Promoting citizen participation in fiscal matters: Towards a citizen participation guide or handbook?

Originally posted on https://imaliyethu.org.za/blog/

by author Yeukai Mukorombindo, 7 May 2018

The IMF Fiscal Transparency Handbook and the OECD Budget Transparency Toolkit were launched on the 23rd of April 2018 at the 2018 World Bank Group Spring Meetings in Washington DC. The Fiscal Transparency Handbook provides detailed guidance and describes current trends in implementation of fiscal transparency principles, noting relevant international standards as well outlining select country examples.  The Budget Transparency Toolkit provides practical steps for how governments can support openness, integrity and accountability in public financial management. The launch of these handbooks is timely and very pertinent, particularly for Southern Africa. The Open Budget Index (OBI) is the world’s only independent, comparative measure of central government budget transparency. The last OBI 2017 survey reveals a decline in open budget survey scores in Sub Saharan Africa. Not only were governments in Southern Africa ranked poorly for making budget information publicly available and accessible but they were also ranked poorly in terms of providing public participation opportunities “both to inform decisions about how government raises and allocates funds and to hold government accountable for implementing those decisions.” The Open Budget Survey’sparticipation measure assesses the opportunities governments are providing to civil society and the public. Accessing relevant information on public resource management as well as finding opportunities to engage government in the formulation of the national budget is therefore a significant challenge in the Southern Africa context. The OBI 2017 survey highlights the need for civic actors in Southern Africa to advocate for greater accessibility on information pertaining to public finance management as well as the provision of meaningful opportunities for the public to engage in decisions about how public resources are raised and spent.  Although the launch of handbooks setting standards for fiscal transparency is to be praised and is a step in the right direction, standards and guidelines on fiscal transparency are meaningless and empty if they are not accompanied with citizen participation in fiscal processes.

Why citizen participation in fiscal processes matters

Civic engagement is being increasingly viewed as a promising approach to improving development. Citizens’ involvement in public policy processes and their participation in the use of public funds is believed to be an effective empowerment tool also contributing towards good governance and improved public sector performance. In recent years, a growing number of authors and practitioners have offered civic engagement as the solution to the crisis of failed service delivery. It is believed that citizen voice and the involvement of ordinary citizens in the formulation, monitoring and implementation of public resources can address service delivery shortcomings such as dilapidated school buildings, clinics with no electricity or medication, absent teachers and nurses, the lack of water or electricity and the like. Citizen participation is understood as having potential to improve government responsiveness and influencing decisions over spending and policy.

The concept of social accountability draws from a participatory democracy premise which acknowledges that elections will always be insufficient a  mechanism for citizen voice and accountability. It also implies the right for citizens to hold elected representatives accountable for their performance and their right to directly participate in decision making in policy and governance.  Participation by citizens in public policy and decision-making are fundamental principles of democracy. However it must be pointed out that although citizen participation is potentially a powerful accountability tool, it is often quite dormant and apathetic. It is therefore important to design mechanisms and set standards that help to translate the potential power of citizen participation into action and results.

Barriers to citizen participation in fiscal matters

Leading thinkers such as John Dewey made the case for direct citizen participation by arguing that “citizens are highly capable of understanding complex scientific and technical information.”  The excuse that most governments give for not providing citizens with opportunities to participate in fiscal matters is that citizens are not capable of engaging with financial information and policies. Whilst this may be true to an extent, the lack of capacity (which can be overcome) is only a part of the problem. There are other contributing factors that exist within the context preventing citizens from participating.

Challenges such as economic inequality and the absence of interest can hamper participation by citizens. This therefore means that the capacity for citizens to engage in participatory governance can be constrained by a lack of economic resources, access to information and low levels of education among citizens and civil society organisations (CSOs). Citizen’s interest in participation depends on the perceived costs and benefits of participation. Costs could include time and transportation costs. The costs could also include the perceived risk of challenging public officials weighed against possible benefits such as the transfer of real decision making power over public resources and improved access to public services.

The capacity of citizens to participate effectively in fiscal matters is further weakened by financial information relayed in formats that are inaccessible and not understandable to the average citizen. This often requires translation of documents into indigenous languages as well as the use of visual techniques. However, most governments lack the capacity and resource costs to implement such practices which impacts on the quality and sustainability of the participatory processes.

Standards for meaningful citizen participation

An important component of evaluating citizen participation in fiscal matters is an assessment of the citizen participation opportunities and experiences during the budget formulation process.  Remember being consulted and informed about what the government plans to do with public resources is not a favour, it is a right! Participation opportunities become tick box exercises if they are not meaningful. Not only do citizens require opportunities to participate in fiscal processes, they also require that these opportunities be meaningful. Some guidelines on key features of effective, meaningful and inclusive participation or deliberation is provided by the Institute for Development Studies (IDS).  The IDS argues that in order for participation to be meaningful, it must meet the following standards:

  • Careful consideration, debate and discussion of reasons for and against.
  • Active involvement of multiple social actors and usually emphasises the participation of previously excluded citizens.
  • Social interaction in the form of face-to-face meetings between those involved.
  • Multiple positions are given equal opportunity and respect.
  • Discussion and presentation of positions and perspectives is based on information and evidence.
  • Negotiations, public reasoning and dialogue aimed at mutual understanding takes place, even if consensus is not being sought.
  • Unhurried, reflective and reasonably open-ended discussion is required.
  • Citizens have accurate and accessible information on resource allocation, performance and service delivery

Conclusion

The benefits of fiscal transparency are dependent on citizen’s willingness and ability to attend participate in fiscal processes. In order to maintain public interest in participation meetings, simply organising opportunities for participation is not enough. Citizens must see a link between their input in public meetings and what happens on the ground. Furthermore, to maintain public interest and engagement in participation initiatives there must be meaningful engagement.  This will require that international financial institutions such as the IMF, World Bank, the OECD also work towards building standards and capacities for developing citizen participation practices in fiscal matters. The lack of meaningful citizen participation in fiscal matters can undermine as well as weaken attempts to promote transparency and accountability in the use of public resources.

How a pan-African network of cyber activists has been strengthening democracy online

Originally published by Dakar, Senegal on the 2nd of June 2018. Original article to be found at https://qz.com/1302623/africas-baobab-trees-are-dying-out-with-climate-change/

During a recent visit to The Gambia’s capital Banjul, digital activist Cheikh Fall spoke about the power of the internet to improve governance in Africa.

Fall, 35, is a co-founder of the pan-African network of online activists and bloggers for democracy (AFRICTIVISTS), a community of 200 cyber-activists from 35 different countries on the continent. The Africtivists were on tour to train 500 journalists in cyber-security, traveling from Guinea, Mauritania, Senegal, to Niger, and Burkina Faso.

In countries where occasions to gather in public spaces and criticize governments are slim or dangerous, the internet has become an arena for political battle. Governments, increasingly aware of this, have cut off the internet and blocked social media outlets, depriving activists of the tools to connect, collaborate and inspire action. The Africtivists created a network that would help organize across the internet, disperse messages, and amp pressure on governments to strengthen democratic rights and improve transparency.

“Africa will be left behind in the digital revolution unless it takes advantage to transform lives,” Fall said.

Aisha Dabo, half Senegalese half Gambian, blogger and web activist, she lives in Dakar where is the league of cyber-activists
Aisha Dabo, a Gambian activist and journalist (Quartz/Max Hirzel)

Inspired by digital activists of the Arab spring, the Africtivists’ online battle started a few years ago. Fall opened the way with his platform Sunu2012 (“Our 2012” in Wolof language) inviting citizens to monitor the Senegalese presidential campaign and notify him in case of irregularities in the electoral process. The same year, similar initiatives blossomed in Benin (#Vote229 in reference to the country code), Burkina Faso (#Lwili for Lwili Peende, a traditional Burkinabé cloth featuring a bird, much like Twitter’s icon) and Ghana (#GhanaVote), where activists were passing on any information regarding attempts at breaking the rule of law, the justice system, democracy, public liberties or good governance.

After years of online exchanges, the teams finally met up in Dakar in November 2015 and launched Africtivists. At that summit, they defined what would be their line of action: monitor closely that the rights of the citizens were being respected and when they weren’t, call out governments or help depose the African leaders who publicly flout the law.

“Our main focus is information. We want to equip citizens with tools to tackle dictatorships and censorship,” explains Fall, who does not define himself as a journalist but prefers the labels “concerned citizen” or “influencer.”

In just a few years, the Africtivists have learned to react quickly, in a structured manner. “When there’s a problem in Chad, DRC, Cameroon, everyone is up on deck,” says Chantal Naré, a feminist blogger from Burkina Faso. “We start passing down the info on our networks and immediately release a statement,” adding, “African dictators are afraid to see us all together sharing the same vision for a new Africa.”

The Africtivists’ most impressive feat remains when former dictator Yahya Jammeh relinquished power in January 2017 after 22 years as president of Gambia. The cyber-activists claim partial authorship of this unexpected outcome. “We had been working on this case for two years,” remembers Fall. “It had taken a lot of our time and energy. We were constantly fact-checking him. A lot of Gambian journalists were working in exile from Dakar.”

Demba Gueye in Dakar city center. Senegalese, member of Africactivists, he works as digital manager
Activist Demba Gueye in Dakar, Senegal (Quartz/Max Hirzel)

Among them is Aisha Dabo, who initially came for a one-month training at the Senegalese capital and ended up staying after she learned the newspaper she was working for in The Gambia had been shut down without notice.

Dabo threw herself into the campaign launched to raise awareness of Jammeh’s dealings using the hashtag #jammehfact. When Jammeh refused to leave his seat to his newly elected successor Adama Barrow, the Africtivists hired a European firm to send mass messages to military officers likely to support a coup: “Choose Gambia, choose the people!” the messages read. They also sent letters to wives of army officers, urging them to talk to their husbands.

Among other tools, the Africtivists set up a pirate radio station which works only in moments of crisis. “It had been in our plans for a while now, but the events in The Gambia accelerated its birth,” Fall notes. Launched in The Gambia in 2016, the radio’s content is produced by staff members of temporarily shut down radio stations. It broadcasts on the web and on the darknet.

The Africtivists also launched MediaScoop, a service which irregularly sends flash news through Whatsapp. The team hopes to reach 1 million users in Senegal in 2019 when the country holds its presidential election. “If this format works, we’ll test it in other countries as well,” says Fall.

On the mobile of Aisha Dabo, a text of the new media project Africactivists, Mediascoop, transmitted via WhatsApp
A text of the new media project Mediascoop, which transmits messages via WhatsApp(Quartz/Max Hirzel)

What the Africtivists refer to as a “cause” takes a lot of their free time. Many of them have day jobs: Fall defines himself as a consultant for international organizations, while Naré is employed by a non-governmental organization that she declines to name.

And even though Fall argues that “we are not a secret society,” the team is also discreet on its sources of funding. Partly self-financed, the project is also funded by the Open Society Initiative for West Africa, the George Soros foundation, and European embassies. They also receive technical support from Clemson University in South Carolina when it comes to matters of cybersecurity. The group has also worked with internet advocacy groups Article 19 and Internet Without Borders.

Malick Fall, the Senegal program associate at OSIWA said their support to the group “was meant to help them organize, share experiences, build their capacity and advocate for a democratic consolidation of Africa.” Besides Senegal, Fall says the activists have carried out online campaigns in Burkina Faso (#Iwili), Guinea (#GuineeVote), Niger (Just1pourcent), and The Gambia (#FreeSanna), and Cameroon (#BringBackOurInternet).

Henri Thulliez, from the Belgian foundation Equal Opportunities in Africa, says the team’s “dematerialized activism” is essential in creating a more powerful network. “This is a new kind of Pan-Africanism,” he said.

Concerns in the Eastern Cape education budget

PSAM education researcher, Siyabulela Fobosi, has released his budget analysis for the Eastern Cape Education department 2018. Here he outlines some of the key concerns in the province’s budget for education.

What is of concern is that the planning and budgeting of R57 billion for fee-free higher education comes with the baseline reduction to the basic education budget. For example, Programme 6 (Infrastructure Development) of the ECDoE decreased by 10%, in nominal terms, from R1.7 billion in 2017/18 to R1.5 billion in 2018/19. In real terms, the allocation to this Programme decreased by 13% to R1.4 billion.  The reason for this decline is due to the reduction in the funding for two conditional grants, namely Education Infrastructure Grant and Maths Science and Technology Grant. This reduction will delay the completion of currently existing infrastructure projects such as hostels, special schools and Early Childhood Development (ECD) Centres.

The reduction in budget for infrastructure is concerning, considering the interdependence of the basic and higher education sectors. One would expect government to ensure massive investment in basic education, so that learners progress well to the higher education. The high fees in universities are not the only reason why many of the learners from the poor schools cannot access higher education. It is also due to the inequalities in the early years of schooling. It remains a challenge for most learners in South Africa, to pass matric well and obtain a qualification in higher education, especially in the context where learners are repeating Grade 3 and 4.

The lack of adequate appropriate infrastructure in schools does adversely impacts on progress towards ensuring equitable access to education and resources. It is particularly disconcerting to note the reductions to important programmes such as the Infrastructure Development which will undoubtedly result in the delay of school infrastructure projects in a province already showing high rates of under-delivery. This reduction is unfavorable for the progressive realisation of the rights of learners to quality basic education. In order to ensure that the budget allocated for infrastructure delivery, the Department must improve the management and monitoring of expenditure. It is high time that the ECDoE, assisted by the Eastern Cape Provincial Legislature, addresses failures in school infrastructure provisioning.  Given the funding constraint and overriding economic context – it is imperative for the ECDoE to ensure the efficient, prudent utilisation of limited resources to ensure optimal delivery of a range of education services.

Given the funding constraint and overriding economic context – it is imperative for the ECDoE to ensure the efficient, prudent utilisation of limited resources to ensure optimal delivery of a range of education services.

Confronting Partisanship and Divisions in Kenya

Written by Kimani Njogu, originally published as part of a series of essays: Examining Civil Society Legitimacy

Kenya is often lauded for promulgating one of the world’s most liberal constitutions. Passed on August 27, 2010, it radically devolves power to county governments, ensures the separation of powers, and entrenches a progressive bill of rights. This would have been impossible without the work of robust, courageous, and independent civil society organizations (CSOs). Civic actors first laid down their recommendations for constitutional reform in the document “Kenya Tuitakayo” (The Kenya We Want), which became a crucial resource for the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission. After former president Daniel Arap Moi asked at a public rally what “Wanjiku”—a common name, meant to refer to ordinary Kenyans—could possibly know about constitution-making, civil society appropriated the term, popularized it, and turned it into an organizing symbol for the constitutional reform process.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the legitimacy of Kenya’s civil society stemmed from its engagement with key issues that all citizens cared about. Following the liberalization of political space, CSOs undertook extensive civic education on basic rights and how public sector corruption affects citizens’ access to health, food, shelter, and education. They provided a link between citizens’ daily lives and the people who occupied leadership positions in government. Faith-based organizations offered sanctuary to those targeted by the state and used their platforms to speak about the need for political change.

Yet over the past ten years, the political climate has changed. A number of politicians have publicly questioned the legitimacy of CSOs, especially those engaged in governance and human rights. Some have referred to civil society as “evil society,” a label used to rationalize new restrictions on civic space. These attacks have their roots in the 2007–2008 electoral crisis. In the aftermath of the violence, CSOs worked closely with public institutions and international agencies to collect evidence against those suspected of having orchestrated unrest. When the International Criminal Court (ICC) indicted several senior political leaders, the latter used ethnic identity and nationalism to mobilize their followers to fight back. State functionaries accused CSOs of working with foreigners to undermine the sovereignty of the nation. Although the ICC later dropped the cases, the “foreign agent” label stuck. It has undermined CSOs’ relationship with the wider population and weakened their claims to legitimacy. Political elites’ incessant instrumentalization of ethnic identity has further exacerbated the problem. They have tried to paint civil society as ethnically biased in order to erode public trust in their positions. As a result, it has become harder for civic actors carry out their work.

Kenyan CSOs also have been tainted by the perception that they are partisan political actors. This perception is particularly damaging in a context of high ethnic polarization where oversight institutions are weak. During the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections, the incumbent government accused some civil society actors of siding with particular opposition candidates and political parties. This perception stemmed from the fact that parts of civil society voiced their opposition to politicians who had previously been indicted for crimes against humanity by the ICC and who were viewed as intolerant to the civil liberties enshrined in the constitution.

Perceptions of partisanship have not only alienated some civil society stakeholders but also fostered ideological divisions within civil society. Of particular concern, for example, are tensions over electoral justice between development and peace-building groups on the one hand and human rights organizations on the other. Whereas the latter emphasize that electoral justice is essential for sustainable peace, the former have argued that in a highly polarized nation like Kenya, electoral justice can only be realized in a stable, calm, and nonviolent atmosphere. The fact that some human rights actors have used labels such as “peace-preneurs” to categorize organizations working to prevent election-related violence does not help build the legitimacy of the sector. Instead, divisions among CSOs only serve as fodder for attacks by the political elite.

In the current hostile political context, public officials have also exploited administrative rules to crack down on civil society. As a result, it has also become crucial for all organizations to ensure they are properly registered and meet all statutory requirements. In August 2017, for example, the NGO Coordination Board set out to deregister the Kenya Human Rights Commission. It also instructed the Directorate of Criminal Investigations to shut down the operations of the African Centre for Open Governance (Africog) for allegedly operating without a registration certificate. Individuals from the Kenya Revenue Authority raided Africog’s offices over clams of tax noncompliance. Although these allegations were later debunked through the judicial process, it is noteworthy that the state had launched the attack based on alleged noncompliance with legal and regulatory processes. Kenya has hundreds of community-based organizations that generally are viewed as highly legitimate because they are known by their immediate constituencies, from the household to the village. They speak the language of their communities and undertake activities viewed as local priorities. These organizations can easily lose their legitimacy if they are no longer viewed as accountable and transparent in their work.

Kenyan CSOs face a delicate balancing act as they try to build legitimacy while facing continuous attacks by the state. To survive, they should continue to demand accountability in the use of public resources by leaders and public officials. Internally, they ought to build governance and monitoring and evaluation systems that enhance their transparency and advance their mission. They also have to engage with the issues that directly affect their constituencies. When the state seeks to limit civic space, our stakeholders in the communities we serve ought to be our first line of defense.

Kimani Njogu is the director of Twaweza Communications (Nairobi), an arts, culture, and media institution committed to freedom of expression. Dr. Kimani is Chair of the Board of Trustees at the Legal Resources Foundation Trust and Content-Development Intellectual Property (CODE-IP) Trust. He is a recipient of the Ford Foundation Champion of Democracy Award and the Pan-African NOMA Award for Publishing in Africa.

Big data. Small data. Better data.

An interview with Nathaniel Heller, Results for Development. Originally published here

By now, I think we can all agree that we’ve reached the peak of big data, returned to base camp, washed our kit and started planning the next climb. For a short while, big data was presented as the solution to all our problems. The premise was simple — collect more data, make it look pretty, push it out and people would start using it to make decisions that would end poverty, expose corruption and reverse unsustainable exploitation of our environment.

But things didn’t work out that way. In the rush to deliver data to the people, the people forgot the people. Bigger didn’t mean better and data dashboards became graveyards filled with withering flowers.

Data designed for the living need to be centered around humans and the unique needs we all have. Results for Development (R4D) is an organisation that puts the users of data at the centre of all their efforts to achieve sustainable progress in health, education and nutrition. I spoke to Nathaniel Heller, Executive Vice President for Integrated Strategies at R4D to learn more about their user-centric approach to data and the importance of thinking ‘small’ when it comes to helping people make better use of data.

“There’s a mistaken belief that if we present people with pretty data, good decisions will happen,” said Nathaniel. “But data isn’t the only input into decision-making. You have to consider the capacity of the governments or organisations involved to carry out the task they’ve been given and what hurdles they have to overcome. The use of data in decision-making is much more nuanced than simply making more data available.”

R4D works with change agents to find long-lasting solutions. Focusing on identifying important and transformational data, R4D will only invest in data tools if there’s a strong case for it. “Sometimes it seems like there’s a data problem,” explained Nathaniel, “but once you start talking to people about what they need, you’ll see there’s another underlying issue that has nothing to do with the data.” It’s these underlying issues that R4D’s user-centric approach to problem solving uncovers.

To illustrate his point, Nathaniel told me about a current project that he’s particularly excited about. R4D spent about year poring over all different kinds of country-level agricultural data in several African countries to identify opportunities for agricultural transformation — the kind of macro shift that has the potential to lift tens of millions out of poverty and address nutritional needs. The initial idea was to create a dashboard and open up access to the data, assuming this would motivate national political leaders to embrace a push for change. But when R4D spotted an opportunity in the data (only a tiny percentage of smallholder farmers in Kenya use inorganic fertilizer), they decided to shift strategies.

In Kenya, getting the right fertiliser can be an expensive and time consuming effort for farmers. A half-day journey to the market might end with the purchase of the wrong fertilizer, or worse, a counterfeit product that does more harm than good. R4D and their partners at the Local Development Research Institute saw an opportunity to create a service that would help people locate the right fertiliser, for the right price, from a location within easy travelling distance.

MazaoPlus+, an SMS service for farmers (and its accompanying Android app used by field agents to onboard users) was built in just two weeks. More than 10,000 farmers have already subscribed to receive fertiliser advice via their phones. We have to wait until harvest time to see if the app has helped improve yields through improved access to fertilizer, but Nathaniel sees a great potential in this service, both in terms of the agricultural impact and potential for scaling up into something bigger.

Screenshot of dashboard page on the MazaoPlus+ platform.

“The Kenyan fertiliser SMS service is a good example of our methods where we emphasise fit-for-purpose principles when it comes to leveraging data; we often focus on the small data, not the big data,” said Nathaniel. “We thought it through first and built second; which is exactly how every project should go.”

Small data is a term that’s never been as popular as big data but it describes data that are presented in a volume and format that’s easy for humans to access and use. Whereas reams of big data can be collected and processed by artificial intelligence, small data is curated by humans for other humans. The personal touch of small data ensures the solutions being developed to improve education, healthcare and agricultural systems are meeting a real need and supporting change.

On their website, R4D speaks about “artificial solutions”, whereby resource-constrained governments find themselves forced to adopt data-for-development tools without adequate planning or data uptake strategies. I asked Nathaniel how these artificial solutions could be avoided. “When someone proposes a solution, you start by asking, ‘has anyone (other than the funder) asked for this?’” said Nathaniel. “If they say yes, good, but if not you need to dig deeper and ask more questions. Structured interviews with potential users provides lots of interesting feedback that will help you understand their needs and pain points, enabling you to determine if the root cause of their problems really is a data issue, or something else entirely.”

Talking and listening to your users to learn what they need is common sense but it’s always worth reminding ourselves why. As Nathaniel and R4D have shown, understanding the needs of people and developing a solution that’s tailored to them will always be more effective than taking a ‘store-bought’ solution and moulding it to their situation. After all, one-size-fits-all rarely fits anyone. When — and only when — data is identified as the true issue, every care must be taken to curate it and package it in ways that are accessible, usable and useful for the users. These are principles Vizzuality shares with R4D, so let’s think small when it comes to big data.

CPJ joins call for Tanzanian government to respect human rights

Originally published by Committee to Protect Journalists CPJ on May 10, 2018

CPJ, along with 64 other non-governmental organizations, today wrote to Tanzanian President John Magufuli to express concern about a worrying decline in the respect of human rights, including freedom of expression.

In recent months, Tanzania has implemented laws that undermine freedom of speech online, restrictions on peaceful protests, and closed media outlets, the letter said. The organizations urged Magufuli’s government to take proactive measures to protect these rights and to recognize publicly the essential role that a vibrant civil society and an independent media play in creating peaceful and equal societies.

The letter can be accessed via this link https://cpj.org/blog/2018/05/cpj-joins-call-for-tanzanian-government-to-respect.php?utm_source=T%2FAI+Newsletter+List&utm_campaign=61102700f3-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_05_15&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1a5ff28f1e-61102700f3-431571137

Do Multistakeholder Initiatives Deliver on Accountability?

By the International Budget Partnership

A number of multistakeholder initiatives (MSIs) have brought together governments, civil society organizations (CSOs), and private sector firms to hash out a variety of difficult governance issues. Initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, and the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency work to encourage transparency and accountability reforms in a rapidly expanding number of countries around the world.

But while the breadth of these MSIs is inarguable, how deep do reforms really go? What tangible changes are they driving at the country level? These are some of the questions that Dr. Brandon Brockmyer of the Accountability Research Center has been investigating. We recently spoke to Brandon about his research.

IBP: Can you give us a quick outline of your findings in terms of the effectiveness of MSIs?

Brandon: Overall, what I found is that global MSIs are quite good at encouraging participating governments to proactively disclose information about their activities and performance, even in cases where governments are disclosing this information for the first time. However, MSIs are notably less effective at encouraging participating governments to become more responsive to requests from citizens for information that they are not already publishing. This allows governments to retain control of the agenda, deciding what information to disclose.

MSIs help to improve proactive government transparency when two core conditions are in place: First, nongovernmental actors (i.e., civil society and the private sector) must be treated as full and equal partners in MSI decision making and implementation. Second, participating civil society organizations must have the technical expertise to steer disclosure in the right direction, as well as the resources to regularly attend meetings.

IBP: One of the interesting findings is that it seems MSIs are quite effective at advancing transparency, but broader improvements to accountability so far have been more elusive.

Brandon: Currently, global MSIs are designed to tackle transparency directly, while most of these initiatives address accountability only indirectly. This approach seems to assume that there is a straightforward, linear relationship between the two. I think my research findings support a more general consensus emerging in the field that transparency gains alone are unlikely to drive gains in accountability. Disclosed information needs translation, aggregation, benchmarks, and simplification to be useful to potential users. Demands for greater accountability require collective action that can be difficult to organize, especially given that civil society groups vary across regions, sectors, and funding levels and often have different priorities when advocating for government action. And even if these groups can come together to make coherent demands, citizen voice alone may not be an effective channel for changing the incentives of public sector actors, or for gaining greater influence over public resource allocation.

If global MSIs want to tackle the challenge of accountability more directly, their activities probably need to be more purposefully embedded within existing national pro-accountability coalitions. I think this could be done in several ways:

  1. Pro-reform actors—national and local civil society groups, government reformers, and international NGOs that are already invested in the MSI approach—could expand processes for civil society consultation and participation beyond political and economic centers.
  2. National MSI agendas need to be customized so that they resonate with broader civic and social constituencies.
  3. Since MSIs are voluntary, reformers need to petition independent audit institutions, ombudsmen, courts, and legislatures to monitor and support compliance with MSI guidelines and respond with inquiries and sanctions when problems are uncovered through these processes.
  4. If MSIs succeed in facilitating disclosure, newly released information needs to be embedded into existing channels of public discourse and decision making.

IBP: Many of IBP’s civil society partners are also trying to push their governments to improve transparency and accountability. Did you find any evidence where CSOs were able to use MSIs to advance their agendas?

Brandon: Yes, but it really depends on the specific agenda. CSOs that are already working toward greater government transparency will often find natural allies in the government and private sector by engaging with global MSIs. In these cases, MSIs offer a powerful way to advance their agendas. However, for those CSOs that value transparency primarily as a tool for advancing a broader social or environmental agenda, participation in a global MSI may be a costly distraction. In fact, I found that participating governments sometimes use MSIs to “openwash”— that is, to project a public image of transparency and accountability, while maintaining questionable practices.

IBP: IBP engages with initiatives like OGP and GIFT, particularly at the global level, while at the same time supporting many local CSOs at the national and local level. What insights do you have about bridging these big global movements with the nitty-gritty challenges that CSOs face on the ground?

Brandon: I think it’s critical that CSOs considering engaging with global MSIs have a realistic sense for how MSI activities and outputs might fit into their own broader reform strategies. Conversely, it’s equally important that global MSI architects work to tailor activities and outputs to fit the needs of pro-reform actors in participating countries.

IBP is well placed to inform both sides of this equation. IBP can educate CSOs about how global MSIs work, so the CSOs can make informed decisions about whether to get involved. If CSOs decide to participate, IBP can also serve as an invaluable resource for effective strategies and tactics for using global MSI processes to achieve their domestic goals. Simultaneously, IBP can use its influence within these global initiatives to advocate from a CSO perspective for MSI membership rules, events, and training opportunities are optimally geared toward producing the types of transparency and civic participation that CSOs identify as critical for their broader reform strategies to work. Nevertheless, it’s also important to remember that the reform process is likely to unfold somewhat differently across various contexts. As a result, IBP can guide MSIs toward offering participating members a more useful toolkit, but MSIs must still avoid being overly prescriptive.

Admittedly, this is a tough balance to strike. But by embracing the fact that not every global MSI will be a good fit in every context, IBP can help global MSIs improve their credibility, and help national and local CSOs avoid pointless opportunity costs.

This article was origninally published by the IBP here

South Africa’s print media is failing to empower citizens on corruption

By Vanessa Malila, Rhodes University

The mainstream media can play an important role in fighting corruption. Investigative journalists in South Africa, for instance, helped to expose how the politically connected Gupta family “captured” elements of the governing African National Congress.

As watchdogs of society, the media is well placed to forge social accountability: the collective effort of citizens and civil society in holding governments to account for their management and use of public resources. These groups need to be informed if they’re to succeed.

There are two ways for the media to fulfil its social accountability role. The first is through good investigative journalism. This, as scholar Professor Sheila Coronel has written

exposes not just individual, but also systemic failures. Investigative reports show how individual wrongs are part of a larger pattern of negligence or abuse and the systems that make these possible.

The second is that the media should function as a bridge between governments and citizens. It can provide the public with the information they require to debate and participate in public discussions and processes. This notion is much more aligned to the media’s role as a space for debate and engagement by citizens regarding public and political life. Here, journalism’s function is educational. The public is in the driving seat – but only if they’re a well informed citizenry able to participate in decisions about how public resources are managed.

So how is South Africa’s media doing when it comes to fulfilling this second role? Not very well, according to research conducted for the Public Service Accountability Monitor at Rhodes University. The accountability monitor forms part of the School of Journalism & Media Studies and aims to ensure the right to social accountability is universally realised.

Our findings reveal gaps in the media’s work. Journalists assume that merely reporting on scandals, corrupt officials or maladministration justifies their role as watchdogs. Instead, mainstream print media coverage on service delivery and public resource management normalises corruption because it reports in an episodic fashion, focusing on events rather than systemic failures.

This normalisation of corruption and public service failure means that media coverage doesn’t result in actual accountability.

Analysing coverage

The Eastern Cape is a troubled province. It’s home to 7 million people and is the poorest in South Africa. It measures badly against almost all metrics. More than half of the province’s schools have no water; 73% have no proper toilets. None of this information is unknown: there are daily stories in the press about the poor state of education in the province. Blame is apportioned and fingers are pointed. But little changes.

The research conducted by Public Service Accountability Monitor looked at coverage of education in the Eastern Cape by mainstream print media between 2005 and 2016. The articles analysed provide a glimpse of the type of “balanced” and episodic reporting that proliferates South Africa’s mainstream press.

Rather than connecting incidences of corruption or maladministration to citizens’ daily lives, the coverage simply alerts readers to the event with no context and no clear lines of accountability. This is inadequate for providing citizens with the information they require to become active participants in holding public officials in the education sector to account.

Instead, coverage of maladministration follows a formulaic pattern: an event is reported and a government official is asked to comment. There’s little or no investigation of how this maladministration was allowed to occur and how it will be prevented from happening again.

This type of coverage also normalises corruption and public resource management crises in the public sector. This is because it reports on these issues in much the same way as it reports other events, producing journalism which fails to act as the fourth estate because it fails to hold public officials to higher standards than other citizens.

The media needs to help people understand that poor service delivery is a result of systemic weaknesses. And these weaknesses result from the way in officials handle resources that actually belong to the public. The stories in our sample lack depth, context and a critical understanding of the way in which individual events are related to a bigger system of public resource management.

For example, when reporting on education infrastructure – the kind of problem
that can result in learners being hurt or even killed – the coverage is consistently about the event. Journalists writing the articles fail to ask why a department with infrastructure problems consistently under-spends its vast budget.

More importantly, who is responsible for such under-spending and mismanagement? Journalists fail to understand where weaknesses in the public resource management system are resulting in maladministration, lack of service delivery and corruption.

Strengthening the media

So how can the media’s contribution towards its role as a “bridge” between government and citizens be strengthened?

One strategy proposed is to build better relationships with civil society organisations that have spent years developing expertise in the area.

Why not draw on the voices of civil society? These are the groups implementing advocacy programmes, conducting research and engaging at a deeper level on how to improve public resource management and curb corruption.

The ConversationBoth the media and civil society need to rethink the way they understand their roles when it comes to social accountability – as well as their roles in relation to each other. By drawing on the strengths of both civil society and the media, the potential for social accountability practice, and through this greater service delivery, can be improved.

Vanessa Malila, Public Service Accountability Monitor: Advocacy Impact Programme Head, Rhodes University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Volatility and the Africa Budget Transparency Puzzle

Originally published by IPB here

By Paolo de Renzio, International Budget Partnership— Apr 17, 2018

The Open Budget Survey 2017 recorded a global decline in average budget transparency scores for the first time since the survey’s inception. Nowhere was this decline more pronounced than in sub-Saharan Africa, in which 15 countries saw their Open Budget Index (OBI) scores drop by more than five points. A recent post examining this backslide attributes most of it to a reversal of previous practices, as a significant number of previously published budget documents were either not published, published late, or not posted on government websites.

Highlighting a lack of institutionalization of budget transparency practices as a potential cause for the reversal, the post’s authors emphasize the need for governments to “engrain” the publication of budget documents into standard public finance procedures and activities. They posit that institutionalizing transparency through, for example, laws and regulations, would make budget information accessible to citizens in a more regular and predictable manner.

To assess this claim, we need a way to measure the level of institutionalization of budget transparency practices. A possible starting point are the results of research published by IBP last year that looks at some of the initiatives adopted by governments that were able to significantly improve their OBI scores over time (see this blog post summarizing the key findings here). These actions include:
  • going beyond the inclusion of transparency provisions in legislation, and focusing on the implementation of the provisions;
  • ensuring that broader budget reform strategies include transparency components and activities;
  • using digital tools to disseminate budget information (for example, the creation of budget transparency portals); and
  • introducing institutional measures to coordinate transparency efforts and ensure reform implementation, such as establishing dedicated units responsible for publishing budget information.

Based on these findings, IBP worked with the Collaborative Africa Budget Reform Initiative (CABRI) last year to survey African governments on the degree to which they had similar initiatives in place. Survey questions addressed: 1) the specificity of legislation concerning the publication of key budget documents; 2) the entities responsible for ensuring budget information is published – e.g., the existence of a dedicated unit within the finance ministry; 3) whether governments had a dedicated website/page for budget documents, and if said website was regularly updated; and 4) if government reform strategies or plans included key budget transparency measures. Finance ministry officials from 22 countries responded, 17 of which are covered by the Open Budget Survey. Among these, only one (Senegal) improved its OBI score significantly between 2015 and 2017.

While it is not easy to identify very clear linkages between Open Budget Survey results and institutionalization of budget transparency reforms from the limited information gathered from the IBP-CABRI survey, a few interesting cases stand out.

The two countries with the most significant decline in OBI scores were Botswana (-39 points) and Tanzania (-36 points). In each, governments either published various documents too late to be relevant for public debate or failed to post them online, despite both countries having well-functioning websites during the research period[i]. We were not able to ascertain any reasons for such delays and inconsistencies; however, it should be noted that Botswana’s institutionalization of budget transparency practices is very limited. Its public finance legislation does not contain specific budget transparency provisions, there are no government units directly responsible for publishing budget information, and budget reform strategies generally do not mention transparency as a priority. In contrast, in Tanzania the 2015 Budget Act has very specific provisions for the publication and dissemination of different budget documents and the public finance management (PFM) reform strategy includes a number of activities related to the promotion of public finance transparency. These reforms indicate that Tanzania is ahead of Botswana in institutionalizing budget transparency, but the implementation of the reforms is lagging, possibly due to political transitions after the 2015 elections and the lack of political will by the current government, which is seen as increasingly authoritarian.

Senegal is one of the most improved countries in regards to OBI score, as highlighted in the Open Budget Survey 2017 global report. Here, the government has taken clear steps to institutionalize budget transparency practices. They updated their legislative framework in 2012 in line with regional WAEMU (West Africa Economic and Monetary Union) directives, and their Transparency Code now includes provisions for the government to publish five of the eight key budget documents considered in the Open Budget Survey. The government’s budget reform strategy includes various transparency provisions, and the Cellule de Communication within the Ministry of Economy, Finance and Planning is tasked with ensuring that all budget documents and reports are published. Furthermore, the General Directorate for Finance has its own website where budget documentation is posted.

Other WAEMU member countries, however, provide interesting examples of how laws and regulations alone may not be enough to guarantee the institutionalization of budget transparency practices. Both Benin and Burkina Faso saw their OBI scores drop in 2017, despite having comprehensive transparency legislation, similar to that of Senegal. Both countries have also put a lot of emphasis on promoting transparency in their recent budget reforms (as a consequence, Benin actually started publishing two budget documents in 2017 that it had not published previously). However, the countries also went through some important political transitions — including the aftermath of a coup d’état in Burkina Faso and a change of government in Benin — right around the time when the Open Budget Survey research was taking place. These isolated events may explain the drop in the countries’ 2017 OBI scores, providing hope for future improvements.

Thus, to better understand how budget transparency practices evolve over time, and why they recently worsened in sub-Saharan Africa, more detailed measures of how the levels of institutionalization of such practices are useful, but often insufficient. They may help us explain some of the reasons behind Botswana’s regression or Senegal’s improvements, but for other countries they only hint at broader factors linked to the political and institutional context that may be at play. The relationship between a government’s overall political commitment to transparency, the way in which this translates into institutional reforms that shape the behavior of public officials, and how such incentives shift over time in response to changing circumstances is a very complex one, and a topic that deserves further attention and research.


[i] More recently, the Government of Botswana has been undergoing a comprehensive revamp of its governmental websites, leading to the website finance.gov.bw no longer being active.

These materials were developed by the International Budget Partnership. IBP has given us permission to use the materials solely for noncommercial, educational purposes.

When More is More: Realizing the Open Government Partnership’s (OGP’s) Potential through More Ambitious Commitments

Article by Joe Foti

Originally published on Open Government Partnership

We often say that, “Less is more.” Yet there are times when we simply need more of a certain thing-when more is more. In the OGP, there are too few high-impact commitments. In the case of action plan ambition, more is more. Our new analysis of OGP action plans shows that more ambitious action plans lead to better results.

At the 2016 Paris Summit, OGP’s CEO, Sanjay Pradhan, challenged all OGP participants to carry out more ambitious commitments. The goal was simple: every country should have at least two open government commitments that were credibly complete and would make a real difference. In OGP lingo, we call these “starred commitments.”

Here we are, two years later, and we can see how far we are in moving towards that goal. OGP’s Independent Reporting Mechanism has finished reviewing a huge batch of 800 commitments – and the results are thought-provoking. (We dive deep into the questions, including a bit of sectoral analysis, in the longer paper here.)

In short, we are on our way, but there is still much work to be done. Take the following two facts:

  1. On a per country basis, we still haven’t reached the “two-per-country” level. We did grow from 0.8 commitments starred commitments per country to 1.2. Not bad, but also not where we want to be.
  2. Interestingly, completion is not the binding constraint. While completion rates more than doubled in the second year of action plans, the number of starred commitments did not.

The question is: if completion is a shrinking problem, why aren’t we getting more starred commitments?

Put simply, ambition seems to be the binding constraint. The design of action plans is, by far, the biggest problem with how much impact action plans have. Take a look at the figure below -the design gap is much bigger than the implementation gap. Four percent of commitments would have rated stars if they had been credibly implemented. Yet a huge 89% of commitments would never have been stars, because they were not relevant (11%), not specific (9%), and would not have had a major impact (69%).

Figure: The design gap is much larger than the ambition gap 

What does this mean for OGP?

The ambition gap means that we have to change and intensify the way we work. The assumption that we are going to get to bigger return on investment and bigger impacts by doubling down on implementation is probably wrong in most cases. Even if OGP countries implemented every potential star, we would not get to two stars per country. (And this is before we even begin taking into account the uneven distribution of “potential stars;” some countries have few while others have many.)

Implementation support can be costly, hard to scale, and is not a core function of OGP, which generally acts as a relationship broker and a marketplace of ideas. Rather, investment in strong action plans (of which we have a record number this year) is absolutely critical.

How we shrink the ambition gap is a difficult question. There are three commonly cited impediments to more ambitious commitments — politics, technical issues, and form.

Of the three, form is the most easily addressed. We need more concise, vibrant, and ambitious action plans. Some commitments may be high-impact, but are buried in a sea of minor deliverables and bureaucratic language. We need to put the citizen first in our language – what new capacities will they have as a result of a commitment?: How will governments change business as usual? Most action plans, as currently written, don’t tackle that issue.

Beyond ambition, the importance of strong peer exchange and support has never been clearer. We need more examples, like open contracting and beneficial ownership, where governmental, multilateral, and civil society partners have been able to use OGP as a lever to move a concept from a nebulous idea to an emerging norm.

In terms of politics, we need the whole OGP community, especially its Steering Committee members and founders, to lead by example. Each successfully implemented ambitious commitment can be copied and adapted by other countries. That’s where you, the members of the OGP community, come in.

Original article can be accessed on this link https://www.opengovpartnership.org/stories/when-more-more-realizing-open-government-partnership-s-ogp-s-potential-through-more?utm_source=T%2FAI+Newsletter+List&utm_campaign=e19a3fcb1e-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_05_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1a5ff28f1e-e19a3fcb1e-431571137