Spotlight on data: trends in budget transparency, open spending & budgeting

** The Government Spending Watch database tracks spending in developing countries on key anti-poverty and development sectors linked to the Millennium Development Goals. This is then turned into easy-to-understand data and made freely available online. We also work with others to track and analyse trends. We exist to help increase the availability of budget information for tracking development goals, so citizens can hold their governments to account. This blog is written by Jo Walker, Programme Manager for GSW, and is one of a series of blogs by the GSW team focused on looking at latest cross-country trends from our database. **

The information contained in the Government Spending Watch database, gives us a pretty unique insight into government spending trends in areas critical for tackling poverty, and delivering key MDG commitments. It also gives us a good birds-eye view of trends in government openness and transparency in budgeting and spending (because we gather almost all our information from publicly available online government budget documents). In the last 12 months our online database has gone through a massive expansion; the number of countries has grown by 30%, and the amount of total data we track has risen significantly (i.e. we’ve broadened, through more countries, and deepened, through more data per country). One of the reasons we’re accessing more information is the significant increase in budget transparency and openness in recent years.

The greater push towards more “open governments” has led to a palpable shift in the amount of information made available in the public domain. That makes our job a lot easier (which is great!), but more importantly, this means the first critical stepping stone to improving government accountability – that people can access the information to do this – is being met in far more countries. What’s more, these changes are happening at a pretty good* (*but not good enough) pace.

When we first set out to track public spending on key MDG sectors, even five short years ago, it was not as widely presumed that governments in developing countries would (and should) make at least some key budget documents available. Now it is the accepted norm. This has helped us to boost the countries online in our database from 56 to 74 in just over a year – and we’re expecting to hit 80 countries before the end of the year. We aim to have all low income countries covered in our database – the rationale was always to cover the poorest countries first, where the greatest need to fill information and data holes for accountability and results exists –  progressively moving towards greater coverage of higher income countries. We now cover over 80% of all low-income countries in the world. As a crude proxy of the level of transparency in budgets, which allows for tracking development commitments, this points to some space for optimism. All but the most fragile, war-torn and secretive countries are not covered in our database – Chad, Somalia, Eritrea, Guinea and North Korea. These are the countries which we hold out little hope of filing in the gaps for, so we’re moving our attention much more firmly to lower-middle income countries (with 70% now covered), and increasing towards upper-middle income countries (with only 15 covered we still have some way to go here).

Even countries in the most difficult of situations have shown with the right support and political will, it’s possible to massively expand their openness and transparency.  Perhaps no country makes this case more powerfully than one of the latest additions to our database – South Sudan. South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, embroiled in conflict, now has more budget data and information related to the MDGs, which can be readily assessed and analysed from online sources, than the vast majority of the countries in our database – in fact, for data availability they have over 80% of all the areas we cover – vastly more than most countries.

Other new 2015 country additions to our database have also made huge strides in improving their data availability. For instance, in Mongolia and Kyrgyz Republic, both governments have undertaken significant transparency and budget reform processes in recent years, leading to large amounts of new information made available. In some cases, the trends in opening-up budgets to the public are truly impressive. In Latin America, for instance, there are now a number of transparency portals – such as the El Salvadorian Fiscal Transparency Portal, which provides timely, user-friendly information on budget planning and execution – allowing citizens to more access budget information in a way which is easy to understand.

Over and above these new country additions, over three-quarters of the countries which have been included in our database for two years or more have improved the amount of spending information we can track since 2012 (see chapter 5 of our recent report). This means that there is more information in circulation which we have been able to access through greater budget transparency.

Much of our findings echo the findings of the (brilliant) IBP 2015 Open Budget survey launched yesterday (and their Open Budget Tracker is a veritable treasure trove of budget documents). Many of the countries they mark as notable ‘improvers’ in their index score, are the countries which we have seen this in too – such as Krygyz Republic or El Salvador

While some of the countries which we most struggle to get information for are on the list of countries which they categorize as having “unacceptably low levels of budget transparency” or  which are “failing to advance reforms”. This includes some of the countries we can’t access any information for (i.e. Chad or Guinea). But also some of the countries we have tried to add, but still can’t access enough multi-year comparable data for (i.e. Iraq). Also included on their list are some countries which we’re trying to add to our database but are struggling with accessing enough data for (such as Bolivia and Vietnam).

We were also stuck by the key finding in the OBI report that volatility in transparency initiatives causes big problems for those trying to track spending – citing Ghana’s sporadic publishing of documents to track actual spending (something we have also struggled with). We have also found this in a number of other countries, such as Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia, Zambia and Cambodia, who have all made documents available and then changed this availability, which has led to less information being available and some movement backwards (and forwards) in recent years.

I will be exploring some of these country level issues in more detail in coming weeks, as well as some of the challenges we still find in tracking the MDGs, and how these might impact on tracking the new SDG global goals. Because it is not only a question of whether governments publish budget documents, but also the level and degree of information, and how readily accessible and readable this is in order to track national or international commitments. So while total budget information is improving through transparency measures, even when the documents were published, they frequently lacked sufficient detail for us to be able to breakdown a number of different sectors we track, i.e. water and sanitation, social protection and gender are hard to track, due to the way governments set up their budgets. Also breaking down budgets by spending (recurrent or capital), and types of funding (donor aid or government spending) is hard.

However, crucially, one of the key messages which needs heeding now is that there is is still far too little information for us to sufficiently track the MDGs – and this raises concerns for the SDGs. Last year, Government Spending Watch published research with the International Budget Project showing the link between budget transparency, the tracking of development expenditure, MDG spending, and MDG results – and setting out suggestions for priorities in the SDGs. This means that tracking and monitoring spending on the SDGs is more likely to help make them a reality.

We know that right now, governments are not providing enough information to connect the dots from inputs towards outputs, and ultimately outcomes and achievements – more must be done to improve transparency in both spending and revenues to effectively track spending on the SDGs.  We are working on trying to understand some of the key challenges in improving transparency in a way which can ensure that this leads to easy to track and understand open budgets, so citizens can hold governments accountable. In just a few weeks’ time, the UN Post-2015 Summit will commit to the new Post-2015 development agenda, where the (really hard) task of making that work begins. We’re rolling up our sleeves for the task ahead…

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