Every two years the International Budget Partnership (IBP) runs a survey, called the Open Budget Survey, to evaluate formal oversight of budgets, how transparent governments are about their budgets and if there are opportunities to participate in the budget process. To easily measure and compare transparency among the countries surveyed, IBP created the Open Budget Index where the participating countries are scored and ranked using about two thirds of the questions from the Survey. The Open Budget Index has already established itself as an authoritative measurement of budget transparency, and is for example used as an eligibility criteria for the Open Government Partnership.
However, countries do not release budget information every two years; they should do so regularly, on multiple occasions in a given year. There is, however, as stated above a two year gap between the publication of consecutive Open Budget Survey results. This means that if citizens, civil society organisations (CSOs), media and others want to know how governments are performing in between Survey releases, they have to undertake extensive research themselves. It also means that if they want to pressure governments into releasing budget information and increase budget transparency before the next Open Budget Index, they can only point to ‘official’ data which can be up to two years old.
To combat this, IBP, together with Open Knowledge, have developed the Open Budget Survey Tracker (the OBS Tracker), http://obstracker.org,: an online, ongoing budget data monitoring tool, which is currently a pilot and covers 30 countries. The data are collected by researchers selected among the IBP’s extensive network of partner organisations, who regularly monitor budget information releases, and provide monthly reports. The information included in the OBS Tracker is not as comprehensive as the Survey, because the latter also looks at the content/comprehensiveness of budget information — not only the regularity of its publication. The OBS Tracker, however, does provide a good proxy of increasing or decreasing levels of budget transparency, measured by the release to (or witholding from) the public of key budget documents. This is valuable information for concerned citizens, CSOs and media.
With the Open Budget Survey Tracker, IBP has made it easier for citizens, civil society, media and others to monitor, in near real time (monthly), whether their central governments release information on how they plan to and how they spend the public’s money. The OBS Tracker allows them to highlight changes and facilitates civil society efforts to push for change when a key document has not been released at all, or not in a timely manner.
Niger and Kyrgyz Republic have improved the release of essential budget information after the latest Open Budget Index results, something which can be seen from the OBS Tracker without having to wait for the next Open Budget Survey release. This puts pressure on other countries to follow suit.
The budget cycle is a complex process which involves creating and publishing specific documents at specific points in time. IBP covers the whole cycle, by monitoring in total eight documents which include everything from the proposed and approved budgets, to a citizen-friendly budget representation, to end-of-the-year financial reporting and the auditing from a country’s Supreme Audit Institution.
In each of the countries included in the OBS Tracker, IBP monitors all these eight documents showing how governments are doing in generating these documents and releasing them on time. Each document for each country is assigned a traffic light color code:
Red means the document was not produced at all or published too late.
Yellow means the document was only produced for internal use and not released to the general public.
Green means the document is publicly available and was made available on time.
The color codes help users quickly skim the status of the world as well as the status of a country they’re interested in.
To make monitoring even easier, the OBS Tracker also provides more detailed information about each document for each country, a link to the country’s budget library and more importantly the historical evolution of the “availability status” for each country. The historical visualisation shows a snapshot of the key documents’ status for that country for each month. This helps users see if the country has made any improvements on a month-by-month basis, but also if it has made any improvements since the last Open Budget Survey.
Is your country being tracked by the OBS Tracker? How is it doing? If they are not releasing essential budget documents or not even producing them, start raising questions. If your country is improving or has a lot of green dots, be sure to congratulate the government; show them that their work is appreciated, and provide recommendations on what else can be done to promote openness. Whether you are a government official, a CSO member, a journalist or just a concerned citizen, OBS Tracker is a tool that can help you help your government.
Tryggvi Björgvinsson is the Unit Head of IT and Dissemination for Statistics Iceland. He previously worked for Open Knowledge Foundation, and is one of the founders of the Icelandic Digital Freedom Society (FSFI).