Going Digital: Improving the Disclosure of Fiscal Information
Posted by Paolo de Renzio, Jorge Romero Leon, Diego de la Mora and Liliana Ruiz
Some 20 years ago, putting budget information in the public domain often meant printing and carrying thick reams of paper for distribution to parliamentarians, the press and other interested actors. Nowadays, strong arms and large amounts of paper are no longer a prerequisite for budget transparency and accountability. Government finance officials simply upload information onto their ministry’s website, while journalists and civil society activists sit at their desks and access the information through their computers. Governments have also started making detailed budget information available through “transparency portals,” where large datasets are made available in searchable and downloadable formats. How are governments setting themselves up for fiscal transparency in the digital age? And how do these changes actually affect fiscal transparency and accountability? Recent research carried out by the International Budget Partnership (IBP) and Fundar attempts to answer these questions.
The research project found that governments in all 102 countries covered in the Open Budget Survey 2015 maintain an active website and/or portal through which they make budget-related information publicly available. The project developed a methodology to assess and to identify interesting examples of governments’ online fiscal disclosure practices.
Drawing on previous work looking at Financial Management Information Systems by the World Bank, as well as work on the development of global standards for open government data and access to information, four key dimensions were defined to assess governments’ online disclosure of fiscal information:
- Scope refers to the comprehensiveness of the budget information disclosed online, including key budget documents, level of disaggregation, historical information, etc.
- Accessibility refers to the existence of search and query functions, guides and glossaries, and downloadable datasets in free, open, and machine-readable formats.
- Reliability refers to the availability of information on the source, date of creation, date of upload and last edit of data being made available, to ensure that users can trace and trust the data.
- Feedback refers to the efforts made to provide users with tools – such as contact details, feedback forms, user platforms and reports on inputs received from users – to engage with the providers of budget information.
Using the four dimensions above, a questionnaire was developed and applied to assess online platforms across 80 countries worldwide.
Findings and emerging good practices
Most countries do better on scope than on accessibility and reliability, while almost all countries perform very poorly on feedback. The online platforms of Mexico and Chile, for example, provide a broad range of budget information and data. Brazil’s portals contain both glossaries and frequently asked questions, providing the users who may not be familiar with budget terminology with comprehensive reference materials. France is an interesting example of reliability, tagging each individual file hosted on its open data portal with information that includes the direct permanent link, file format, date of creation, date of last edit, and the number of times the file has been downloaded. Colombia was found to have one of the strongest feedback systems built into its online platform, with the government providing reports on users and feedback that it has received.
Many countries doing well across the different dimensions are middle-income countries, suggesting that it is not only advanced economies that are capable of building robust and user-friendly online budget disclosure platforms.
What governments can do
- Set up a budget transparency portal (if they don’t already have one)  – Portals have great potential to improve both the accessibility and the usability of budget data, assuming they are well designed, properly maintained and regularly updated.
- Provide tools and resources to help users access and interpret raw data – Robust query and search functions can help users to quickly find the budget information that they are interested in. Guides, glossaries, and other explanatory materials can broaden the potential audience of the data. Additionally, governments should make the data available in free, open, downloadable, and machine-readable formats.
- Establish standards that instill confidence in the data – Relatively simple features, such as including the date on which a document or dataset was created, posted online and changed, dramatically improves the reliability of the information provided.
- Provide channels for users to submit feedback – As an emerging practice, we still have a lot to learn about which tools and features are most useful for budget portals. By providing users with opportunities to submit suggestions, feedback, and requests through online forms and user surveys, governments can collect information to improve their budget portals, and track how budget information is being used.
A companion piece to this post, aimed more specifically at a civil society audience, appeared on the IBP’s Open Budgets Blog. Paolo de Renzio and Jorge Romero will discuss their findings on May 19 as a part of the World Bank’s online learning series. Sign-up to join this discussion.
 Paolo de Renzio is with the International Budget Partnership. Jorge Romero Leon is an independent researcher and consultant. Diego de la Mora and Liliana Ruiz both work at Fundar.
 See http://www.internationalbudget.org/publications/digital-budgets-how-are-governments-disclosing-fiscal-information-online/. A shorter brief is available here: http://www.internationalbudget.org/publications/budget-brief-no-34-digital-budgets-improving-how-fiscal-information-is-disseminated-online/.
 For some very useful reflections on design issues of open data portals, see http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/what-s-wrong-with-open-data-sites-and-how-we-can-fix-them/.
Note: The posts on the IMF PFM Blog should not be reported as representing the views of the IMF. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the IMF or IMF policy.