Fiscal transparency and public engagement: the role of learning from peers

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When it comes to learning, few methods surpass learning from experience. Practice, trials and errors, help people become experts. Unfortunately, such learning by trial and error can be an expensive way to design public policy, in terms of institutional resources, as well as in terms of social and political implications. For the introduction of new policy practices, a second best method can involve learning from peers. A peer who deals with similar tasks and institutional objectives, such as advancing fiscal transparency, might very well find comparable obstacles and lessons along the way. The shared experience of peers offers important components of the learning process and integrates crucial elements of teaching, such as methods, approaches and lessons learned. At the same time, the peer-to-peer rapport gives significant value and credibility to the experiences shared and exchanged.

With the above in mind, the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency (GIFT) network has invested strongly in peer-to-peer learning activities since 2014. GIFT is a multi-stakeholder action-network whose value proposition is achieving sustained, measurable improvements in fiscal transparency, public participation and accountability in countries around the world, by advancing incentives, norms, peer-learning, technical assistance and new technologies. The 37 members of the network, called stewards, see in GIFT meetings an opportunity to exchange their experiences on the subject and learn from others.[1]

Within the fiscal transparency community, one challenge is outstanding and omnipresent: although an increasing number of governments are now publishing more fiscal information, citizens seldom use that information to hold authorities accountable to improve the quality of government services. GIFT network members continue to search for ways in which governments, in dialogue with citizens and civil society groups, can provide budget data that can be used to engage citizens in the effort to improve public services. And peer-to-peer settings provide favorable learning conditions for such objectives.

GIFT has facilitated the exchange of experiences and technical expertise on peer-to-peer activities mainly in the framework of the Fiscal Openness Working Group (FOWG) of the Open Government Partnership (OGP). The network constantly organizes workshops and meetings, in which budget officials and follow-the-money civil society organizations interact, and exchange practical methods. Since 2014, the network has been working with more than 40 countries to establish ambitious fiscal transparency commitments, as well as to improve implementation efforts.

 

It has worked specifically on the following activities:

1.Design, redesign or introduce a fiscal transparency portal. Portals are collections of freely available data and tools that also provide visualizations, data dashboards, tables, charts, and maps, and access to all the underlying fiscal data. Since the early 2000s, Brazil and Mexico, to name a few countries, have introduced fiscal transparency portals with mixed results. After years of experience, they have come to realize how to connect with the public that actually uses fiscal information. The Brazilian and Mexican budget offices have shared many years of attempts, and some very useful simple lessons with other network members, such as South Africa, El Salvador, Uruguay, Indonesia, Dominican Republic and Guatemala. As we know, the disclosure of fiscal information aimed for users should be accessible, free, open, shared and built-on by anyone, anywhere, for any purpose, and responding to the demand and need of the users of such information. But to get to that point demands time and experience. Learning from peer experiences has certainly proven to be an effective step forward.

2.Introduce the Open Fiscal Data Package, composed by the World Bank Open Budget Initiative (BOOST) with Open Knowledge International (OKI) visualizations and a technical specification to ensure an open source platform. The GIFT Data Package allows the disclosure of fiscal information in open source formats, which means that the data can be freely used, re-used and redistributed by anyone. Mexico has adopted it successfully at the federal level since the 2016 Federal Budget was presented (datos abiertos). Key benefits of the specification include ensuring budget information publication in a high-quality open data format; reliability of the published budget information disclosed; comparability of the data, both between different periods and between national, sub-national and international data. Following the Mexican Government lead, the finance ministries of Croatia, Uruguay, Guatemala and Paraguay decided to follow suite. In June 2017, Paraguay published budget, program and performance data as well. Taking a step further, Mexico has started working with GIFT Steward Open Contracting Partnership to link the federal budget data with procurement information. From there, citizens and CSOs should be better able to use budget information to monitor budget implementation.

3.Introduce open contracting standards: the Open Contracting Partnership (OCP), a GIFT steward, is an international initiative to increase transparency and integrity in public procurement. It has three main elements: making procurement contracts open by default; providing procurement data in machine readable open data format; and creating opportunities for direct public participation across the procurement cycle. OGP Countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia and Paraguay have been implementing the Open Contracting Data Standard for the full public procurement process, including the planning, tenders, awards, contracts, and implementation phases. Sharing their experience in the network has connected practitioners with highly technical knowledge and provided access to practical technical assistance.

4.Work on public participation and discuss and learn about the GIFT Principles on Public Participation in fiscal policies and learn about implementing public participation in various phases of the budget cycle. Within this stream of work, network participants have learned about the Public Policy Councils in Brazil, which provide a comprehensive form of institutionalized civil society participation for designing, implementing, and monitoring budget implementation, providing an avenue of dialogue between civil society and government to promote public participation in public policy management and decision-making. Other experiences have been exchanged, such as the bottom-up budgeting process on the Philippines, to deliver basic social services to the poor, while empowering local communities, by forming assemblies established by members from both government and CSOs. Similarly, they have learned about the efforts to improve the infrastructure and equipment of the most vulnerable basic schools in Mexico, with the active engagement of parents, teachers and directors throughout the process, including an interactive website that allows users to monitor project status (see these and more examples in the GIFT Guide on public participation).

 

As such, on portals, open data, open contracting and public participation, the network has convened various stakeholders committed to share their experience and learn from others, bringing key actors together, challenging them and encouraging them to work in a coordinated way, in order to deal with common challenges in a collaborative way and with innovative solutions.

[1] The lead stewards of the network are the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the International Budget Partnership, The International Federation of Accountants and the budget departments of Brazil, the Philippines and Mexico.