When talking anti-corruption, the most common buzzwords flung around by civil society activists, researchers and development professionals alike are transparency and accountability. Transparency is seen as so key to the fight against corruption that its arguably most important advocate took it as part of its name: Transparency International. It should thus not come as a surprise that the EU Horizon 2020 DIGIWHIST project also aims at increasing transparency, specifically in the realm public procurement. But how do we increase transparency, and how does this contribute to more accountable governance?
A significant part of the project involves the collection of publicly available budget data for both national- and local-level governments across the EU countries and beyond. DIGIWHIST relies on countries following through on their commitments to budget transparency in order to find the necessary data, but it’s evident that not all countries are pursuing budget transparency in the same way.
Budget transparency – and how to get it right
The OECD definition of budget transparency is “the full disclosure of all relevant fiscal information in a timely and systematic manner.” Thus, what’s important to consider when we talk about this kind of transparency is both how promptly the information in question is released, as well as how predictable and orderly its release is.
The digital era has transformed the practice of budget transparency significantly. Ideally, citizens who wish to inform themselves about their government’s budget simply need to access an online portal where they can find all of the desired information presented to them in an accessible, understandable format. Regular users of online media should, however, not be surprised that the reality of budget transparency is more complex than this. The extent to which it is realized varies radically today. Still, there are some examples of how to do digital budget transparency “right”.
The German government, for example, has two main portals for people to turn to. One is Bundeshaushalt-info.de, which allows visitors to explore the national budget via colorful infographics and interactive tables. The second is Govdata.de, the government’s official open data portal, where a simple search of “Bundeshaushalt” returns machine-readable versions of the national budget from 2012-2015. Both portals cater to diverse audiences, ensuring that everyone from casually interested citizens to dedicated data analysts (like the kind of people working on DIGIWHIST) can find the desired information in a form that works for them. On a more local level, a great example of this can be found in Spain. The Presupuestos de Aragón website offers visitors a variety of interactive tools and visualizations for understanding the Spanish autonomous community’s budget. Their open data portal, Opendata.aragon.es, also provides machine-readable budget documents for the years 2006 – 2017.
So how can we evaluate who is doing budget transparently well? One of the main organizations focusing on this is the International Budget Partnership, which conducts the Open Budget Survey. The survey tends to focus on more traditional aspects of budget transparency rather than solely on the digital aspect of it. It contains an index measuring countries’ budget transparency (amount, level of detail and timeliness of budget information), budget participation (opportunities for civil society and the general public to participate in the budget-making process), and budget oversight (capacity of institutions to influence how public resources are raised and spent). The most recent survey, published in 2015, saw New Zealand, Sweden, South Africa, Norway, and the United States leading the pack.
Another view on evaluating budget transparency comes from the Open Knowledge Foundation, which publishes a ranked government budget dataset. They have a specific focus on the availability of government data in digital forms, and rankings are based on nine different factors, such as whether budget data is openly licensed, if it is available online, and if it is machine readable. Because this index is more narrowly focused than the Open Budget Survey, it is hard to compare the two data sources, and they often have strikingly diverging rankings (for example, the Open Budget Survey ranks Russia 11th overall, while the OKFN rankings have Russia tied for 105th place). Thus when evaluating budget transparency, it’s important to be clear about what aspects of it you are specifically interested in.
Transparency – and then what?
Just having the data in hand does not mean the battle is won. More transparency does not automatically equal more accountability. On the contrary: exerting accountability via budget transparency is no easy feat. The mere existence and general availability of budget data does not mean that it is immediately possible to make observations on and draw meaningful conclusions from the data. First of all, the way the data is published is often problematic. It does no good for a country to boast that all of its budget information is published online if that information is buried in a difficult-to-navigate finance ministry site, or in a chaotically-organized open data portal. Other countries still exclusively publish budgetary information in PDFs or publish only select portions of their budget data in machine readable formats. This is prohibitive to organizations like DIGIWHIST who want to automatically extract and analyze budget data, as extracting information from PDFs is much more difficult and error-prone.
Second, the actual analysis of budget data and what changes in allocations from year to year actually mean can be challenging without sufficient contextual background. Huge changes can be explained away by departmental consolidations, and small shifts in numbers may actually be indicative of changes that warrant scrutiny – the point is, a casual observer of this data can’t necessarily look at it and understand what is happening and identify potential causes for concern.
Third, the budget data needs to be sufficiently detailed to be useful from an accountability perspective. For DIGIWHIST’s work with public procurement data, for example, it is not sufficient to know how much money is being allocated or spent by a single ministry. Since the project is interested in matching contracting authorities from procurement tenders with the specific government agencies to which they correlate, a deeper layer of detail is needed; budget experts refer to this as the “economic classification.” But not all countries release budget information at levels this specific, making it that much more difficult for organizations like DIGIWHIST to hold governments accountable for their budget allocations.
Though progress at times feels slow, there is a clear trend toward greater budgetary transparency in governments and better provision of structured, accessible data. Projects like DIGIWHIST help in furthering this push thanks to the pressure they place on governments to be more accountable. Their researchers make transparency and accountability more than just buzzwords and help citizens and civil society activists in their fight against corruption.
By Tori Dykes