we will test the survey findings with a broader segment of the investor community and explore opportunities that will complement the work of the Alliance and expand it beyond this group of investors.
As the world edges ever closer to finalizing the post-2015 development agreement, IBP’s Paolo de Renzio looks how to ensure that data related to the goals are made widely available. de Renzio highlights a number of initiatives that, taken together, may point the way forward.
The data revolution has spurred some welcome thinking about how open data can better serve the needs of poor people. IBP’s Jamison Crowell and Ryan Flynn look at how, when it comes to public finance data, there are some easy wins to making more information available.
The Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Keren Ben-Zeev looks at the power of social audits. Ben-Zeev summarizes lessons that South African activists derived from a recent trip to study social auditing in India and explores how they may apply in different contexts.
From the Web
The World Resources Institute looks at whether the communities most affected by climate change are receiving the financing intended to help these developing areas adapt to environmental changes. The blog also links to a new toolkit for civil society organizations that are interested in tracking and analyzing these funds in their country.
Development Initiatives has created the Development Data Hub to make development data easy for people to access, understand, and use. It aims to enable people to advocate for better allocation of global and national resources, greater transparency and accountability at all levels, and ensure that decisions are rooted in evidence.
The Development Data Hub brings greater transparency on how donors are allocating aid, answering critical questions such as how much are they spending, where and in what form the aid is delivered, and to which sectors. It provides poverty, vulnerability, and social indicator data so you can see how well countries are performing over time and how they compare with one another.
It is also the leading tool globally for domestic public resources data. It provides unprecedented transparency on governments’ domestic revenue and expenditure, bringing in a wealth of domestic data to show how resources are raised and used and how much is spent per person.
By providing data from the global to the subnational level, the Development Data Hub empowers people with facts and figures at their fingertips from the most credible sources available, and allows this data to be accessed for free, and downloadable where possible.
And it shows the power of data — helping make the case for why we need more data to be published at the most granular level possible and to a common standard.
“Budget Brief No. 30 – Devolution in Kenya: Is the National Government Still Holding Funds That Should be Devolved”
Building on analysis of devolution in Kenya presented in Budget Brief No. 26 and Budget Brief No. 29, this brief looks at how much funding is still going to the national government for devolved functions.
“Budget Brief No. 31 – Participation in Public Finance Reform and Gender”
This brief explores how those advising on public finance management reforms can ensure that women are not excluded when the demand-side component of these reforms is designed.
“A Guide to the Egyptian Budget” explains how public finance is managed in Egypt. Written in simple and accessible language, and supplemented with real-world examples, it aims to help readers understand how the Egyptian budget is formulated, where public money comes from, and how it is spent.
In the think piece “Mobilizing Accountability: Citizens, Movements, and the State,” authors Brendan Halloran and Walter Flores reexamine the role of citizens, organizations, and movements, and suggest ways to support efforts to hold governments accountable to citizens.
“Following the Money 2015: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,” a report issued by the US PIRG (Public Interest Research Group), finds that U.S. states continue to make progress toward comprehensive, one-stop, one-click transparency and accountability for state government spending. Over the past year, many states have launched new and improved websites to better open the books on public spending, or have adopted new practices to further expand citizens’ access to critical spending information. Some states, however, still have a long way to go.
The Overseas Development Institute paper “Overcoming Incrementalism: Budget Reforms and Budget Allocations in Chile” investigates the impact of fiscal institutions on fiscal performance, using reallocations in the budget as a measure of performance. It finds that budget allocations were more rigid the less additional money was available, and that institutional reforms designed to increase flexibility managed to break the link between spending and reallocations, as well as having a significant and positive effect on the size of annual reallocations.
“Financing the Sustainable Development Goals: Lessons from Government Spending on the MDGs” uses new and unique datasets from 67 countries on MDG spending in 2012-14, new datasets on debt and defense spending, combined with in-depth analysis of the latest financing trends in developing countries, to draw lessons and implications for the Financing for Development (FfD) agenda of the SDGs.
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