Monitoring budgets to influence decision-making

Nthabi Mokoena

Let’s talk about budgets. Not the most exciting of documents, but bear with me. Public budgets are important tools for governments to publicly declare their expenditure and revenue in a given period. They expose a government’s priorities–whether it prioritises defence over health or which members of society will be served or not. Therefore, budgets are not only a measure of a state’s accountability and transparency but also a measure of how far a government is willing to include, serve and support all its citizens.

Civil society and budget monitoring

Civil society continues to play a key role in ensuring government transparency and accountability, particularly through budget monitoring (though they use other tactics, too!). Through their efforts, we are seeing more state budgets that are developed through participatory processes, are gender-responsive and include climate-conscious approaches.

And yet, monitoring government’s expenditure remains a difficult task. States often share incomplete or inaccurate data, and corruption complicates the process of comparing what was budgeted for and what was actually spent. The process itself involves the collection of tons of data, making it difficult for CSOs to manage, analyse and store all this information. The tools that civil society uses to monitor budgets are sometimes not enough for the mammoth task before them.

Supporting those that are asking for accountability

This year, through our Matchbox programme, we partnered with several organisations involved in budget monitoring in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. These organisations spent a greater part of 2019 researching the different players in their work, mapping out challenges in their use of tech and data and identifying possible solutions. We are working with: reAccion, who monitor public education funds in Paraguay with student volunteers; Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y Justicia (ACIJ), who monitor the national budget in Argentina; and the Public and Private Development Centre (PPDC), who link government budgets and procurement data to public services.

In our work with each of these partners, we’ve seen some shared trends pop up, including:

1. It’s a lot of data!

As with most projects revolving around data, transparency and accountability organisations often have to collate and analyse massive amounts of data–from different levels of government or ministries, publicly available sources and data that is leaked to them. Both the quantity and quality (which is often poor) of the data can become a challenge to the organisations. 

Therefore, many of the initial goals we’ve developed with partners from our work together focus on how to efficiently collate, analyse, manage and disseminate data while promoting responsible data practices as a fundamental way of working. 

2. Opposing a “one size fits all approach”

The partners within this Matchbox cohort have seemingly similar tech needs: to either create a platform to gather and analyse data or to improve the platforms that they already have. It could be tempting to apply similar tech solutions across all of them, especially in consideration of the tech tools we already know are generally effective and user-friendly. However, a one-size-fits-all approach would disregard the diverse contexts that the partners operate within. Disregarding these diverse contexts could mean that our work together has limited long-term impact, or is lost once the formal partnership ends. Therefore, our work centres long-term impact, not just short-term gains. We focus on the partner’s capacity to use the tech and data solution, the local contexts (political, cultural, historical and more) and on questions of sustainability–specifically tailoring our support to the needs of the partner, their work and their context.

3. Navigating legal diverse environments

Without a doubt, transparency and accountability advocacy becomes more difficult in countries without enabling legal environments and legislative protection for human rights defenders. Matchbox partners are from highly diverse legal environments: from countries where legislation explicitly makes it difficult to obtain oil contract data, to countries where corruption weakens the accuracy and availability of the data. These challenges, however, have not stopped them from demanding openness and accountability from their governments. 

Through our partnerships, we’ve prioritised approaches that take into consideration the diverse legal environments. For example, a partner living in a context where laws make it difficult to obtain public data will need to develop a different system from a partner who has easily available information.

4. User-friendly platforms

For partners who already have existing platforms for the collation, analysis and dissemination of data, our work is focused on making the platform more accessible and user-friendly. Transparency and accountability advocacy is often seen as highly technical and inaccessible to the broader public, and it is imperative that organisations ensure that their data is easily accessible to the public. 

For example, a key audience for this budget data is journalists. Therefore, much of our work focused on how to make platforms easier for journalists, in particular, to use. This provides a point of reflection for the partners on how to link tech and data to their advocacy goals. It can prompt questions like: How do we teach others about this data? How do we create campaigns linked to our platforms? How do we ensure that the collection of data leads to broader community engagement and mobilisation?

5. Organisational security as a basis

Due to the nature of their work, transparency organisations are often the targets of violence from state and private actors. This varies from threats, to vandalisation of organisational offices, to the hacking of tech platforms and surveillance abuse. Matchbox partnerships have promoted the integration of organisational security within their work, particularly for more vulnerable organisations. Similar to responsible data principles, organisational security should not just be an ‘add on’ to the project, but should be fundamentally integrated into the development of tech and data solutions. 

Matchbox partners will be spending the first half of 2020 implementing the recommendations from their 2019 research and scoping reports as well as developing their tech and data platforms, solutions and policies.

Image credit: Allie Smith on Unsplash