By Daniel Hiller,Jason Lakin, and Joel Friedman
The Open Budget Survey (OBS) 2017 records the first halt in progress on global budget transparency since the survey was launched in 2006. Unlike the small but steady increases seen in past rounds, the global average score on the Open Budget Index (OBI) — the part of the survey that measures budget transparency — actually decreased from 45 to 43 between 2015 and 2017 among the 102 countries included in both rounds.
The modest decline in the global average OBI score is primarily due to changes in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the regional average score fell by 11 points between 2015 and 2017. This decline represents a significant reversal for a region that had been a major driver of the increase in the global average score the previous round. Consider these facts:
Between 2012 and 2015, of the 26 Sub-Saharan African countries included in both rounds, 12 increased their scores by more than five points, and only two countries saw their OBI scores decline by more than five points. In contrast, between 2015 and 2017, of the 27 Sub-Saharan African countries surveyed in both rounds, only one country (Senegal) increased its OBI score by more than five points, while the scores of 15 countries in the region declined by more than five points.
The decline in this round of the survey largely results from Sub-Saharan African countries publishing 27 fewer documents in 2017 than in 2015, a 21 percent drop. This included six fewer Executive’s Budget Proposals, a document that receives a significant weight in the OBI as it is the core document that presents and explains a government’s revenue and spending policies and its outlook for the economy. Failure to publish this key document typically results in a much lower country score.
This notable decline in the number of published budget documents in Sub-Saharan Africa can be partially attributed to an update in how IBP measures “public availability” — i.e., whether citizens have access to the comprehensive and timely information they need to participate in budget decision making and monitoring. For the OBS 2017, only those documents published on a government website in a timely manner are considered to be publicly available.
Documents that are posted on the internet are significantly more accessible to the public than hard-copy documents that few may be able to obtain. Internet penetration has expanded rapidly, and civil society organizations can easily print online documents to share with others who do not have internet access. Furthermore, any document that is produced as a hard copy can now easily be posted to a website at minimal cost.
This update, however, does not account for the entire decline. Absent this change, there still would have been 10 fewer documents published in 2017 than in 2015, including four Executive’s Budget Proposals. IBP undertook various analyses to approximate the impact of this update in the OBS definition of public availability on OBI 2017 scores (see Annex B of the Open Budget Survey 2017). We concluded that even under very generous assumptions, the average score for the region would have fallen, albeit by a smaller amount.
Causes of the Decline
IBP has not yet conducted in-depth analyses to determine the factors driving this sharp drop in the average OBI score for the region. But a superficial review reveals that changes in OBI scores in Sub-Saharan Africa are not strongly correlated with changes in indices measuring democracy, income, oil dependence, or human development. These preliminary findings require further investigation.
The OBS 2017 results suggest that whatever factors contributed to improvements in transparency in the region between 2012 and 2015 were insufficient in maintaining these gains in 2017. Countries in Sub-Saharan Africa that increased their OBI score by more than five points between 2012 and 2015 declined by more on average between 2015 and 2017 than the countries that were not substantial improvers between 2012 and 2015.
While this decline in transparency could be reversed in the next round of the OBS, the Sub-Saharan African case highlights the importance of preserving gains over time. Governments should prioritize institutionalizing transparency practices through laws and regulations. Concurrently, civil society should remain vigilant in monitoring their governments to ensure they do not waver in commitments to more transparent and accountable budget systems, and by continuing to advocate for transparency and participation in budgeting and engaging in budget debates.
Source: International Budget Partnership