The results achieved by many countries were disappointing, but the overall accountability gap the report found was not entirely surprising. Rather than simply lamenting the dismal state of accountability systems, however, we can shine a spotlight on what good procedures look like in practice. To take a more in-depth look at these practices, IBP drafted briefs that delve into government objectives in implementing them, the impacts achieved, and lessons that can be drawn for their replication in other countries. The main goal was to provide more detailed descriptions to governments and other stakeholders who work with governments of how they can “close the gap” and strengthen national accountability systems during emergencies.
Each experience provides a detailed description of the response taken in that country as well as the benefits they reaped. For example, in Jamaica, the real-time audit of the government’s COVID-19 stimulus package saved an estimated JMD 245 million in payments that would have been made to ineligible applicants. In Nepal and Sierra Leone, early engagement by the countries’ fiscal oversight institutions led to investigations of corruption and mismanagement.
In South Africa, public feedback through the Asivikelane initiative enabled the government to improve access to water, sanitation, and waste removal services affecting more than one million people living in informal settlements. Similarly, in Senegal, the government was able to better target its emergency response to people living with disabilities. This happened thanks to the work of the monitoring committee the government established to solicit public feedback on its emergency measures. In countries that developed COVID-19-related open data portals, like Ecuador and Paraguay, increased transparency in public procurement has led to greater public scrutiny of government contracts.
Many of the briefs were written by civil society organizations that engaged with government during the implementation of the fiscal measures adopted to tackle the impact of COVID. The authors interviewed people within and outside government who had knowledge and experiences of the practices documented in the briefs. A synthesis brief that summarizes the main lessons from the experiences of countries in implementing the good practices that were documented is now available online.
IBP and the World Bank recently organized a two-day workshop that brought together finance ministries, legislative staff, auditors, donor agencies, and civil society organizations to discuss the lessons from the experiences of countries in instituting accountable systems to manage their emergency funds.
Two main lessons emerged from the workshop:
One, country leadership plays a critical role in setting the tone for accountability and undertaking course corrections based on feedback. When governments are explicit about their intention to prioritize accountability, it can become a guiding post that informs actions. These include clarifying the governance of emergency responses through rules, regulations, legal frameworks, processes, and agencies. The actions can also take the form of new investments – including human and financial capital, and technical solutions – or leveraging existing skills and competencies in advancing an open and inclusive emergency process. In some cases, existing transparency, inclusion, and accountability approaches can be better targeted to address the emergency.
Two, a system-wide and multi-stakeholder response involving executives, legislatures, auditors, and civil society actors can overcome resistance to accountability. Emergencies require an all-hands-on-deck approach as a single agency or institution may not have the ability to change the accountability culture in the country. Further, early engagement by oversight bodies and external stakeholders is critical. Several of the good practice briefs found that these actors had, by engaging early, ensured that government standards were upheld.
Our work over the past year has clearly shown that governments can achieve speedy policy responses to an emergency like COVID-19 without undermining accountability. Strong public finance management systems measured by improved scores in the Open Budget Survey and Public Expenditure and Financial Accountability assessment can facilitate the process. When speed and accountability are pursued together, the public receives better services. That, in turn, builds confidence that the government can deliver. The overall message for governments, donors, and civil society organizations is to not wait for a crisis to invest in building transparent, inclusive, and accountable public finance management systems.
Vivek Ramkumar is the Senior Director of Policy at the International Budget Partnership. Edward Olowo Okere is the Global Director for Governance Global Practice at the World Bank Group.
By Claire Schouten, Senior Program Officer, International Budget Partnership and Joe Powell, Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Open Government Partnership
Restoring the notion of government of, for and by the people will be essential as we seek to renew societies and build resilience in the post-pandemic global recovery. This crisis exacerbated and exposed inequality and injustice around the world, hitting the most vulnerable hardest. Now is the time for governments to make more robust investments in rebuilding societies.
These investments are too important to be made opaquely and without public input, especially when inequality and perceived corruption have already undermined public trust in many governments. In recent years, governments globally have made commitments to be open about what they’re doing with the public’s money.
Fiscal openness is a mainstay of the open government movement. In the last decade of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), over 90 percent of OGP members have made a total of 671 fiscal openness commitments – more than nearly any other policy area. Fiscal openness is not just a consistently popular policy area in OGP, it’s also one of the four core eligibility criteria for membership, based on data from the Open Budget Survey. Redoubling those commitments, and most essentially, making sure they translate into accountability – so that communities have a say in public spending and can ensure governments use scarce resources for the public good– has never been more important to our democratic future.
The good news is that these efforts are paying off. As per the Open Budget Survey, we’re at the highest level of transparency since the International Budget Partnership started assessing open budget practices more than fifteen years ago. In the 77 countries assessed in every round between 2008 and 2019, the average global score on budget transparency increased by 20 percent. The latest OGP Vital Signs research also shows that OGP countries that have made open budgeting commitments – especially if they are ambitious and over multiple action plans – have improved their scores more than other countries.
However, progress has also been inconsistent with fluctuating performance in too many countries. Among OGP members, there are now some countries that even risk falling below the core eligibility criteria because they have slipped on their fiscal transparency scores. COVID exacerbated this volatility as many governments have not been as transparent with relief spending as they could be. Despite all of this, there is room for quicker, more sustained progress. If countries around the world simply published budget documents that they already produce for internal use, there would be transparency gains globally of 20 percent. Governments can also focus on proactively providing information that citizens want, such as information on service delivery.
Going beyond transparency
There is also growing recognition that transparency alone is insufficient, that opportunities for public participation and strong oversight are also central to accountable government. Spaces are needed for informed public debate and for those most likely to be adversely affected by inequitable budgets to be involved. Strong oversight by both legislatures, national audit offices and other oversight actors is needed to hold the executive to account throughout the budget process and ensure budgets are fully implemented in line with stated objectives.
As governments launched massive spending measures to address the impacts of the pandemic, some countries have shown that a more transparent, inclusive and accountable way of managing the public purse, even during an emergency, is indeed possible.
In the Philippines, a commitment to hold a series of public consultations called Dagyaw 2020—promoted under the aegis of the Open Government Partnership—was repurposed to ensure continuing public dialogues during the COVID crisis on government response policies.
In South Africa, the civil society-led Asivikelane campaign has highlighted severe public service shortages in South Africa’s informal settlements. Using a simple but effective survey that is implemented via text messages and targeted advocacy, the campaign has already improved access to water, sanitation, and waste removal services from municipal governments affecting more than one million people.
These good practices demonstrate that speedy policy responses do not have to undermine accountability. They provide a useful roadmap for governments to include citizens and critical oversight institutions in deeply consequential spending decisions in emergency times and beyond. By planning and implementing spending in a more open and collaborative way, and keeping citizens informed, governments can ensure public spending is more effective and equitable. Perhaps most importantly, they can strengthen social capital and expand civic space so that all people feel heard and trust that public funds are spent in the public interest. Governments should take heed of these approaches in their ongoing relief efforts. For instance, the EU’s landmark Recovery and Resilience Facility – an essential mechanism to combat the challenges faced by EU member states as they rebuild economies and livelihoods in the wake of the pandemic – should model these good practices. Given the unprecedented size and scale of the funds, it will be crucial to embed enhanced transparency, accountability and civic participation mechanisms to ensure these funds have their intended impact.
We have an opportunity to forge new alliances and strategies that shift politics. It’s an all-hands-on-deck approach to countering authoritarianism and promoting local accountability solutions. It consists of:
Refined political strategy. For public resources to contribute to a more just and equitable society, we need a deeper understanding and response to the political economy of public resource decision-making and implementation. Powerful interests that have built social, political, and economic structures that concentrate wealth and privilege and exclude marginalized groups are at the root causes of deprivation. Further opening up budget processes in meaningful ways requires developing alliances and partnerships that build countervailing power, so that public resources are spent to tackle poverty and inequity. Progress on open spending practices will also generate important information for combating corruption in public contracts and company ownership.
New spaces for impact. New spaces are emerging as opportunities for impact on big political issues of our time. They include meaningful civil society participation in revenue debates and spending monitoring; bridging budget and environmental actors to ensure that recovery funds contribute to a sustainable and green transition and that climate change funds serve vulnerable communities; and strong connections and real gains at the subnational level of government, with a focus on service delivery. Civil society has been a vanguard in carving out new spaces to inform government decisions in a meaningful way– now it is time for national and local governments to scale up and formalize channels for greater public participation on these mission critical issues.
New opportunities for powerful alliances. We can build a robust accountability ecosystem that fosters trust and strengthens democracy. Let’s bring together citizens, social movements, state accountability institutions such as national audit offices and executive ministries to foster a governance system that works for all.
As the Open Budget Survey and good practices above illustrate, it is notable that countries across income levels and geographies have been able to chart new directions to manage public funds in a more accountable and inclusive way. Where there is a will, there is a way. A more inclusive approach is not only possible, but desirable if we are to advance more resilient and democratic societies in which public funds advance the public interest. The Open Government Partnership can help by enlisting new allies, building broad coalitions across government and civic actors with legitimacy and power to rise to the challenges we face and are likely to face going forward.
This article also appears on the Open Government Partnership’s website. Read it here.
A public health emergency is testing whether Gambian civil society can keep tabs on the national budget
The Start of a Change Agent
After decades of dictatorship, The Gambia had its first transfer of power by popular election in December 2016. This election brought hope, but unravelling decades of dictatorial rule has proven difficult. Government funds earmarked for public projects often end up in the hands of individuals with connections to politicians or used to benefit special interests.
Ahead of the watershed 2016 election, Marr Nyang resigned from his job at a well-regarded law firm to embark on a grassroots voter education and engagement campaign. Following the campaign’s success, he established Gambia Participates as a civil society organization to bolster good governance.
“I started Gambia Participates because I realized there were no organizations promoting fiscal transparency, doing anti-corruption work, or bringing the public into the fold,” Nyang said. “It was only done at the government level and inconsistently. I decided to start Gambia Participates in 2016 during that toxic political environment. After the change in government, I started pushing for fiscal discipline, transparency, and accountability. Fast forward and we’ve seen great improvements, but also have big challenges when it comes to the mismanagement of public wealth.”
The organization works to ensure budget transparency and a budget that “reflects the needs and aspirations of the people,” as Marr puts it. They also monitor and hold the government accountable for how it spends the budget. Over time, they have successfully nudged the Gambian government, and the Ministry of Finance in particular, to improve governance standards and budgetary reporting.
In December 2020, as part of its work to monitor and hold the government accountable, Gambia Participates sued the National Assembly for violating the budget process by forcefully inserting a US$1 million loan scheme for Members of Parliament in the 2021 budget. On 4 May 2021, the Supreme Court declared the move unconstitutional and the loan scheme was consequently removed from the enacted budget.
The Open Budget Survey as a Vehicle for Reform
The Open Budget Survey, published by the International Budget Partnership (IBP) in collaboration with partners in close to 120 countries around the world, helps local civil society assess and confer with their government on the reporting and use of public funds. The Gambia took part in the Open Budget Survey for the first time in 2019 thanks to Gambia Participates and its dynamic leader.
Since the country took part in the survey, the government signalled a willingness to make its budget documents more transparent. For the first time, the Ministry of Finance published the Executive’s Budget Proposal (EBP) on time and well before the enacted budget was approved. The EBP is the national budget that is tabled before parliament and is widely considered to be the government’s most important annual economic policy statement. Timely publication of the EBP is critical, as it can enable the public and CSOs to make submissions on their needs and priorities to their elected representatives before the budget is approved into law.
Prior to this, the EBP had only been made available in hard copy for the Ministry of Finance and National Assembly. By making the EBP and other such documents available to the public, the Gambia demonstrated its support for informed public debate on the budget. Furthermore, this is one of the key criteria used to assess and rank countries in the Open Budget Survey. The government also published the 2019 budget on the Ministry of Finance website for the first time.
These are significant wins for the people of The Gambia and for advancing global transparency norms. “I believe the Open Budget Survey was a wake-up call for the government to acknowledge its weaknesses and work towards improving them by collaborating with civil society,” Marr said. “In partnership with IBP we realize it is important for there to be a standard roadmap to ensure increased budget transparency, citizen participation in the budget, and accountability around the budget process.”
When COVID-19 hit, Gambia Participates leveraged the skills learnt from conducting the Open Budget Survey to analyze how COVID-19 emergency funds were being used and to hold the government accountable.
Pivoting during the Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic was the ultimate test of good governance in the country since the end of dictatorial rule. As the virus spread, the government created a $10 million emergency response fund to provide the medical sector with the tools to keep the pandemic under control. Gambia Participates leveraged the skills and knowledge obtained from its work on the Open Budget Survey to track where and how the emergency funds were being spent.
As the investigation into COVID-19 spending unfolded, field workers from Gambia Participates began noticing a lack of personal protective equipment among frontline workers throughout the country. They also discovered hospitals in major population centers lacked basic items, like overhead thermometers. Frontline workers that Gambia Participates interviewed said funds had been mismanaged just as they had been during the Ebola crisis of 2014-16.
Gambia Participates published an investigation titled “Corona, The Gambia, and the Millions,” in which it detailed the misappropriation of emergency funds. According to the investigation, only $3 million of the $10 million emergency fund had been spent. Moreover, much of the money that was spent had gone to “motor vehicles and hotels while treatment centers and isolation centers are in dilapidated conditions.”
The Gambian Ministry of Health cooperated with the investigation and publicly reported that the emergency funds had been spent on the procurement of medical equipment, the refurbishment of health facilities, as well as vehicles, training, and hotel accommodations for quarantined individuals. Field workers from Gambia Participates, however, painted a very different picture.
Everywhere they visited, health workers and stakeholders complained of a lack of training on COVID-19 protocols; unfurnished isolation centers; inadequate sanitary materials; fraudulent names on the list of frontline workers eligible for hardship allowances; and, above all, a lack of preparedness. In the initial phases of the emergency response, there was no plan or budget in place to determine the actual expenditure of funds.
Using the findings as a springboard, Gambia Participates offered policy reforms designed to prevent public sector corruption and strengthen the public finance sector and health facilities. While the Ministry of Health acknowledged the accusations of corruption and misuse of funds, it is yet to present solutions.
Hard Work Remains
In January 2021, Gambia Participates, with support from IBP, held a workshop with key stakeholders from the Ministry of Finance, the National Assembly, civil society organizations, and the media to identify opportunities for improving fiscal transparency, budget oversight, and public participation in the national budget. Participants reviewed recommendations from the 2019 Open Budget Survey and reflected on gaps in the budget process that hindered the country’s performance.
The outcome was a detailed roadmap that included a budget calendar to facilitate predictability and planning for the fiscal year. “When we designed the roadmap, each institution and stakeholder presented their challenges and opportunities, and then we discussed how to advocate for the roadmap to be part of the budget process,” Marr said. Gambia Participates sent the roadmap to the Ministry of Finance and the national audit office to ensure officials included it in their budget plans. All three stakeholders will hold discussions about how the government can start implementing the roadmap to fill in the gaps it has in budget transparency and public participation, and how Gambia Participates can collaborate with the government to implement the roadmap’s recommendations.
The tide is starting to shift in The Gambia when it comes to public access to and scrutiny of budget decisions. Between Gambia Participates’ scrupulous work and the government’s willingness to improve, attention is focused on building long-term budget practices that will prepare the country for the next public health or other crisis.
“The national budget is central to the socio-economic development of a country,” Nyang notes. “It is crucial for citizens to have a say in the budget process and to mainstream their priorities, which we continue to do at Gambia Participates by facilitating discussion between government officials and the electorate before and after the budget is approved.”
With IBP’s support, the work carried out by Gambia Participates demonstrates that when civil society is properly equipped, open budget practices can be championed even during the immensely challenging conditions of a pandemic. When community-led organizations galvanize citizens to hold their governments accountable, the voices of those most in need are centered.
In this section, we shine a spotlight on partners who are spearheading budget advocacy on the ground to affect transformational change in their communities.
This month we talked with Ubagu Martha Amuche, a member of COMEN (the Community Empowerment Network)in the Ojoto community in Anambra state.
Q: What inspired you to start working with COMEN?
A: To start working with COMEN was challenging, however, it is also the most satisfying volunteering community development work. I wanted to make a positive contribution to the growth and development of my community, build a network of people with shared goals, and gain professional skills and experience to meet the demands of society.
Q: What skills or tools did IBP bring that helped COMEN achieve their successes?
A: IBP supported us in gaining budget advocacy and process skills and shared reflections and lessons learned to help us achieve our successes. COMEN has been able to generate useful evidence by monitoring what the government is currently doing with the funds that have been budgeted in health sectors and other areas.
Q: What achievement with COMEN are you most proud of and why?
A: I am proud of leading members to advocate for Primary Health Care Centers, championing and defending civil society space and the formation of a partner network. Our partnership with the Justice Development and Peace Caritas helped us to influence and improve Primary Health Care Centers’ service delivery and provide the evidence needed for the #FixmyPHC campaign, which directly led to governments increasing money spent on Primary Health Care Centers.
Q: How has engaging in budget advocacy affected your life?
A: Engaging in budget advocacy has helped to understand the implications of budget choices and take action to help shape community budget choices.
Q: Why should the average citizen care about budgets?
A: Citizen involvement in budgeting makes local service delivery more efficient and effective. Therefore, citizen participation in the budget is very important for the individual, government and society at large.
On Dec. 16, 2020, the Finance Ministry of the Republic of Indonesia and IBP held a high-level, virtual panel, “Getting it Right: Promoting Equity and Accountability in the COVID-19 Response,” which focused on equity and accountability in emergency public spending and how we can strengthen the role of civil society in monitoring these expenditures. The event garnered international media coverage from major outlets in Indonesia and Kenya and more than 3,300 viewers from across Canada, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Italy, Mexico, Senegal, South Africa, Tajikistan, United Kingdom and the United States.
Moderator Beena Pallical, General Secretary, National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights was joined by Gene Dodaro, Comptroller General, United States of America, Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director, International Monetary Fund, Sri Mulyani Indrawati, Minister of Finance, Republic of Indonesia and Warren Krafchik, Executive Director, International Budget Partnership for a conversation on the choices governments make while channeling public resources to combat COVID-19 – choices that will determine how many lives are saved and how many people fall into poverty.