Is Fiscal Transparency Really Relevant to Improve Public Spending?

by GIFT Team

As members of the Public Financial Management community, we are frequently confronted with the question: is fiscal transparency really relevant for improving public spending? There is no easy answer it, as there is no easy or unique path transforming fiscal transparency into a public good. For many years, governments have published information about their finances without it being used. And we know that most of the success stories on fiscal transparency are related to transforming disclosed information into something relevant for the public. We do know that fiscal transparency is not a solitary requirement or sufficient condition that leads to improved social, economic and environmental outcomes (for examples read de Renzio and Wehner 2015). However, it is a steppingstone that helps improving the quality of spending and in some cases, accountability. The following diagram displays GIFT theory of change which links fiscal transparency linked with direct and informed public participation can lead to more accountability, improved budget outcomes and impact in people’s lives.

In few words, fiscal transparency can result in better use of public resources, when the data is actually used by its citizens. Dialogue and participation in the budget are necessary to help ensure that the disclosed information responds to the public needs. To date, one of GIFT’s contributions has been to encourage this dialogue between ministries of finance and civil society organizations, resulting in the disclosure of more meaningful information in more friendly and accessible formats.

The following stories do not intend to be an exhaustive compendium on how GIFT members and partners have used fiscal transparency to have an impact and achieve better results, but they provide elements that describe and illustrate the above change relation in different contexts and topics. 

Gender violence based spending in Argentina

How many governments promote their policy choices by means of discourse to satisfy public claims, but do not back-up such promises with the funds needed? It is a common political practice that affect all subjects, from environmental protection and poverty alleviation to gender issues. The publication of budget and spending data and informed public debates on the matter can limit this possibility throughout the budget cycle.

The Asociación Civil para la Igualdad y la Justicia (ACIJ), an organization with a specialized track record of analyzing public policies to guarantee human rights, joined the GIFT network in 2017. Meanwhile, another GIFT steward, the Ministry of Finance (MoF) of Argentina, opened a significant  amount of disaggregated data in a new user-centered fiscal transparency portal called “Presupuesto Abierto”, which discloses on a daily bases information about the execution of the budget. In the next video, Renzo Lavin, Co-Director of ACIJ, explains how the accessibility to this data has facilitated their work and enabled them to hold an informed discussion with the MoF. Among other benefits it has led to corrections in the proposed allocations for gender-based violence policies by identifying and exposing publicly the mismatch between the political promise to invest in programs to help address gender violence and its consequences, and the actual budget allocations.

ACIJ hosted a Better Budget Dataquest with GIFT in February 2019, an open event for civil society data experts to link fiscal open data with government programs and policies information. The Argentinian MoF participated in the event with presentation of how to use the open data and providing technical assistance to the participants. A few months later, ACIJ started a budget and data literacy effort directed to organizations focused on gender aspects, which includes a guide and videos on how to analyze budget with a gender perspective, expanding the abilities of the CSO community to use the open spending data published by the government for incidence. Budget and data literacy efforts are some of the most popular actions to be implemented among Stewards in 2019. As a result, SCOs came up with the claims that more fiscal resources were needed to back up the political claim of a government supporting anti violence gender programs.

 

Budget Allocations for HIV in Indonesia

The Ministry of Finance of Indonesia was among the first countries to introduce a budget open data portal as part of their fiscal transparency efforts. The GIFT Network was part of this important step, back in 2016, which included a workshop with GIFT Stewards from around the world hosted in Jakarta by the MoF. With more accessible budget information, CSOs such as Seknas-Fitra (GIFT Steward), have been able to engage in constructive conversations with the MoF and local governments as well on budget issues.

With new and relevant information, Seknas-Fitra has also been able to act as intermediary with grass-roots organizations to facilitate their understanding of the published information and how it can be used to better focus their agenda. A specific result of these actions has been changes in the allocation of budget directed to HIV in different regions of the country. In the next video Yenti

Nurhidayat explains this chain of events that have led to better protection of vulnerable groups.

The dialogue between the MoF, Seknas-Fitra and other CSO has also derived in budget and data literacy efforts. As such, together they organized the GIFT Better Budget Dataquest in early 2019 in two Indonesian universities, expanding the capacity to use the budget open data to analyze public policies. This has already triggered a better informed debate on budget allocations and ways to engaged the public in fiscal policies.

 

Budget for sustainable urban mobility in Mexico

Mexico has been one of the early adopters of mainstreaming fiscal transparency reforms in different topics though digital tools, including open data and digital platforms. The MoF has been part of GIFT since its initial phase back in 2013, and became a Lead Stewards in 2017. As such, it has been a key actor to showcase how user-centered fiscal transparency efforts can benefit organizations with a variety of backgrounds and interests, such as regional development, maternal health, inclusion or human rights. Linking relevant budget data with the government information which they are familiar with, these organizations have led to several stories to improved efficiency, efficacy and impact of the public resources.

In the blog post that can be consulted here, Lorena Rivero, a former Director General for Transparency and Evaluation at the Mexican Federal MoF, describes how fiscal transparency led to a simpler analysis of the implications of budget distribution in sustainable urban mobility by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, which urged the way of transforming the whole approval process of investment projects of a specific fund from amount orientation to quality of investment and sustainability considerations.

The case reflects the fact that a discussion cannot be really balanced, productive and constructive if the government officials and public representatives do not have access to equivalent amounts of quality of information. The provision of the relevant data in the correct formats can help an informed discussion and open for real opportunities in the way public resources are allocated and executed.

 

Some conclusions to be drawn from these examples

There are still multiple complexities in the numbers of relations that go from the publication of fiscal data, to its conversion into a public good as a result of its utilization, to social impact. Among other conditions, relevant data should be available in the right formats and at the right time. Other necessary conditions must be present, such as having, on the demand side, specific interested organizations willing and capable to analyze it and understand the implications for their sectors. Furthermore, a propitious public space where the analysis can be heard and discussed by public officials is also needed to close the feedback loop, which in many cases will become an iterative process.

Organizations working with GIFT are helping amplifying the community based organizations and thematic focus organization that can benefit from fiscal transparency. This is important, as it is not always budget and public finance organizations that have exert influence in Public Financial Management in a broad sense. The opportunities opened by transparency and public utilization of relevant fiscal information can go deep into public policy performance considerations that can have repercussions in many people’s lives. A better allocation and use of public resources will be crucial when addressing the Sustainable Development Goals and having data available for different expert organizations to analyze is a first step to allow a more profound discussion to take place.

From Fiscal Transparency to More Sustainable Cities: Case in Mexico

Some public programs are designed as the result of the political realm, besides any possible  technical propositions and considerations. Pork barrel funds are a reality, in developing countries, as well as in developed ones. This was the case of the Metropolitan Development Fund in Mexico.

The fund started before 2011 changing forms and structure but, continued growing throughout  the years during the approval phase of the budget cycle. In Mexico, a presidential system, each year the executive power, through the Ministry of Finance and Public Credit (MoF), presents to Congress the budget proposal for the next fiscal year, which is then analyzed, amended and finally approved. Year after year, this program returned from the legislative in the approval phase of the budget process with significantly more resources than proposed by the executive branch, as a result of political negotiations, to the point of being implemented during the fiscal year in projects unlinked to the development and sectoral priorities. Organizations and researchers started noting the lack of a clear objective and inefficient allocation of these resources, resulting in the financing of projects that encouraged the use of private transport, rather than more sustainable cities (see for example the The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) of Mexico report “Diagnosis of federal funds for transportation and urban accessibility: How we spend our resources in Mexico in 2011 by Javier Garduño”). Furthermore, organizations trying to engage and study the effects of such resources encountered significant problems in following the money. In 2013-2014, the legislative management of this fund, finally led to a big scandal involving congress members engaging in corruption to include and approve projects in such fund.

Before public opinion, it is usually hard to separate different levels  of government when such scandals arise, as the public condemn politicians as a whole. Therefore, the MoF decided to take action through fiscal transparency, so the public could distinguish the process and its outcomes. While it might not be the most obvious solution, it was a form of clarifying that although the MoF managed the delivery of the funds, it was not taking part of the corruption and was taking actions to expose it, as a way to tackle it. With such goals, in 2014 the MoF presented a platform publishing the details of the approved projects expecting the public to be able to monitor approval and implementation. As the Mexican MoF was a member of GIFT, the network was part of the public launch of these changes,  highlighting the importance of such actions to lead to public participation and social impact.

Conversation shifted to discuss in depth the approval of the projects and what needed to be changed in the design of the fund to achieve sustainable cities. With the data available, civil society organizations such as the Urban Cycling Network (BICIRED) and ITDP were able to engage in the approval process of the budget cycle with an informed social media campaign (money for the humane city- a catchy phrase in Spanish “Lana para la Ciudad Humana”) and lobbying actions for the 2015 budget. That year, the approved Budget Decree included a new clause, stating that the Metropolitan Development Fund should consider non-motorized mobility to finally include in subsequent years that at least 15% of resources should be directed to public transport and non-motorized mobility.

In 2017 a complete redesign of the program was possible with some milestones achieved by different ministries and with the findings of an external evaluation to the program. For the 2018 fiscal year the operating rules of the program changed completely, creating a collegiate body to approve the projects, conformed by the MoF, the Ministry of Territory and Urban Development and the Ministry of Environment. The approval of the projects would now require better pre-investment studies, depending on the cost of the project a cost-benefit evaluation or others, and an opinion sheet filled out by the collegiate body, highly focused on awarding points to sustainability, urban mobility and resilience projects.

Cutting with inertia of how projects are presented is not easy and therefore a more paused approval of spending happened, but slowly more of the expected projects started to flow from the local governments to the MoF.

This case reflects how opening spending data can lead to changing relations among different powers in government (executive, legislative, audit and national-local governments); it can improve the quality of the discussion between civil society and government (when the government is open to listen and act!), highlighting that it is not always organizations expert in public finances that can induce results from fiscal transparency; and finally it can lead to more effective public spending. As such, fiscal transparency and public participation triggered policy changes that replaced the previous pork barrel system in favor of better public spending through policies for sustainable development.

Coupling AI and Sustainable Development Goals through Public Expenditure Data: Why Fiscal Transparency is Crucial to Achieve the 2030 Agenda

Since their establishment in 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have become the leading international agenda to promote social, economic and environmental development. The 2030 Agenda has encouraged the construction of numerous development indicators through which governments can track and evaluate their progress towards the SDGs. For example, the United Nations provides open access to the official SDG database; alternatively, the World Bank has collected enough indicators to build an ‘unofficial’ SDG database; and countries like Mexico are producing comprehensive indicators at the subnational level (agenda2030.mx). Indicators, however, are only one side of the development equation: they constitute the output. However, realistic strategies to reach specific goals of a government cannot be properly designed without information about the input side: public expenditure.

To a reasonable degree, a government’s development strategy can be captured by its allocation of resources across different policy issues. The aim of such strategies is transforming the relevant indicators to, eventually, reach the government’s goals. Ironically, while we have plenty development-indicator data, there is scant information on public expenditure. However, in recent years, the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency (GIFT) has been trying to change this shortfall. But, even if fiscal data would become available, the complexity of the policymaking process obfuscates our understanding on how public expenditure translates into development outcomes. This is so because, for example, government agencies may have different goals from those of the central authority (misalignment of incentives), there may be inefficiencies due to corruption or lack of capacity and, on top of that, there are spillover effects between public policies (synergies and trade-offs). Fortunately, cutting-edge Artificial Intelligence (AI) research is trying to cope with this challenge. In this post, we argue that these technological advances in conjunction with open fiscal data can enable governments to fully exploit SDG indicators in the pursuit of worldwide development. For this reason, it is crucial that governments focus their efforts in two fundamental tasks: (1) producing granular open fiscal data and (2) linking it to development indicators.

 

AI for Sustainable Development

At The Alan Turing Institute, we are developing the computational framework of Policy Priority Inference (PPI). PPI builds on a behavioral model of the policymaking process. Among the most relevant aspects considered, we can find the learning process of public officials, coordination problems, incomplete information, and imperfect monitoring mechanisms. PPI simulates the complex and uncertain dynamics observed in development-indicator data. In parallel, it takes into account the network of interdependencies between development indicators, which describes positive and negative policy spillover effects. The method can be used with datasets that have more indicators than observations; such as those built by most governments. Likewise, it does not require an insurmountable collection of information, so it is scalable to big or small data.

The innovation of using an AI tool such as PPI is that, by explicitly modeling the policymaking process that generates development indicators, we can simulate data that is not observable in the real world. One such data is precisely public expenditure on SDGs. In addition, PPI can also estimate, at the level of each indicator, how efficiently are the resources being used. In a recent paper (arxiv.org/abs/1902.00430), we use this technology to measure policy coherence, a topic that has not been properly quantified and yet, is central to multilateral organizations such as the OECD (oecd.org/gov/pcsd). PPI reproduces empirical development indicators and, as a byproduct of its behavioral model, it simulates the distribution of resources that gives place to the observed indicator dynamics. We use these distributions to construct a policy coherence index that can be used to compare how consistent are the policy priorities of a government in relation to its development goals. Our index can be extremely valuable to assess how committed are governments towards the 2030 Agenda –or any other– and to identify those policy issues that should be prioritized.

 

AI + Open Fiscal Data

So, in absence of open fiscal data, PPI simulates budgetary allocations that generate real-world development indicators. However, we can do much better if we feed this technology with public expenditure data. For example, if governments provide a detailed account of their allocations at the level of each development indicator, PPI can be tuned to match those expenditure patterns. This would represent a major improvement in the estimation of policy priorities. To get a clear picture of why this would be the case, let us provide some context on the tools that are currently being used to advise governments.

Traditionally, development consultants have attempted to approximate the effects of improving specific indicators by measuring their level of association. That is, by looking at metrics such as correlations or regression coefficients, analysts try to disentangle how, for example, improvements in the aquatic environment (SDG 14) relate to changes in GDP growth (SDG 8). These associations, while illustrative, are not informative about how to produce environmental improvements. In other words, by solely focusing on the output side of the problem (indicator data), we can only learn how an indicator in SDG 14 relates to another one in SDG 8, not how a specific budget program translates into effective policy contributions, then into development, and subsequently into spillovers. Ironically, the whole point of providing policy advice is to know the instruments that have dedicated recourses, i.e. the input side. In principle, public expenditure data can ease this problem. This is why AI tools such as PPI are so important to produce reliable policy advice.

Going back to our main discussion, open fiscal data plays a crucial role for the SDG policy prioritization through AI. This shows the importance of making fiscal data publicly available, an endeavor that GIFT has pursued forcefully in the last decade. There is, however, an additional challenge that needs to be tackled: linking expenditure to SDGs. As we have explained, the output side of the development process consists of indicators, not expenditure programs. This translates into a mismatch between inputs and outputs, something that requires the attention of every government. The Mexican government, for example, assembled a team of specialists from the Treasury and from the United Nations Development Program to produce the first fiscal-SDG linked data in the world. This experience should provide guidelines to other countries that are serious in attempting to reach the 2030 Agenda.

 

The Future of Open Fiscal Data

A systematic effort to publish fiscal data and link it to development indicators is necessary if governments want to exploit AI for reliable policy advice. Nevertheless, there will still be other challenges ahead that need to be overcome. One of them is that, even if comprehensive fiscal-SDG linked data becomes available, we need to identify transformative expenditure. That is, just because we observe a substantial amount of resources in a specific policy issue, it does not mean that those resources correspond to transformative policies (those that improve indicators). The best example is the highway infrastructure of the industrialized nations. In these countries, extensive road networks have already been created, so most if the expenditure in this topic is dedicated to maintain them. Thus, indicators such as road coverage will not change as a result of this expense. In contrast, a developing country where new highways are being constructed is effectively devoting resources to produce a transformation, pushing the relevant indicator upwards. In one of our papers, we have found a related –and paradoxical– example in the topic of education. While developing countries have not prioritized this issue (which they urgently need to do), the developed nations keep investing to transform it (e.g., Finland is currently transforming its curricula in profound ways: ind.pn/2wfIgdB).

In conclusion, if governments are serious about meeting the SDGs by 2030, or any other future development agenda, they need to embrace what AI methods have to offer and combine them with development-indicator data. However, these efforts will eventually reach a bottleneck if governments only care about the output side of development. Thus, it is crucial to start building data for the input side, in particular, fiscal-SDG linked data. Only then, governments will be able to take advantage of the current technological revolution when designing and implementing policies.

 

For countries interested in applying for this model, who are committed to opening their public spending data and advance the link between the budget and SDGs, contact GIFT Coordination Team through lorena@fiscaltransparency.net.

 

Bios

Omar A. Guerrero (@guerrero_oa) is a Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Economics in University College London and at The Alan Turing Institute, the UK’s national institute for data science and AI. He has been a fellow at the Oxford Martin School, the Saïd Business School and the Institute of New Economic Thinking at the University of Oxford. Currently, Omar works in the intersection of development economics and sustainability, trying to understand how policy priorities translate into effective development. For this, he employs techniques such as agent-computing models, machine learning and natural language processing.

Gonzalo Castañeda is Professor in Economics at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE), Mexico. He is also a member of the National Research System, level III (i.e., the top rank granted by the National Council of Science and Technology). Gonzalo works on Complex Adaptive System with issues related to economic development, and has a forthcoming book written in Spanish and English with the title “Social Complexity: An Innovative Approach for Understanding Socioeconomic Phenomena”.

Publishing Budget and Spending Open Data

    by Lorena Rivero del Paso (GIFT) and Oscar Montiel (Open Knowledge International)

Increasingly, we see examples where lack of transparency and accountability from governments affects trust. Being able to follow public money flows is an important step to recover trust and aim towards more effective governance of public funds. Despite this, according to the most recent edition of the Open Data Barometer, the number of national governments that publish their budget and spending reports and figures as data isn’t growing consistently.

Considering the lack of progress in such publication and the relevance of fiscal data, from Open Knowledge International (OKI) and Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency (GIFT) we have partnered to support governments in the publication of budget and spending open data, through the Open Fiscal Data Package (OFDP). This specification allows publishers to structure their data in a way that makes its description and use as easy as possible and provides visualizations and developer tools for publishers and users with the OpenSpending platform.

As a follow up to the -Towards a schema for spending Open Data, Helpdesk included- blog post where you can read more in detail about the characteristics of the (OFDP), in this post we will guide you through, for a successful publication.

First: what information is expected in a budget/spending file?

Any budget and spending open dataset should have four basic components 1) fiscal year presented 2) budget classifications 3) source of funding and 4) amounts for each stage of the transaction. Additionally, the dataset can be complemented with other relevant data and classifications included in the Financial Management Information Systems (FMIS).

1) Period

  • Fiscal Year- The fiscal year is the framework in which the approved budget is executed. While some countries have already developed the annual budget within a multiyear perspective, through the preparation of medium-term fiscal and budget frameworks, these frameworks are usually established at a higher level of disaggregation than the annual budget and expenditures.

The dataset can include several past and future years according to data availability. For this, each fiscal year can be a separate dataset.

2) Budget classifications

Regarding the second component, budget classifications, we refer to those indicated in the Fiscal Transparency Code of the International Monetary Fund. Furthermore, for those countries who have progressed in incorporating program classification, it should be included as well. These are:

  • Administrative unit (government ministries/agencies and departments/divisions within agencies).
  • Economic type (“inputs” such as salaries, transfers, other non-salary current expenditures, capital spending) (following the international classification if available)
  • Functional and subfunctions (following the international classification if available)
  • Program/subprogram/activity/project; alternatively outcomes and/or outputs.

Some of these are cross-classifications, mainly in respect of the Program classification.

3) Source of funding

It serves to distinguish, in the financial statements, the origin of the domestically- financed expenditures (on-budget, extra-budgetary, counterpart fund), as well as from project aid financed expenditures.

4) Stages of the transaction

For the stage of the transaction, there is not a unique form of registration, but it is important to register clearly the type of data presented and which phase of the budget the user is looking at. The Expenditure Control: Key Features, Stages, and Actors[1] identify the next seven typical stages of the expenditure cycle, which should be considered for the dataset, according to the availability in the country:

  • Authorization of expenditure- A fundamental principle of public finance is that expenditure and revenue proposals must be legally authorized to ensure accountability.
  • Apportionment of authorization for specific periods and spending units- The purpose of apportionment is to prevent spending agencies from incurring obligations at a rate which would require the authorization of additional funds for the fiscal year in progress.
  • Reservation- Once the apportionment of expenditure authorization is made and the spending authority has been released, some countries’ Public Financial Management (PFM) systems include a stage at which funds are reserved for a specifically known expense but for which no contract has yet been issued. At this stage, there is no legal commitment, but it is known that the expense will be incurred during the budget year and, therefore, the reserved funds should not be used for other activities.
  • Commitment- The commitment stage is the point at which a potential future obligation to pay is established. A commitment occurs when a formal action, such as placing an order or awarding a contract, is taken that renders the government liable to pay at some time in the future when the order or contract is honoured by its counterpart.
  • Verification (or certification)- after goods have been delivered and/or services have been rendered by a supplier, an authorized officer within the spending unit concerned verifies their conformity with the contract or order, and that liability and due date of payment are recognized.
  • Payment order- Once checks are made to ensure that all previously stipulated controls have been performed and documented, a payment order is issued.
  • Payment- Once a payment order has been issued, payments are made through various instruments including checks, electronic funds transfer (EFT), and sometimes cash, in of a supplier or other recipient to discharge the liability. In line with internationally accepted good practice, the payment should be made through a Treasury Single Account (TSA) system- 

5) Additional data and classifications

  • Geographic classification-

A representation of which part of the country benefits from each of the government financial operations. This classification is difficult in most cases, so adaptations have taken the form of classifying by location of administrative units, taxpayers, recipients of government transfers, among others.

  • Investment projects-

Authorized public investment projects, including Public-Private Partnerships, if available. Data over these projects can be paired with geolocation by including its latitude and longitude. Furthermore, if more data is available in the Ministry of Finance systems, such as description or links cost-benefit analysis among others, we can analyze on a case to case basis.

  • Contracts-

Between 15 and 25 per cent of public expenditures are exercised through contracts. These data is useful data for complete traceability of the related part of the transactions. The number and detailed data of the procurement process and/or the awarded contract can be included as part of the file. If the Country has already implemented the Open Contracting Data Standard (OCDS), an additional column can be included with the Open Contacting ID (OCID), linking both data structures without the need for duplicating data (Learn more about the OCDS here). The information on contracts in a standardised form will also allow us to link beneficiaries of these contracts and where the money goes.

Second: Structure of the Dataset

Disaggregation

The classifications should be disaggregated to the lowest level available so users can do a more specific use of the data.

Codes and descriptions

All of the classifications mentioned in the section above should always include one column for the code and one for the description for each level of disaggregation as displayed in the example below. These fields will allow the users to know what bits of the budget the dataset refers to. A clear data structure will allow the users to understand the different levels of the budget, how the programs, projects, etc are built and how money is allocated to them in the different stages of the budget.

Having these IDs and descriptions clear, will also allow mapping to the specification in a way that will later make it easy to visualise and navigate the data set once it is uploaded to the Open Fiscal Data Package.

The following image exemplifies the structure of ID + Description of the different levels of economic classification.

Horizontal structure

After analyzing use cases of the dataset and overseeing users interact with different structures, for the stages of the transaction it has been defined that each stage should be structured in one column (the other option is one column for all stages and only one column with amounts).

Third: Extension of the file

It’s common for budget or spending reports to be PDF files directly from the data. This might be easy to read for a human, but it’s not very easy to process by a computer. This is why data uploaded to OpenSpending should be produced or saved in a comma separated value (CSV) file. A CSV is the simplest machine-readable file that requires no special software to be used, like XLS that requires Excel or similar programs. It’s very light and allows you to use software that your computer may already have to start working with it. A CSV can be managed with scripts but it’s also very friendly for beginners to navigate, filter and modify without specific knowledge about databases.

You can see an example of the data from Mexico’s Federal Government below.

We have also prepared a data template where you can see the classifications and other data that will ensure quality data being published.

Fourth: Uploading the dataset using OFDP?

There are two ways of getting your budget data into OpenSpending. Both are available to everyone and can be tried today. We will discuss the two options and then compare under which circumstances you can best use which approach.

1. Upload directly with OS Packager

If you have a budget file already available as a tabular file in CSV form, you have everything you need to start using the Packager. You just need to create an account here and you will be able to start uploading the data. If you have already published data using CKAN or any other open data platform, you can link directly to the CSV and start working with that data.

The packager tool divides the publication task into 4 steps:

  1. Data upload
  2. Data mapping/description
  3. Metadata input
  4. Data use

Each of these steps will guide you and in the end, you will have a data package. That is, a CSV file with the fields you originally had, as well as a JSON file with the description of these fields, mapped to the specification. This can be directly used in the OpenSpending Viewer.

2. Set up an Open Spending pipeline

While moving towards a more timely and disaggregated publication that would in turn be more useful for the users, there are different kinds of needs than for one time publishers. For example, to publish time series of spending we need all years spending data merged into one dataset, with this the size of the complete dataset will also be bigger. In these cases of governments that have progressed to a more advanced publication, we can use a pipeline.

A pipeline is basically a set of instructions that we provide to map the data to the specification while keeping some of the nuances of our data. This process implies writing pieces of code to perform data processing and loading to selected endpoints. This option will give a more flexible publication but would require to define the best approach along with the Helpdesk.

Which option is best for you?

There is no unique answer to this, but there are a few questions that might help guide the initial decision to begin publishing using OpenSpending.

For example,

  • Has your government implemented a Financial Management Integrated System in which budget and spending are registered?
  • Are budget and spending data stored in different systems?
  • Is there any human intervention to consolidate the budget and/or spending data?
  • How often does the government present spending reports to the legislature? Does the system allow this periodic data extraction?
  • Does the country have historical data on budget and spending? How far in time is it available either in systems or in stored files?
  • Do you follow any standardised publication patterns at the moment?

If you’re interested in pushing for better publication, please contact us, we’re happy to help. Our Helpdesk can be reached at openspending-support@okfn.org.

 

 

 

[1] Pattanayak, Sailendra. Expenditure Control: Key Features, Stages, and Actors Prepared by Sailendra Pattanayak Fiscal Affairs Department. International Monetary Fund, 2016.

Towards a schema for spending Open Data, Helpdesk included

        by Lorena Rivero del Paso (GIFT) and Oscar Montiel (Open Knowledge International)

Having data for budgets and spending can allow us to track public money flows in our communities. It can give us insights into how governments plan and focus on programmes, public works, and services. So the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency (GIFT), along with Open Knowledge International (OKI), have been working on new tools to make this data more useful and easier to understand.

Two of these are the Open Fiscal Data Package (OFDP) specification and OpenSpending platform.

The OFDP is a data specification that allows publishers to create a literal package of data. This package includes fiscal data mapped onto either standardised or bespoke functional, economic and administrative classifications. Additionally, the different stages of the budget can be mapped, and other fields that are relevant to the publisher. This seeks to reduce the barriers to accessing and interpreting fiscal open data.

One of the main benefits of the OFDP is that data publishers can adopt it no matter how they generate their databases. The flexibility of this specification allows publishers to improve the quality incrementally. There is no need to develop new software. Having this structured data allows us to build tools and services over it for visualization, analysis or comparison.

The second tool is actually a set of tools called OpenSpending.

This is an open-source and a community-driven project. It reflects the valuable contributions of an active, passionate and committed community.

OpenSpending enables analysis, dissemination, and debates for more efficient budgets and public spending. It allows anyone to create, use, and visualize fiscal data using the Open Fiscal Data Package in a centralized place with small effort.

As part of this collaboration, OKI and GIFT have been working with different government partners to publish using OFDP. But we want to see the adoption of the Open Fiscal Data Package grow even more. This is why we have set up the Fiscal Data Helpdesk to help you in the publication process!

How to engage with the Fiscal Data Helpdesk

Maybe you are already publishing fiscal data through an open data portal? Or maybe you have a platform and want to make it more useful for a larger number of users? Perhaps you have heard about standardization but it sounds complex and you think it might not be for your office? The Helpdesk is around to answer all your questions and support you through the process of getting data up and running in OpenSpending.

There are a few good examples of what we want you to get doing. We’ve worked with the Mexican federal government to publish their data from 2008 to 2019 using the OFDP and OpenSpending to make it easier to access. You can navigate their data here.

We’ve also worked to get datasets from many countries in the World bank BOOST initiative on OpenSpending. Currently, there are data from countries like Burkina Faso, Guatemala, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

In the coming weeks, we will publish some resources and a series of blog posts to give you more information about publishing your data in OFDP and using OpenSpending.

Interested? You can visit the OFDP section or send us an email at openspending-support@okfn.org. We will get back to you to help get your budgets out in the open!

#DataOnTheStreets International Rally


What is it?

The Rally is a great opportunity to invite the public to use the data generated by governments, go out to the streets and see how data reflects in their real life. It is a public participation process in the budget implementation phase through open data and digital tools, such as maps and visualizations.

How does it work?

  1. Governments, through their Ministry of Finance, Public Works or similar, and one or more Civil Society Organizations, launch an open invitation to participate in the Rally #DataOnTheStreets.
  2. People register to the event and go through the construction projects dataset or mapping platforms published and select the ones they want to visit.
  3. Participants go out on the streets and check the projects, comparing what they see on the dataset and what they see on the streets.
  4. Participants document their findings through social media (Facebook or Twitter), posting creatively and engaging their own network.
  5. Judges, representatives from government and civil society, choose the winners based on number of projects visited, creativity, engagement and, of course, extra points for data analysis.
  6. On Open Data Day, winners are announced!

How did it go in 2018?

The Rally started in the Ministry of Finance of Mexico in 2016, in 2018 it became international and three countries hosted their own rallies: Chile, Colombia and Mexico.

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Why we like the Rally…

Experience shows that participants tend to be non-data specialists, expanding the audience using open data. As opposed to hackathons and similar events.

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It helps data literacy by bringing the knowledge and tools closer to the people to turn the data into useful information that can engage and build trust, accountability and better government-citizen communication.

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What you need to host your own Rally?

  • Open data of public constructions being built or finished from national or subnational level projects. The data must have: descriptive name of the project, geolocation, budget allocated to the project, financial progress, physical progress.
    • If available, it is best to have the data paired with visualizations, such as maps and photos.
  • A government and a civil society convener. The initiative can be initiated from any side, but it is important to work together.
  • A team in charge of dissemination, answering participant questions, following posts and counting points.
  • Let us know you want to host a Rally!

Important dates

  • November 16th GIFT will open the generic operating rules of the Rally for comments, we are looking to improve last year operation. Each country can make adaptations as required, but the community will benefit from the co-creation of the general rules.
  • November 30th closing comments and integrating a final version of the general rules.
  • January-February 2019 country dissemination efforts (social media, events, radio, interviews…).
  • February 2019 beginning of the Rally, participants go to the streets.
  • March 2nd, 2019 Open Data Day! End of participation and winner’s announcement.

Any question or further information?

Please contact Lorena Rivero at lorena@fiscaltransparency.net and Tarick Gracida at tarick@fiscaltransparency.net

Better Budget Dataquest for sustainable development

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What is a “Dataquest”?

It typically takes the form of a day event, it could be shorter or longer, in which people arrive, with laptops or access to laptops and the internet, and either individually or in teams explore the data. During the event they create insights by engaging with the dataset and combining it with other data and contextualizing it. The outcomes depend on the type of Dataquest, they can be for example a multimedia piece, the start of a research project or a human story among others.

The Better Budget Dataquest

Teams of up to five individuals will explore the spending dataset and by contextualizing it with other data they should come up with findings for one of the following categories: gender, inequality or environment.

A multimedia piece, the start of a research project, a story or other creative ideas must be presented by the end of the event. Considering the insights, judges from government and civil society will decide the winners.

Objectives of the Dataquest

As the Better Budget name suggests, the Dataquest is an opportunity to find new insights on certain topics and innovative ideas to improve budget allocations and execution. The process will also be an opportunity for data publishers to expand budget and data literacy, to increase awareness and engagement, as well as an occasion to observe users’ challenges in using the data to improve publication means.

What you need to host your own Dataquest

  • Open data of budget allocations and expenditures, preferably published through the Open Fiscal Data Package.
  • A place to host the event with good internet access for participants. Consider that in many countries, civil society organizations specialized in open data host events during Open Data Day and offer space for collaborations.
  • A dissemination and engagement strategy.
  • Select the judges, be sure to have an odd number of judges.
  • Let us know you want to host a Dataquest!

Important dates

  • November 16th GIFT will open the generic operating rules of the Dataquest for comments, this is the first year of the Better Budget Dataquest, so we encourage your contributions.
  • January 31th closing comments and integrating a final version of the general rules.
  • January-February 2019 country dissemination efforts (social media, events, radio, interviews…).
  • March 2nd, 2019 Open Data Day, day of the event.

Any question or further information?

Please contact Lorena Rivero at lorena@fiscaltransparency.net and Tarick Gracida at tarick@fiscaltransparency.net

GIFT Online Peer Learning – Webinar series

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#WebinarWednesday

In recent years, GIFT network members and partners have developed digital tools and technology that have allowed to significantly advance fiscal transparency, with a focus on making budget information meaningful and useful for citizens. To promote the sharing and discussion of such valuable experiences, GIFT is offering a program of monthly webinars around the areas of fiscal transparency portals, open fiscal data, strategies for communicating budget information, and initiatives to educate the public on budget matters.

International experience shows that to successfully engage citizens in the budget discussions and decisions, including overseeing its implementation and results governments and specialized civil society need to display a range of actions. This includes a proactive policy to disseminate budget information in formats that make sense for different types of users, a commitment to communicate this information and educate the public in terms of budget literacy, in a way that promotes the use of such information. The use of communication technology has greatly expanded the variety of ways in which government can reach out to the public, and the ways in which non-state actors can initiate or respond to opportunities to provide inputs.

The objective of this webinar program is to explore concrete experiences around the world in the use of digital tools to disclose and to effectively communicate budget information, with the goal of engaging citizens in the budget process. The tour includes a look at how ministries of finance have implemented successful budget open data policies, how they have built fiscal transparency portals, and their efforts to promote the use of data, including offering online courses about the budget.

Wednesday, September 26, at 10am EST –   Language: English

Fiscal transparency portals are instruments that can play a very important social role to facilitate the exercise of the right to know how public money is raised and spent.   This webinar will take a close look at how is it that governments are designing portals with potential user interaction in mind, addressing both content generation and its structure. For that purpose, we will explore how interactions between government technicians, information access activists, and journalists who work regularly with budget data are taking place, with a look at the challenges and opportunities entailed.

In this webinar, participants will learn about the experiences of Brazil in revamping, their fiscal transparency portal, which now has a new interface, enhanced accessibility, responsiveness, search engine, navigation, and interactive tables, integrated pages and matrixial navigation. Additionally, the Portal includes new information on, for example, procurement and contracts, travelling expenses, CGU’s reports. The Portal is also now boosted with new tools, such as social media, collaboration, QR code, notifications, open data and APIs.

Besides, participants will hear from the experience of a unique collaboration between GIFT Stewards, the South African National Treasury and the Public Service Accountability Monitor, which is part of a coalition of civil society organizations (IMALI YETHU, “our money”) working together to develop a portal that makes budget data accessible, user-friendly and empowering. The initiative also includes a communications and stakeholder strategy centered on widespread public participation and preference revelation. The project has sought to ensure ongoing engagement of CSOs to arrive to the ideal portal design.

Who:    

  • Otávio Neves, Secretariat of Transparency and Corruption Prevention, BRAZIL
  • Carmela Zigoni, Institute for Socioeconomic Studies (INESC), BRAZIL
  • Raquel Ferreira, National Treasury, SOUTH AFRICA
  • Zukiswa Kota, Public Service Accountability Monitor, SOUTH AFRICA

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Wednesday, November 7, at 10am EST –   Language: English

Not rarely, budget authorities invest great efforts to publish fiscal information in compliance with international standards, only to find that the use of such data by the public is meager. Experience has shown that to foster the use of such data by the public, it is not enough to disclose it. Governments also need to make concerted efforts to communicate the budget data in innovative and creative ways that are relevant for potential users and in easily accessible language and formats. This session will explore how governments are working in collaboration with civil society to design and implement effective communication policies that consider the interests and characteristics of potential users, though the use of social media and other digital tools.

Who:    

  • Anna A. Belenchuk. Division Chief, Budget Analysis and Development. Department of Budget Methodology and Public Sector Financial Reporting. Ministry of Finance of The Russian Federation.
  • Wawan Sunarjo. Head of Subdirectorate of Data and Technical Support. Ministry of Finance of Indonesia.

Presentations used during the webinar:

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Wednesday, November 28, at 10am EST –   Language: English

What is budget open data? How to build a budget open data? What for and how to target an open data policy? How do we know the open data policy is working? This webinar addressed the fundamental question when planning an open data policy, referencing to a new tutorial composed of ten 1-2 minutes videos that explain how to implement a fiscal transparency policy with open data as a fundamental pillar.

Who:    

  • Aura Martínez Oriol. Director of Budget Performance Information Analysis, Ministry of Finance and Public Credit of Mexico.
  • Fabrizio Scrollini. Executive Director, Latin-American Initiative on Open Data from Uruguay (ILDA).

Presentation used during the webinar:

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Friday,  December 14, at 10am EST –   Language: Spanish

Esta sesión exploró experiencias en el uso de datos presupuestarios por parte del público. ¿Cómo ha promovido el gobierno el uso? ¿Cómo ha maximizado y trabajado la sociedad civil para multiplicar el uso de los datos del presupuesto? ¿Cuáles son las experiencias de colaboración entre el gobierno y la sociedad civil en este campo? ¿Cuáles han sido los retos? ¿Cuáles son las oportunidades? ¿Qué evidencia tenemos de cómo el público está utilizando esta información?

Presentadores:

  • Jeannette von Wolfersdorff. Directora Ejecutiva, Observatorio del Gasto Fiscal en Chile.
  • Leonardo Buitrago. Dirección General de Presupuesto y Gasto Público, Ministerio de Hacienda y Crédito Público de Colombia.

Presentation used during the webinar:

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Thursday,  January 24, at 10am EST

This webinar highlighted how digital tools are being used to directly establish a dialogue between citizens and the state around the budget policy. What are the challenges, opportunities and lessons learned? What are the critical factors required to effectively incentivize participation? Who participate and how can different audiences be targeted?

Who:    

  • Isabel Xavier Canning. Municipality of Cascais, Portugal.
  • Giorgi Chakvetadze, State Audit Office, Georgia.

Presentation used during the webinar:

Wenesday,  January 27, at 10am EST

Understanding and using the budget and fiscal information to participate in public policy discussions or monitoring activities requires some level of capacity on the part of the public. This session highlighted experiences that are reaching out to a range of groups in society to build capacities and budget literacy, by offering online courses. Some of the addressed questions: What are the objectives of the online courses? How is the public being targeted? How are the courses designed? How are the courses promoted? What does the evidence tell in terms of the interest and results? and the lessons learned.

Who:    

  • Lorena Caballero Ministry of Finance and Public Credit, Mexico
  • Juan Manuel Casanueva SocialTic

Presentation used during the webinar:

Money Matters: Public Finance & Social Accountability for Human Capital Forum

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by Juan Pablo Guerrero, GIFT Network Director

The fifth edition of the Global Partners Forum of the Global Partnership for Social Accountability (October 30-November 1) was devoted to public finance, social accountability and human capital. With the World Bank Human Capital Project and the International Budget Partnership, the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency network was a co-organizer of the event. The main goal was to better understand how countries can use their public finances to invest more and better in health and education for their citizens and what roles citizens and society organizations can play, working with governments and other actors.

This is a global effort, presented by the Vice President of Human Development of the World Bank, Annette Dixon, to accelerate more and better investments in people for greater equity and economic growth. Human capital consists of the knowledge, skills, and health that people accumulate throughout their lives, enabling them to realize their potential as productive members of society. The World Development Report (WDR) 2019: The Changing Nature of Work shows that without strengthening human capital, countries cannot sustain economic growth, will not have a workforce prepared for the more highly skilled jobs of the future and will not compete effectively in the global economy.

The Human Capital Project includes the Human Capital Index, which is intended to be published once a year. The main objectives of this measurement effort are: (i) to provide policymakers with more information on how to invest in human capital and (ii) to create public demand for human capital investments.

Human Capital and Public Finance Management

As we know, governments and budgets have a vital role in building human capital. Both as providers of public health and education and as regulators of private providers. But as the human capital index shows, governments often fail to deliver. Most governments commit a significant share of their budget to education and health, but public services are often too low quality to generate human capital.

The discussion about human capital is closely related to the 3 main functions of Public Financial Management (PFM). Sustainability, because human capital requires long term sustained investment, with significant coordination of various agencies, it must be a high level government priority for a long period of time. Allocation of resources, with the difficult trade-offs that investing in a long term policy brings: it is easier to build a school than to ensure good quality of the education of the children -the latter does not always pay off politically-. And third, the question of trust and government accountability, related to oversight mechanisms, transparency and citizen engagement.

Bureaucracies in charge of implementing policies to build human capital often lack the capacity or the incentives to do so effectively. This is why information is an essential first step toward encouraging citizens to demand more from their leaders and service providers. So, better measurement increases policy makers awareness of the importance of investing in human capital.

How could PFM help improve the quality of public services? 

The search for more effective mechanisms to deliver public services has been at a core of policies enacted by governments around the world. The quest for value for money. In the PFM community, this challenge has taken several forms over the years:

  • The development of programmatic and results-based budgeting, with performance indicators;
  • The devolution of decision making to regional and local governments;
  • More recently, attempts to develop greater involvement of citizens in the preparation, execution and monitoring of the budget.

Since 2012, public participation is a principle of global norms: following the GIFT High Level Principles on Fiscal Transparency, Participation and Accountability, IMF, PEFA, IBP, OECD include the idea of direct involvement of the public in the budget cycle in their revised versions of the fiscal transparency standards. In the international agenda, public participation is not only on how to improve allocations, but also how civil society can help make government more responsive, efficient and effective.

Examples of the benefits of fiscal transparency and informed citizen engagement in budget process (The Impacts of Fiscal Openness: a Review of the Evidence) are many but to name a few:

  • Better resource allocation (i.e. subnational transfers in Mexico, with the role of the media and CSOs leading to changes in the criteria for investment projects approval to observe urban sustainable mobility);
  • Improvement in the provision of public services (i.e. social accountability / monitoring experiences of sanitation in South Africa or social audits in India);
  • Better response to the preferences of the beneficiaries of the services (i.e. Kenya devolution experiences and refining gender subsidies beneficiaries in Mexico);
  • Opportunity for marginalized groups to exert some influence in decisions that affect them (i.e. i-monitor in Nigeria which invites citizens to inform of any budget waste, South Korea open consultations for budget implementation and in Indonesia, LAPOR, complaints on line systems);
  • Better impact of actions that affect communities in social policies: health sector, community level public works, education, well-being (i.e. participatory budgeting, Brazil).

What examples are there on citizen engagement in the national budget process?

There are multiple examples of public participation in the budget process around the world. The IBP Open Budget Survey edition 2017 finds mechanisms in 94 countries out of the 115 surveyed. There are a variety of innovative examples with different reach in all the steps of the budget cycle: from informing, to consulting, to engaging, to empowering. And public participation is present on tax policies, expenditures, control and evaluation.

For instance, the GIFT network has facilitated an increasing number of ministries of finance to have open dialogues with potential fiscal information users to provide user-oriented information online. Besides having as a result dynamic and interactive platforms, this dialogue has been very useful for everyone around the table for collaboration on fiscal transparency and accountability related issues.

The PFM agenda has evolved dramatically and will continue to evolve. But every time it is clearer that the budget process is also a political process. We will fail if we try to provide only technical solutions to political challenges. That is why partnerships between Governments and Civil Society are critical, which will be important to align incentives and establish productive collaboration formats. Reliable measurements and efficient ways of communication, such as digital technology, are crucial. There is a need to move beyond an adversarial approach and establishing a constructive engagement between CSOs and Government reformers, as part of broader coalitions of stakeholders to push and sustain reform agendas as the one needed for building human capital. This has been referred as the idea of co-creation by the Open Government Partnership community.

From this perspective, it is good to see that the Human Capital Project includes the creation of a community of practice in each country that will address, among other challenges, the production of relevant information. One should hope that these communities include all relevant stakeholders.

PFM rules and institutions

PFM institutions will be needed too. At the macro level, aggregate rules that ensure fiscal sustainability may lead to biases against human capital expenditure. Fiscal rules have proliferated around the world to keep fiscal sustainability in check. The next generation of fiscal rules should also address the composition of spending. Other PFM rules could protect public investment in human capital. In this task, the roles of international financial institutions will be crucial. At the micro level, a myriad of institutions need to be strengthened, ranging from results-based budgeting for expenditure allocation, medium-term fiscal framework, the creation of smart integrated data systems, fiscal councils in charge of quality of spending, public investment management agencies, public procurement, and so on.

The role of civic tech and digital government for public participation

Let me make a disclaimer with respect to digital technologies as new hopes for citizen engagement (e-democracy, e-governance, e-participation). IT enhances participation in some cases. But it does not resolve two fundamental issues regarding citizen engagement (Civic Tec in the Global South, Peixoto-Sifri).

The first issue relates to unequal participation, which is obvious if you think about it. Civic tech might impede the participation of individuals who are traditionally excluded, and it might further empower the already empowered. In developing and poor countries, the combination of online and offline participation seems to be necessary, as well as alternative participatory designs, if inclusiveness is a value to be pursued.

The second issue relates to government responsiveness. While civic tech dramatically lowers the costs for citizens to project their voices and express their needs, the levels of willingness, capability, and resources available for governments to provide a meaningful response remain the same. Government responsiveness would likely depend on a number of political and institutional factors.

The challenges of unequal participation and responsiveness need to be addressed in any case. The GIFT PP principles (Link), developed in 2015, tackle issues such as inclusiveness, accessibility, sustainability, among other important components to ensure clarity on the rules of engagement with respect to the purpose, scope, constraints, intended outcomes, process and timelines, as well as the expected and actual results of public participation.

However, I believe there is a feature that makes the combination of digital government and transparency quite remarkable. Government management information systems have facilitated to capture and concentrate thousands of transactions daily. For the first time, government data can be in formats that can be machine readable and human readable. In some countries, citizens have increasing access to the exact same data used by officials for decision making. No technological innovation has ever allowed such a potential reduction in the asymmetries of information between authorities and citizens.

Two dilemmas for building human capital (inequality and trust) and a piece of the puzzle missing

Building human capital goes to the heart of reducing inequality. This refers to the question of allocation of resources, with the difficult trade-offs between spending in the present, or investing in the future. It is difficult to raise taxes when citizens are unwilling to pay more as they don’t believe their governments will spend those additional resources efficiently. Thus, a precondition for expanding public expenditure seems to be government’s ability to deliver efficient services, leaving nothing to waste.

Another component is trust in government, which is a key ingredient behind citizen demands. According to the report on development in the Americas (IADB, Better Spending for better Lives) when lack of trust is high—be it because of government inefficiency or blatant corruption— citizens prefer transfers over long-term investments. In face of the need of investing in human capital, this situation could be highly detrimental for development, since inequality and lack of trust may end up undermining the future with lower investments, both in physical and human capital.

Inequality and lack of trust are also related to a missing piece in fiscal transparency. The increasing public concern in many countries about the fairness of tax burdens and elite ‘capture’ of tax policy setting, alongside widespread tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance. This concern has been identified as one of the main reasons behind the growing deterioration of trust in public finances and government management of public resources.

Nevertheless, few governments publish enough information about tax policies and tax administration to allow non-state actors to engage publicly in an informed debate. Here again, the demand side of transparency, participation and accountability has considerable potential to strengthen domestic tax efforts, and to improve the fairness, legitimacy and sustainability of tax systems. But much more transparency on the revenue side is needed.

What are we referring to? Tax openness includes open and participatory tax policy development, routine disclosures on tax incidence (tax burdens) in annual budget documents, transparency and accountability in tax administration, resource revenue transparency (tax expenditures), issues around non-tax revenues (e.g. transparency of and accountability for fees and charges for public services), the environmental impacts of fiscal policies (e.g. fossil fuel tax subsidies), the scope for taxing environmental externalities (e.g. carbon taxes), and the growing area of international transfers of climate finance and how those revenues are managed at the national level.

To sum up:

  • The quality of public services can be improved by information disclosure that responds to the needs of information users and by engaging the public in the delivery process.
  • Dialogue between stakeholders can help for the sustainability of reforms that alter systems and inertias, such as building human capital.
  • The use of digital tools gives the opportunity of reaching a broader audience, playing a potential important role in tackling the engagement deficit in public policies and in supporting better outcomes for citizens.
  • A long term investment in building human capital suppose an open and informed debate on the impact of the fiscal system in inequality, which requires more transparency not only in the expenditures side, but also on the revenue side, in order to clearly identify its impact.

PFM news institutions will need to protect human capital investment. Fiscal rules, medium term fiscal framework, smart integrated data systems, fiscal councils should become institutionalized allies of the important goal.

Transparency without participation: challenges for democracy in Brazil

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by Carmela Zigoni, Political Advisor from Inesc

 

It was carried out, in Portugal, between October 17 and 18, 2018, the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency – GIFT annual meeting, which gathered representatives of governments and civil society organizations from 32 countries, in addition to representatives of the World Bank and academics. GIFT is an independent network that has the purpose of facilitating the debate among governments, the civil society, international financial institutions, and other agents in the field of public finance in order to reach shared solutions to improve the transparency and participation in countries around the world. Inesc (Institute for Socio-Economic Studies), which takes part in the network since its creation in 2015, participated as an organization of Brazilian civil society.

Brazil is a country that presents itself as an example of transparency in the last few years, due to the legal framework regarding public data – as the Fiscal Responsibility Law and the Access on Public Information Law –, as well as the great number of government’s open data publicly available today, on the internet. Furthermore, Brazil is the 7th place in the world concerning budget transparency according to the Open Budget Index of the International Budget Partnership – IBP, appearing only after New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, Norway, Georgia, and Mexico, tied with the United States.  The country is also a member of the Open Government Partnership – OGP, which promotes the debate between the Brazilian government and several NGOs on solutions for the government to become even more open.

However, if Brazil is so transparent from the national perspective and so active in international public transparency networks, why do we experience so many corruption cases and the inefficiency in public expenditures? Moreover, why have citizens lost trust in public institutions exactly during the democratic period, from 1988 until today, presenting an abstention rate of 20% in elections? The key word, which was the theme of the GIFT meeting, is participation.

With a framework constitutionally structured in regard to institutional participation, Brazil counts, today, on several mechanisms of participation, besides voting: public policies councils in the three federal branches, consisting of representatives of the government and society (in such group, active professionals in organizations and social movements, scholars, as well as users of the public policy at issue are included);  public policies conferences, which in the past recent years totaled 103 national conferences, in addition to the municipal and state ones; public hearings; and it also counts on plebiscites and referenda (both scarcely used). However, if on the one hand, these mechanisms are quite sophisticated, in terms of structure and institutionally, in practice, the economic and budget issues are minimally discussed in such spaces, resulting on only a consultation role to the councils. There are not many councils which have a deliberative role, the few ones that can be mentioned are the following, CONAMA (National Council of Environment), CNS (National Council of Health), CNAS (National Council of Social Assistance), CDCA (Council for Children and Adolescents Rights), and CODEFAT (Deliberative Council of the Workers Supporting Fund), among others. The Inter-councils Forum, a space that brings together representatives of all the national councils, would represent the first stage to regulate fiscal issue, but it has been losing the capacity of action in the last three year. The fact is that the participation in the Brazilian budget cycle is limited, even though some civil society organizations may seek to conduct analyses and advocate before public authorities in order to establish the destination of funds and the supervision of public policies.

Regarding the open data, the Transparency Portal has become a model for other countries, as it concentrates a great quantity of data of several types, such as information on the budget (incomes and expenditures), contracts with companies, public servants salaries, among others. However, three issues can be problematized in relation to this field: firstly, the fact that the only data available are the ones from the Executive Branch, there is no data in the portal concerning the Legislative and Judicial Branches – data availability within those branches is more restricted. A second issue concerns the confidentiality legislation, which brings opacity to data related to public banks and public companies, as well as to beneficiaries of tax incentives. We do not know, for instance, which are the exact beneficiaries of tax expenditures in Brazil today: there is a total of $ 75 billion of annual tax waiver not collected for the public treasury, and data on benefitted companies is not disclosed, neither are the amounts received. Lastly, the volume of open data brings a new challenge:  the private initiative is the one capable of processing such quantity of data in order to produce strategic information. Civil society (organizations, social movements, and academia) lacks human and financial resources to take action, for example, in the creation and use of algorithms and applications able to generate timely and useful information for citizens.

The following countries, which have different backgrounds and democratic traditions, were present at the last GIFT meeting: South Africa, Argentina, Armenia, Belarus, Bosnia, Brazil, Benin, Cameroon, Chile, Colombia, Croatia, Dominican Republic, Egypt, El Salvador, Slovenia, the United States, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, England, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Moldova, New Zealand, Nigeria, Portugal, Russia, Ukraine, Uruguay and Uzbekistan. Many of them are still defining how to create a legal framework for transparency, others, such as the case of Portugal, which in addition to having a national participatory budget, made the initiative mandatory at some levels, as in the case of public schools. Participatory budget (PB), a public policy that emerged in Brazil in the late 1980s, is now a widespread tool in the world, and more frequent in Europe. On the one hand, if in Brazil, when it was created, PB was an instrument of democratization and of fight against poverty, in Europe it has been currently tried as a way to restore public confidence in public institutions. This is also the case of Russia, which has implemented, through a technical cooperation with Portugal, mediated by the GIFT, the regional participatory budget, reaching hundreds of people in face-to-face meetings and in a digital application to define the destination of 15 million dollars, which is equivalent to 1% of the budget for the Sakhalin region.

Another way to promote direct participation is using technology, through digital consultations on government issues: in Madrid, for example, the PB in 2017 had the participation of 400,000 people, in order to define the destination of 100 million euros, and it cost 1 million euros, in other words, 10% of the budget placed under public consultation of the population. Digital tools can reach, for example, those citizens who do not want to participate through institutionalized instances of participation, such as councils. In Brazil, digital participation initiatives are still timid. A solution would be, for example, the definition of a public policy for the reuse of open data and direct participation in order to enable an actual reach in terms of scale and presenting a diversity in the profile of such participation. Without it, we will be reproducing the social inequalities of access to data: the companies holding a greater capacity to produce strategic information for their interests, the organized civil society seeking to understand the data and create solutions with scarce resources, and citizens with little access to this process.

Countries that take part in the GIFT, including Brazil, are in accordance with its 10 principles, which address the role of the three branches in the fiscal policy and budget cycle, as well as the institutions required for public transparency. We highlight two of these principles, which are directly related to participation: the first, “Everyone has the right to seek, receive and impart information on fiscal policies,” and the tenth principle, “Citizens should have the right and they, and all non-state actors, should have effective opportunities to participate directly in public debate and discussion over the design and implementation of fiscal policies.”

These principles point to a fundamental value: transparency must be at the service of the promotion of democracy and rights. Transparency, without an effective participation of society, will not make Brazil a more just, equal, and less corrupt country.