The Open Budget Survey is the world’s only comparative, independent, and regular assessment of transparency, oversight and participation in 120 countries.
As is the case in every round, the 2021 survey represents the collective work of our global network of researchers in each country. This round, however, we did something different. We worked hand-in-hand with a select group of partners to co-author our global report and eight regional reports. This new approach has allowed us to benefit from the rich insights of our global partners and present key recommendations to spur action at the global, regional and country level.
Democratic backsliding and other governance challenges abound. The pandemic has led to the first rise in global extreme poverty in a generation, and debt and inequality are soaring. The wealthy have become wealthier, while the poor, especially women and marginalized communities, are bearing the brunt of the fallout.
Public budget processes are an important space for governments to engage meaningfully with their publics around decisions that can help communities bounce back better. Accountable public spending restores public trust that governments can deliver.
Somewhat surprisingly, the pandemic did not have as much of an impact on accountability systems as it could have. Most countries were able to preserve, and in some cases build on, earlier gains thanks to increased digitalization of information and the institutionalization of accountability practices. Several governments that took extraordinary measures during the pandemic resumed open budget practices in their regular budget processes.
Public engagement in budget decision-making is the weakest link in accountability systems. Budgets remain a primarily elite conversation with few avenues for ordinary people to engage and have a say.
Budget oversight by legislators and national auditors is limited and there are serious gaps in checks and balances in the management of public funds. In three out of five surveyed countries, executives can shift funds between agencies or reduce budgeted funds without first gaining legislative approval. The institutional framework for formal oversight by legislatures is generally weaker than for auditors. But many executives feel little pressure to implement audit recommendations.
In this latest survey, legislative oversight has declined due to a variety of factors, such as political unrest, the pandemic and executive overreach.
The average score for audit oversight remains unchanged, but serious challenges persist. Executives in some countries have found ways to undermine Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs) while staying within the boundaries of the law.
Most countries are still far from being sufficiently transparent to allow for meaningful engagement and scrutiny of public spending. There are some important missed opportunities.
As we look to make greater inroads, several models for reform illustrate that where there is political will, progress is possible.
Diverse regions—Eastern Europe and Central Asia, East Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean—have seen significant increases in their regional scores between 2008 and 2021.
Georgia is now the highest ranked country on transparency in this year’s survey and its score has increased by over 30 points since 2008. Its score of 60 on oversight and over 40 on participation shows that reforms within the executive and in oversight by the auditor and legislature can be achieved simultaneously if there are enough open budget champions to push this agenda forward. Nevertheless, open budgeting practices yield the most benefits for society when there are robust democratic systems, and Georgia has seen worrying signs of democratic backsliding.
The Dominican Republic is now among the top 10 performers in the world and is a rare example of a country that has seen its transparency score increase in every round. It increased by 65 points (from 12 to 77) since 2008, the largest increase achieved by any country.
Despite political volatility in its neighborhood, Benin has made tremendous strides on the road to greater transparency. Its score has increased by over 60 points from 1 in 2012 to 65 in 2021.
Several countries have made rapid progress that serves as a roadmap for reform.
Nigeria has increased its score by 23 points from 2019 to 2021. The finance ministry made public all seven documents it produces and worked to publish them in a timely manner. These improvements have been thanks to the work of reform-minded officials, partnerships with donors and concerted advocacy from civil society.
The Gambia has increased by about 30 points between 2019 and 2021. Civil society actors continue to advocate for greater reforms, and are making good use of the information that is provided to hold the government to account. For instance, the publication of the draft budget enabled civil society groups to identify and seek recourse over the illegal use of funds by the Parliament.
While few countries provide meaningful opportunities for people to participate in budgetary processes, we see innovations that illustrate what is possible.
Portals for the people.
Increasingly, governments are using digital tools to engage with citizens. For instance, Indonesia set up a centralized portal for complaints related to service delivery. Georgia’s finance ministry updated its online portal to seek inputs on people’s priorities for the upcoming budget. In South Africa, the National Treasury introduced pre-budget consultations. All submissions were posted on the Treasury portal and informed the Treasury’s proposed budget strategy described in South Africa’s Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement.
While some countries have mechanisms for public participation, few are open to everyone and even fewer prioritize marginalized communities. South Korea’s Citizen Committee is the exception. It deliberates and filters proposals submitted online before the public votes for which proposals the legislature should fund. In recent years, the Committee expanded to include 150 new members. Out of 450 members, 400 people are now from the general public and 50 from marginalized groups.
Many national audit offices are seeing the benefits of collaborating with civil society. Several are breaking traditional ways of working and leveraging technology to bring in the public.
In Argentina, auditors have worked with groups to ensure the government adequately prioritizes and spends funds targeted at people living with Chagas.
Romania’s national audit office provided clear instructions on its website to seek public feedback on its audit programs. Ghana’s Audit Service launched a mobile app, where the public can contribute to audit plans and programs.
Governments and other actors should pursue the following reforms to strengthen accountability:
Join us and our many international and national partners to promote the open budget agenda: