Posted by Marianne Fabian and Raquel Ferreira, GIFT Coordination Team
The likelihood of fiscal transparency having a big impact, including in times of emergency, depends largely on whether there is demand for fiscal information, and on whether the information provided is clear and meets public needs.
While fiscal transparency is ultimately the responsibility of governments, civil society organizations (CSOs) and other actors have significant contributions to make. These actors should work together to leverage benefits that cannot be achieved in silos. CSOs undertake research, monitor budget execution, and advocate social justice and inclusion. As they work directly with communities, they often have access to information that other actors do not and are well-positioned to undertake appropriate groundwork in monitoring and advocating social justice. Inputs from CSOs can be used by governments to better understand issues and then respond more appropriately. In times of crises, civil society can also increase citizens’ awareness of key governance and corruption issues, pressurizing governments to respond quicker and more effectively.
However, the role played by civil society is often undermined, not leveraged sufficiently to yield societal benefits. In 2020, GIFT published a scoping document drawing attention to the role of CSOs in emergency policy responses, and demonstrating the need for enhanced transparency, accountability and democratic legitimacy. The GIFT network also produced the Fiscal Data for Emergency Response: Guide for COVID-19, drawing on the joint experiences of representatives from ministries of finance, CSOs and specialized agencies in identifying the data that governments should disclose. The Guide was one of the main inputs for the International Budget Partnership’s (IBP) 2021 study on the levels of accountability in 120 countries’ fiscal responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. This Guide also provided a useful tool for GIFT to assist in reviewing the transparency of emergency responses in countries, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, and Serbia, highlighting the need for governments to not only disclose comprehensive financial information but also, performance and subsidy beneficiary information, among others.
The value of governments working with civil society has again been highlighted in recent IBP case studies showing that public emergency responses can benefit significantly from a government’s willingness to listen to citizen feedback and respond accordingly. A few examples are highlighted here:
In South Africa, the CSO Asivikelane “Let’s protect one another” campaign mobilized informal settlement residents to monitor failures in the delivery of critical hygiene services and to report problems to the government for resolution. This campaign provided timely information to municipal governments, with several then responding positively to meet basic service delivery needs. This information was also used by institutions such as the National Treasury and the Auditor-General in performing their roles.
In Senegal, following several consultations with CSOs, the President created an inclusive Monitoring Committee, with civil society representatives, to gather public feedback on, and monitor the implementation and effectiveness of the government’s fiscal responses to the pandemic. The Committee’s work resulted in practical recommendations, ranging from the reduction of dependence on food exports to the establishment of more effective social safety net programs as well as the monitoring and inclusion of the informal sector and people living with disabilities.
In the Philippines, CSOs reviewed and analyzed information published in fiscal transparency portals to independently monitor COVID-19 fiscal responses, including through the use of a Citizens’ Budget Tracker. Philippine senators actively used these analyses in conducting their oversight role. CSOs also co-designed townhall sessions with government, to solicit public inputs on governance and budget issues, assist in formulating policy recommendations and monitor their implementation.
In Sierra Leone, real-time audits found evidence of financial irregularities. Among others, civil society supported the country’s supreme audit institution when the government wanted to override the PFM legal framework. They also disseminated audit information and pressed the Parliament to hold the government accountable.
These country examples show that in times of emergencies, if there is genuine willingness by governments to be more open and inclusive, working with civil society provides for both speedy and informed public-decision making, and ultimately, better public service delivery. Governments should, thus, establish and support processes that tap into the value added by civil society.
Some actions that will assist CSOs in making effective inputs include:
- consistent political commitment to fiscal transparency even in times of emergency;
- inclusion of transparency provisions in emergency fund legislation;
- access to information on regulatory frameworks that mandate the proactive publication of fiscal information;
- tasking dedicated teams within ministries of finance to implement fiscal transparency measures; and
- the use of open fiscal data standards and open data tools.
 Raquel Ferreira and Marianne Fabian are part of the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency (GIFT) Coordination Team.
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