New Year 2017 brings with it the 20th anniversary of the International Budget Partnership (IBP). Since its foundation, IBP has supported efforts around the world to make budget processes more transparent, participatory and accountable so that public resources are used to address poverty. During our milestone anniversary year, we will reflect on what we have learned and where we are headed.
IBP has been moving away from a linear formulation of transparency + participation = accountability. We now focus on budget accountability ‘ecosystems’ – the links between and among actors in the state (such as supreme audit institutions and parliamentary oversight committees) and society (such as CSOs and the media), and their influence on budget decision-making and implementation.
Viewing budget processes through an ecosystems lens helps us to look beyond the formal legal framework and the technical capacity of specific accountability actors: it helps us to consider the relationships and other dynamic factors of a complex system. IBP’s research suggests that even diverse national contexts have a similar set of institutions and mechanisms in their budget accountability ecosystems. However, the evidence – including IBP’s own Open Budget Survey – shows that these ecosystems are often weak, with a lack of collaboration between key accountability actors. For example, when state audit offices find irregularities they may make formal reports to the legislature or executive, but these may receive little meaningful follow-up – hardly surprising, given that their findings may implicate members of a government or ruling party.
So how can real accountability happen in these imperfect ecosystems? And how can civil society influence outcomes?
In its search for answers, IBP has also been documenting CSO campaigns to influence budget processes and ensure access to quality public services. As the title of a case study synthesis – ‘You Cannot Go it Alone’ – suggests, the relationships between CSOs and other actors in the ecosystem are key. More successful campaigns ‘connected the dots’: they worked across levels of government, brought together unlikely allies and used a wide range of tools and tactics. These included, among many others, generating evidence, media engagement, legal redress and grassroots organising. Campaigns that relied on a more limited repertoire of strategies often yielded limited results.
Clearly, efforts by actors in the accountability system to ‘connect the dots’ is something that IBP and other external actors should be supporting. What exactly would that look like in practice? Our research and experience suggests some insights we hope to build on.
- Navigating the ecosystem requires political capacities. This includes the ability to analyse and understand the system, its actors, their incentives, and other dynamics.
- Successful campaigns must learn and adapt. Most of the campaigns IBP has documented have shifted over time in response to a changing context or lessons learned. But learning is not easy. How do you know if you are spinning your wheels or on the cusp of a breakthrough?
- Winning has to be weighed against building. Assembling (and maintaining) broad coalitions requires good old-fashioned organising from the grass roots up. Pushing to get quick results (which can be necessary) may create coalitions of similar organisations rather than engaging a broader range of grass-roots organisations and movements that mobilise citizens across diverse contexts.
These reflections and questions arise from a desire to connect budget openness more directly to tangible outcomes for underprivileged groups. Inclusiveness, in governance and development, is inherently political. Our exploration of the interconnectedness of accountability ecosystems and effective citizen action is an attempt to find meaningful ways to navigate and shape those political dynamics.
Implementing the insights that emerge from this process is a challenge. Although our partners are increasingly savvy about navigating the accountability ecosystem, they still often run into dead ends when their goals would disrupt entrenched interests.
How can engagement build strong links both at the grass-roots level and with higher level decision-makers and accountability mechanisms? When is it necessary to take a more – or less – confrontational stance with state actors and mechanisms?
Where governance systems are underpinned by exclusionary power structures, an approach that seeks to achieve progressive reforms and outcomes will have inherent limitations – but strengthening an accountability ecosystem for inclusive development is a massive undertaking in any context. And we still have more questions than answers.
New research by the World Bank suggests that transparency and information disclosure only contributes to improved governance when it influences citizens’ political involvement. This suggests that our work on open budgets should seek to shape public discourse and inform citizens’ civic engagement. We must find better ways to support and leverage the citizen movements that have been demanding government accountability around the world. And we should think about how to engage with, and help strengthen, representative membership-based organisations – such as cooperatives, community-based organisations, unions, or faith-based groups – to enable the collective citizen engagement that is most often associated with better governance outcomes.
We hope that by bringing some of these important issues to the fore, we will be able to both harness the available evidence and build learning into our approach going forward. IBP’s evidence and experience suggests potential entry points for external actors who might help government reformers strengthen the accountability ecosystem.
IBP must find ways to leverage its engagements at international and national levels to support these pro-reform actors. We must also find more nuanced approaches to differentiating between challenges of capacity and incentives, and shape our focus accordingly.