The trouble with budget transparency

19 March 2014
Rebecca Simson
Comment
Americans have a great term for a seemingly transparent government practice designed to be anything but.

Document dumping is when a politician releases a piece of controversial information hidden amongst a swath of largely irrelevant documents, preferably at 5pm on a Friday or when a big news story is breaking.

While the information is in the public domain, it’s likely to remain far from the public consciousness – and the politician far from harm’s way. Bill Clinton was accused of a document dump in a 1996 controversy about campaign finances. George W. Bush was accused of employing similar tactics by releasing information on military spending in a late night Friday night ‘dump’. 

Transparency is fast becoming the latest global cause celebre. Budget transparency has received particular attention – not least because weak oversight has been seen as one of the reasons for the fiscal mess many OECD countries have found themselves after the financial crisis.

Organisations such as the International Budget Partnership (IBP) help inform this agenda by examining what budget information governments publish and what legal rights citizens have to access information.

But, as the story above shows, placing documents in the public domain does not guarantee citizens have the ability to engage with the information in meaningful ways.

Discouraging results in Africa

A recent paper by myself and IBP’s Paolo de Renzio examines the accessibility of budget information in Africa. We wanted understand what could really be gleaned from publically available budget information – can such documents tell us how much is being spent on primary education? What share of spending is transferred to local governments? Is there a budget deficit or surplus? 

We based our sample on the 26 African countries whose transparency is measured by the Open Budget Index 2012We found only seven of these published both the approved budget and a year-end report, and even then the publication record is patchy and very time consuming to piece together.

Among these seven countries, most provide reports that enabled us to extract the budgeted and actuals by sector (education, health, public administration).

 But only three go beyond the aggregate level and provide detailed spending figures, for example the share of spending on medicines or the ratio of primary to tertiary education.  

Not a terribly encouraging result. Although there are many political economy factors at play in the complicated relationship between transparency and accountability, the limited usefulness of existing publications might in part explain the puzzle of relatively low utilization of budget data in these countries.  

Haphazard publication of documents is not enough – using budgets to construct any meaningful analysis remains quite difficult in most countries we looked at.

Improvements on the horizon

The silver lining is that improvements don’t need to cost the world. A fairly small additional time effort on the part of the government could significantly improve these results. 

Systematic publication, better organisation of documents, and more emphasis on year-end reporting of actual spending, would radically alter the usability of budget data in many countries.

And the upside is that national and international organisations are taking this challenge seriously. At country level various civil society groups are driving initiatives to improve the availability and disaggregation of budget data, such as the East African CSO Twawesa which has developed the Uwazi budget portal to enable public engagement in resource allocations.

The World Bank is also starting to position itself as a global repository of budget information through its Open Budget Portal. Launched in December, the portal aims publish full and detailed government budgets and expenditure records for participating countries. 

This initiative has the potential to improve the global access to budget information by leaps and bounds.

A threat to power

This does of course raise questions about the politics of budget transparency.

At its core government transparency is about power: leaders, governments or factions within them maintain an advantage by limiting the information others have about their actions. Where transparency threatens this advantage, we often see politicians committing to transparency in principle while undermining its usefulness in various ways.

Will governments remain willing to publish information if it truly can be used to discuss and scrutinize performance? Much like a document dump, the current state of haphazard budget data publication provides rather little ammunition for political opponents or public pressure groups. 

If the availability of government budget data improves, and citizens, CSOs and the media find it useful, will the temptation rise to cook the books in order to keep critics at bay?

This is a bigger question that cuts to nature of political rule and has no easy answer.

Rebecca Simson