The latest round of the Open Budget Survey (OBS 2017) includes a new set of measures of public participation based on an emerging international consensus about what participation in the budget process should look like. The participation questions were fundamentally redesigned for the 2017 survey, so it is not possible to assess changes since the 2015 survey.
Budget participation scores are low overall, with the global average score being 12 (out of 100). This average masks considerable variation across countries and across stages of the budget cycle.
First, the survey finds that public engagement takes place more during the budget preparation stage than during budget implementation; more when the budget is approved by the legislature than when the legislature considers the Audit Report; and in a significant number of countries the Supreme Audit Institution engages publicly on the setting of its audit program.
Secondly, a small number of countries are engaging the public across the whole budget cycle and exhibit many good practices (Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, and the United Kingdom). A much more diverse group of countries achieved the top score for public engagement by the executive branch on at least one of the ten questions in the survey, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Botswana, Bulgaria, Canada, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Fiji, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Kyrgyzstan, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Mexico, Poland, South Africa, and Ukraine. More than 80% of the countries surveyed (94 out of 115) have some form of participatory mechanism in place.
It is clear, however, that all countries need to enhance the inclusiveness, openness, and depth of existing public engagement mechanisms and implement similar mechanisms in other stages of the budget cycle.
What are the low average scores telling us?
First, direct public participation in the budget process is, in general, a very recent element in fiscal transparency. Budgeting has traditionally been conducted within government institutions, and the first generation of international fiscal transparency initiatives was essentially confined to the disclosure of fiscal information. While there is a clear move towards more openness in budgeting – reflected for example in the formation of the Open Government Partnership – this trend is from a low base and, as noted, is uneven across different stages of the budget cycle.
Secondly, although based on experiences around the world, one needs to recognize that some of the GIFT Principles of Public Participation are aspirational. They flow from the assertion, in the 2011 GIFT High Level Principles of Fiscal Transparency, Participation and Accountability – endorsed by the UN General Assembly – that direct public engagement in the design and implementation of fiscal policies is a right of citizens and taxpayers. This view goes back at least as far as the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, 1789, which stated: ‘All citizens have the right to ascertain, personally or through their representatives, the necessity of the public tax, to consent to it freely, to know how it is spent, and to determine its amount, basis, mode of collection, and duration.’ (Article 14).
Reflecting an emerging consensus, International fiscal transparency standards have very recently started to incorporate a few elements of direct pubic participation e.g. in the IMF’s Fiscal Transparency Code, and OECD instruments.
There are, however, few specific standards yet on what constitutes a recognized practice in engaging the public in central government budget management. The OBS is playing a pioneering role in helping to define the sorts of practices that reflect sound principles. The OBS is also now collecting invaluable information on what is taking place on the ground in 115 countries. This will prove a valuable resource for practitioners and researchers in government, legislatures, Supreme Audit Institutions, civil society, international institutions, and indeed standard setters, to draw on in strengthening public engagement.
Thirdly, some of the main reasons the participation scores are generally so low is that most countries are not making the effort to engage with even a minimally diverse set of citizens and interests, and are not providing feedback to the public on how their inputs were considered or used. The GIFT Participation Principles stress inclusiveness and respect for self-expression for a very good reason: to try to avoid public participation being dominated by the ‘usual voices’, the best connected, lobbyists, the wealthy, or narrow elites. Warren Krafchik, director of the International Budget Partnership, has described budgets as sitting ‘at the nexus of democracy and inequality.’ Governments can easily go through the motions and claim to be listening to the public when their intention is the reverse. In a change from the 2015 Survey, the 2017 OBS therefore measures efforts to engage widely and with the marginalized and vulnerable. One effect of this change is that countries such as South Korea that rely more on expert-based participation rather than broad public participation, score considerably lower in the 2017 Survey. While open external expert scrutiny, input and deliberation is a valuable form of public participation, it is not a substitute for wide engagement across society.
If more governments do not become more inclusive in how they design and implement taxation and public spending, we are much less likely to counter the negative trends with respect to inequality, willingness to pay taxes, and trust in government. One challenge from OBS 2017 is to work much harder on inclusive public engagement in the management of public finances. As GIFT’s founders recognized in 2011, direct public engagement has the potential to transform the disclosure of fiscal information into more effective accountability and better development outcomes. And the ICT revolution has given it a major shot in the arm, by dramatically cutting the cost of direct interactions between governments and citizens, as well as by making possible entirely new forms of public participation.
It also needs to be recognized that, like any survey, the OBS has to contain its scope to be manageable. With respect to public engagement by the executive branch of government, the 2017 Survey for the most part measures direct interactions between central finance ministries and the public. We know that a lot of direct public engagement is implemented by line ministries and agencies that actually deliver public services or make payments to citizens (as revealed by the findings for the question in the OBS that applies to line ministries). There is again limited practical guidance on what constitutes good practice in this area. GIFT is compiling examples of public participation across the whole budget cycle in a Guide to Public Participation. GIFT’s strategy for 2018-2020 is to ‘put the citizen at the centre of fiscal transparency’, by focusing, for instance, on the availability and accessibility of budget information at the individual service delivery unit level (e.g. school or health center), to foster citizen monitoring, on-going direct interactions with service recipients and local communities, and more effective accountability.
Finally, looking ahead, it is interesting to note that, while OBS results suggest that progress on increasing the disclosure of budget information has stalled for the first time since the launch of the Open Budget Index (OBI) in 2006, this is less true for countries that are members of the Open Government Partnership (OGP). For the 102 countries that were in both the 2015 and 2017 surveys, the average change in OBI scores was -2% – although this decline in part reflects the fact that the 2017 survey introduced a more demanding requirement that all documents be available on government web sites rather than in hard copy. Leaving that aside, for the 52 OGP member countries covered by the OBS the average change in score was -0.7, while for non-OGP members the average change was – 3.1. The relative difference across the two groups remains largely the same even if OECD countries are removed from both groups.
The significance of this with respect to public participation is that the OGP is built on a co-creation model in which governments and civil society work together. Around a third of all the commitments made by OGP member governments are fiscal transparency commitments, many of which involve direct public engagement in one form or another. The OGP recognizes that fiscal transparency resides at the very core of open government. GIFT and the OGP Support Unit have been working together since 2012 through peer to peer technical collaboration workshops (Fiscal Openness Working Group), bringing ministry of finance officials and in-country CSOs together to encourage the adoption of more ambitious commitments to fiscal openness, and to support them in implementing their commitments. In a world where there has been some shrinking of civic space, expanding membership of the OGP, and providing more support for OGP members, offers an important way forward.
Murray Petrie, GIFT Lead Technical Advisor
 See Principle 2.3.3 in the IMF Code, and the section on Openness and Civic Engagement in the OECD Budget Transparency Toolkit.
 To the extent that countries have shifted from hard copy publication of budget documents and fiscal reports to web-based publication, there has been an unmeasured increase in the accessibility of budget information. Some countries also published hard copy documents for the first time that would previously have been recognized by the OBS. In addition, some countries have improved the accessibility and ease of understanding of fiscal information on web sites through setting up Fiscal Data Portals (See: Materials used during the Fiscal Transparency Portals Workshop, Jakarta 2016).