The success of open budget data relies on the level of engagement by civil society actors to evaluate institutions’ ability to meet public needs.
Open budget data is a vast and critical subset of parliamentary open data - it encompasses fiscal and spending data of nationally and internationally acquired funds as well.
Internationally mandated open budget tools were created and adapted in response to international economic crises - their malleability and pre-established framework provide a foundation for parliamentarians and civil society lead organisations to create their own tools or initiatives shaped by their specific contexts.
Within the Asian context, there are frequent events such as hackathons and a widely articulated demand for knowing how development funds and local government budgets are utilised.
Despite increase in budget transparency over the last 10 years, timely publication of open usable data still proves to be a challenge across the world, and in Asia.
Open budget data includes information on government debt, taxation, contracting, grants, subsidies, and expenditures1. More specifically, open budget data is defined by datasets and quantitative values on public finances that inform governments’ spending of budgets and funds allotted to internal expenses2; the term open refers to the legal and technical reusability of the data.
Opening budget data necessitates making budgetary data available, accessible, machine-readable, and readily usable. Open Data Principles3 offer general guidelines on the manner of disclosing data and technical and legal reusability requirements. Disclosure for the sake of citizen participation and accountability measures allows open budget data to act as an enabler and servicer of broader goals including increased transparency and effective spending4. Consequently, establishing mechanisms to engage and solicit feedback from civil society is necessary to evaluate institutions’ ability to meet public needs. The Open Government Declaration5 favours disclosure and strongly recommends institutions to consider citizen participation and accountability measures.
Public spending and budgetary data is significant because it narrates the purchasing and provision of the (re)distribution of resources. Government spending is linked to measures of national income, revenues, and the patterns of inequities. The landscape of government spending has shifted historically and created categorisations between open budget data, open spending data, and open financial data6. In the mid 19th century, European governments were accustomed to publishing budgets as a mechanism to approve and mandate taxation7. During the 20th century, public spending and investment in social services, and more recently, partnerships with private companies to build infrastructure projects, increased (increases were more drastic in high-income countries)8. Open spending, therefore builds upon open budget data and is characterised by information on freely available machine-readable public expenditures. Rooted in a long history, International Budget Partnership (IBP) and OpenSpending.org are prominent contemporary actors within these subsets. For the past 20 years, IBP has collaborated with and strengthened civil society and government organisations, monitored and evaluated the transparency of budgets worldwide, engaged with international stakeholders to determine norms and standards, published reports and findings of case studies to promote effective strategies, and proposed government reforms to better manage public funds9. OpenSpending.org is a database allowing users to visualise and analyse fiscal data made available to the public sphere. This database operates on open software and actively generates and curates readable datasets from volunteer-contributors10.
Following the East Asian crisis and the rise of the financial sector, transparency in government finances and extra-budgetary information was in high-demand11. Along with information on public finances, the new wave of fiscal transparency calls for clarity, timely, reliable, and public reporting on past, present, and future finances12. Moreover, this movement advocates for raw datasets (including budgetary, expenditure, and fiscal data) and granularity to increase use flexibility and better inform government and market-driven policy decisions. For this movement to be well-positioned, considering the conditions of success mentioned above, it must align itself within existing government and grassroots advocacy networks. Initiated in collaboration with Open Knowledge International (OKI), the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency (GIFT), the BOOST World Bank Initiative, and civil society actors, the Open Fiscal Data Package (OFDP) is currently used by five national governments and one subnational government to publish previous and ongoing government expenditure data13. OFDP aims to standardise the content and structure of fiscal data (and subsequently, tools for visualisation), as well as establishing a norm for data quality and transparency14.
While there have been several efforts to spur the movement forward with the involvement of a host of dedicated actors around the world, social agendas and goals need to be realised from a legal and technical perspective. Within governments and amongst civil society organisations, standards and regulations must be created to support the readability, timeliness, and completeness of data made available. Because opening budgetary data is an enabler of larger transparency and accountability goals, channels for communication, monitoring, and evaluation must also be established in the coming years.
Although the history of open budget data dates back to the 19th century, definitions of fiscal transparency were not officially outlined until the East Asian Financial Crisis. In 1998, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) published a code of recommended practices on fiscal transparency and began assessing countries by these standards15. In 2002, the OECD published a similar set of guidelines aimed specifically towards opening the budgets of advanced countries. In the same year, the Public Sector Committee of the International Federation of Accountants released a core setting of accounting standards for the public sector16. In the early 2000s, concerns regarding the necessity of fiscal transparency were exaggerated in countries dependent on extractive resources. Public Expenditure and Financial Accountability (PEFA) reports 2005 onwards focused specifically on examining lower and middle income countries. During this time, the IBP launched the Open Budget Survey (OBS) in order to quantitatively and qualitatively evaluate global efforts towards meeting these standards17.
The 2008 financial crisis, specifically the lack of transparency that caused it to escalate, enabled the creation of a multistakeholder collective known as the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency (GIFT) - these stakeholders pledge to hold themselves to high principles and accountability measures18. Among other organisations who offer tools and networks for budget and fiscal data analysis, GIFT positions itself uniquely by taking on a user-centered approach and relying heavily on transformations in internal government systems as well as actively collaborating with civil society actors. In Indonesia, for example, one GIFT’s successes in enabling fiscal and budgetary data to have a positive social impact involves working with an NGO to shift budget allocations towards HIV treatment19. Similarly impactful initiatives are taking place in Argentina, where gender budgetary analysis20 and investigations by civil society actors into the reduction of social policies (e.g. food policies for children)21 are underway.
In the aftermath of the financial crisis, which resulted in greater collectivisation around the fiscal transparency movement, each of the tools and initiatives mentioned above have improved and been revitalised. Based on these guidelines, the steps governments are required to take to open budget data amount to: navigating international standards, clearly communicating and formatting budget information, parliamentary and civic engagement, establishing regulatory bodies for oversight, embodying and advocating for integrity in the private sector, and creating open accountability measures.
Among the several initiatives, guidelines, and measures that have been instituted in the last 20 years, it is important to note that these tools work not only for governments, but also for civil society actors, and individuals. These tools and initiatives have the capacity to visualise data and allow all potential users to navigate, learn from, and evaluate the data22. In order to instrumentalise these tools according to various contexts, each national, sub-national, and local government must implement the guidelines that are best-suited for them. To see an example of a breakdown of various tools and guidelines and what they have to offer for your initiatives, see this report. The report presents cross-country analysis in regards to levels of open budget transparency and the process involved in determining metrics of success. To study more technical tools used in the EU, refer to this link. The range of tools featured here cover various aspects of the open budget data process; from assisting in publishing and visualising data to categorising and analysing datasets.
Because open budget data encompasses a broad range of goals, it also involves a wide range of actors. The most prominent actors are intergovernmental organisations (World Bank), multi-stakeholder initiatives including Open Government Principles (OGP) and International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), as well as a host of civil society actors23.
An early initiative, in 2007, -was “Where Does My Money Go?” funded by the UK government, 4IP, Open Society Foundation, the Knight Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, and the Omidyar Network to identify citizen’s needs and concerns24. One of the first instances of policy change was the reforms made to the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in 2008 by. Through Freedom of Information requests filed by the FarmSubidy.org network, fiscal information on agricultural subsidies revealed that multinationals were the major beneficiaries of government funding, rather than small scale farmers. As a result, CAP was changed in order to support small-scale farmers, as it was originally intended to do25.
Governments including those of the USA, UK, Mexico, and Brazil are most notably taking on transparency initiatives through programs and portals such as USASpendingGov, UK COINS, and Mexico’s Open Data Format portal26. These initiatives serve to prioritise downloadable data and integrate different IT systems to enable interoperability. Following the Access to Information Act in 2011, Brazil also created a portal committed to promoting transparency27.
In Asia, budgeting data is used in challenges and Hackathons in both Indonesia and the Philippines, both of which are founding members of the Open Government Partnership28. In Indonesia, while many activities are driven by international donors and institutions (such as DeSalle University in the Philippines), there are a few dedicated open data groups and beta portals29. Funded by the Asia Foundation and developed by the Ananda, Myanmar’s Budget Dashboard presents budgetary information disaggregated by year, region, and sector. These classifications are based on reports prepared by the Ministry of Planning and Finance. Each sector is pictorified by bar charts and pie graphs delineating differences in public revenue and expenditure by the Union government30. Within the Asian context, civil society initiatives also play a key role. OpenNepal hosts 68 datasets across 19 sectors and seeks to heighten the transparency of foreign aid and development funds to better understand how the government spends nationally and internationally acquired resources31.
At the grassroots level, in Nigeria, BudgIT works to promote engagement from a pedagogical perspective. They create reports on budgetary data that reaches over 4 million people32. Organisations like these reflect the need and desire of citizens to understand, embed, and comprehensively analyse data.For parliamentarians and civil society actors alike, initiatives such as the ones by Myanmar and Malaysia can flag strengths, weaknesses, and flaws in budgetary spending - civil society can identify failed projects and parliamentarians can take steps towards improving and ensuring efficient resource management.
The Open Budget Index measures central government transparency. This measure assesses countries’ budgetary processes based on the amount of information and timeliness of budget availability33. According to the Index, since the early 2000s, Asia’s average score rose more substantially than other regions34. However, as of 2017, according to the Open Budget Survey (OBS), progress toward global budget transparency stalled for the first time in a decade; less information was made available, and information that was made available was insufficient35. In fact, surveys also indicated that only 10% of surveyed governments published fully open data and only 3% posted disaggregated open spending data36. These figures are representative of ongoing challenges and gaps faced in meeting financial transparency standards and the potential for achieving positive outcomes:
Data quality: In the case of open budget data, the data itself and the number of bodies that exist to monitor the data are limited. Like the heterogeneity that exists in government spending patterns, the political and policy conditions supporting open budget data vary nationally and regionally. However, even in instances when data are provided, the quality is usually meagre, the information insufficient, or uneasily translatable. Often, this is due to the lack of legal and technical provisions put in place to ensure the completeness and readability of available data. In response to this challenge, there are independent for profit and non-profit policy and research organisations such as SpendNetwork and OpenBudgetsIndia which work to clean, re-package, and organise financial data.
However, for large swathes of data, this model can become unsustainable. A report by the International Budget Partnership (IBP) and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) highlights African countries with the highest records according to the Open Budget Survey37. The report finds that the substance of reports and documents released remains questionable (given the difficulty of conducting meaningful analysis). The report suggests that, at least in the African context, collaboration between a variety of stakeholders (civil society and parliamentarians) is necessary to improve the comprehensiveness of open budgetary data38.
Data publication: Similar to issues with the quality of data, often there are minimal frameworks and policies in place to implement openness of usable of data within government bodies themselves, making the publishing process more arduous. In instances when data is published, issues arise around the technical nature of the data and the platform on which it is published. The lack of standardisation and restrictive formats pose barriers to reusing fiscal information which impede downstream applications of data.
To ameliorate this gap, the Open Fiscal Data Package (OFDP) works to create summaries of fiscal information from sources which vary in structure. Interestingly, another issue with budget data publication (and government data publication more broadly) is the cost associated with creating the infrastructure and mechanisms opening up data. To address this challenge, Results for Development have created a variety of frameworks to estimate the cost of open data budget initiatives39. One of the key case studies analysed in this report is a Ukrainian project. Theoretically, parliamentarians in Asia would be able to manage the budget of opening up budget data while using this framework and adapting it appropriately for their contexts.
Legislative oversight: Legislative bodies, oversight, and policies require strong political leadership that prioritises openness and accessibility in the way in which data is curated and documented. A lack of regulatory oversight also precludes the publication of any disaggregated and granular data
User-ability and levels of citizen engagement: Government initiatives are often critiqued for their inability to facilitate exchange with, and participation from citizens, particularly in the context of declining civil trust. The Ghana Open Data Initiative, for example, in considering the development of a two-way consultation process, is limited due to the absence of an information disclosure law (such as the Freedom of Information Act), the cost of accessing information, and the lack of infrastructure available to engage citizens40. In these scenarios it is important to consider how existing infrastructure can be mobilised in the short term, while more sustainable infrastructure for feedback pathways can be built in the long term41; the Sinar project in Malaysia serves as a prime example42. According to Lorena Rivero del Paso of GIFT, in localities where there is relatively less internet penetration and access to the internet, there are ways in which technology (including machine learning and artificial intelligence technology) can be used alternatively and creatively to narrow the digital divide. Fiscal information exists at all levels of government, however, minimal data is made available. This becomes an issue, especially as budgetary cuts on social services spending by Prime Minister Dato’Seri Najib Razak were underway in 2016. To understand these budgetary cuts more practically, social audits - a mechanism to collect evidence as a community - allowed municipalities to gain a better understanding of who is being affected by budget cuts and how43.