WBI: What is WBI’s Open Budgeting program about, and what does it aim to achieve?
Jeff: Our Open Budgeting program seeks to help the World Bank’s partner countries make their budgets more open, inclusive, and responsive to citizens, and to foster accountability to improve the quality and accessibility of public services. The program engages diverse groups that have a stake in budgeting – governments, supreme audit institutions, parliaments, civil society organizations (CSOs), media and citizens along the entire budget cycle – formulation, enactment, implementation and oversight.
The different program components are associated with specific stakeholder groups working independently or in collaboration. On the supply side, we help governments open up budget and expenditure data, to make the data user-friendly, timely, and accurate, such as through BOOST and the Open Budgets Portal. On the demand side, we equip parliaments, CSOs, media and citizens with the knowledge and skills to access and analyze public budgets, and create channels for citizens’ voices, enabling the public to be engaged and in order to hold governments accountable for the effective management of public finances and delivery of quality services. The different programs are the Parliamentary Strengthening, Global Media Development, and Public Participation in the Budget and Audit Process. Moreover, we are preparing a cross-cutting public financial management e-learning program both for state and non-state actors to build and improve PFM knowledge and skills.
For example, Irene Choge, a young Kenyan journalist who took part in one of the Open Data Bootcamps we offered, used data interrogation skills acquired during the training to examine county-level expenditures on education infrastructure in two counties, specifically, the number of toilets per primary school, while also scrutinizing disease levels among students. Irene then produced a series of stories that presented her findings: Funding allocated for toilet facilities had disappeared, resulting in high levels of open defecation in play/lunch areas. Children were at increased risk of contracting serious diseases, which in turn accounted for low attendance and contributing to poor exam performance. The government acted on this information: Resources are being allocated to correct the toilet deficiency across the most underserved primary schools and to identify the source of the misallocation at the root of the problem.
WBI: What development problem can open budgeting address? Can it actually accelerate development, and why is public participation important in something as complex and technical as budgeting?
Robert: Whether we are a capital city think tank scrutinizing government’s expenditure data on health or education in order to inform and influence the national policy dialogues, or a farmer in a remote village waiting for that last mile of the road to pave the way to an urban market – budgets matter to us. Budgets determine how public resources are allocated and they influence the quality of services that people, especially the poor depend on. So, access to budget data and the ability to understand and use the data to participate around budget processes can empower and incentivize citizens to voice their priorities, monitor public expenditure, and hold governments accountable for efficient spending and service quality.
Opening budget data is only the first step. When people actually use that data to participate and hold their governments to account -- that is when open budget data matters. But to be able to participate, citizens, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), parliaments, the media – all need the skills to understand the data and to navigate the budget process. Slowly, more countries are opening up their expenditure data, but participation does not necessarily follow because of the gap in understanding the budget. Therefore, addressing capacity constraints of these stakeholders is central.
Let me give you an example. In Nepal, the Siswa Community Development Centre CSO received capacity building and budget literacy skills through our Open Budgeting Program. By applying simplified expenditure tracking tools, they discovered that the government was allocating budgets for the women of Kushahawa Village, but as the local population was not aware of this, no one would ever claim the funds. Through the work of the CSO, the women learnt of their social security entitlements and claimed their money.
WBI: This is inspiring. However, is there demand in developing countries for initiatives such as the Open Budgeting Program?
Jeff: Yes, we can say with confidence. In the latest global World Bank Group Country Opinion Surveys of clients and partners that represent CSOs, think tanks, academics, media, governments, and parliaments, respondents identified ‘public sector governance and reform’ as the second biggest development priority and ‘inadequate citizen participation’ as one of the top three significant obstacles to reform in their countries. In country-after country – from the Middle East to Africa, Asia and Latin America we are observing tremendous civic energy, with citizens no longer willing to be passive onlookers when it comes to the stewardship of public resources by their governments. We are also finding governments eager to use citizen feedback to improve their performance.
WBI: How can we sustain the effort of this program, and what are the challenges to be overcome?
Jeff: The success and sustainability of our program to a great extent depends on the enabling environment and stakeholder capacities in partner countries. We need to better match our rhetoric on open budgeting, strengthening of civil society and social accountability with adequate responses to the shrinking civic space in some countries, helping partner governments enact critical legislation to advance access to information, media freedoms and access to internal and external resources for civic engagement, for instance. We can leverage our convening authority, our special relationship with client governments and non-government partners, our capacity to support collaborative governance and effective leadership to help countries work together and find solutions to these challenges and expand the space for civic participation and stakeholder collaboration.
Robert: Exactly, we need to better understand and analyze the local context, as public budgets are primarily political documents and budgeting is a political process. We need to understand how to ensure that the voices of the ‘loudest,’ better organized groups do not ‘hijack’ the public agenda and overpower the needs and priorities of less organized stakeholders, particularly the poor. People make very strident statements about this or that issue, which often do not influence what actually happens when the budget is being written. That makes people cynical and destroys the spirit of trust, and to get that back is very difficult.
WBI: So we need a paradigm shift in the culture, and break the old traditions and habits of closeness?
Robert: Yes, in many contexts it is not the capacity that is the most binding constraint, but the culture of closeness and secrecy, and lack of the culture of participation and collaboration. So there are constraints both on the supply side for governments to open up data and processes, and on the demand side – for non-government actors to want to monitor, participate, and hold their governments accountable.
Jeff: We are at the frontier of something really new and potentially transformative in how budgets as a central policy instrument of any given country can be made to deliver what they are intended to deliver. Demystifying and democratizing the budget, and giving citizens a stake in their countries’ budgets and a stake in how public money is being spent are critical to that delivery. If we can do this with our eyes wide open to the dynamics that can determine success and failure, we will have made a huge contribution to public financial management and, ultimately, to improving the quality of life of citizens.