A guest post from Data + Fiscal Transparency
One of the key topics covered during the 3rd Open Data Conference dealt with the role of open data in enhancing public spending transparency. Moderated by David McNair from ONE Campaign, speakers from different organizations participated in an interesting discussion about open data and fiscal transparency (#iodc15 #followthemoney), such as Renata Maziarz from The United States Treasury Department, Mor Rubinstein and Jonathan Gray from the Open Knowledge Foundation, Dustin Homer from Development Gateway, and Saied Tafida Sulaiman, fellow of Young African Leaders programme.
In the first case example, Renata Maziarz highlighted the relevance of the Data Act for the US open data programme, considering the large amount of money the US government spends and how data transparency helps to improve decision-making processes. This data act includes not only procurement but also expenditure data, and non-traditional outlays can be also controlled. However, a key aspect to be considered in terms of civil society engagement is presenting data in a context to make it more comprehensible and to avoid data misinterpretations (a more than common concern of public agencies). Hence, the challenge is also to improve data quality and use it internally in order to make this information interesting to different users through context-related visualizations and user-centred design methods.
In the next presentation, Jonathan Gray introduced two great experiences in open data and fiscal transparency: Open Spending and Where Does My Money Go. While the former is a global open data portal of public expenditure datasets, the latter has been developed using UK’s public spending datasets to graphically show how people’s taxes are spent on education, defence and others in the UK. According to Jonathan, “these projects look at making big budgets datasets easy-to-digest”. Challenges emerge from both projects too. Looking at improving the user experience, they are currently doing research on the type of users as well as how and for which purposes the datasets are used. Besides, other relevant datasets, such as tax revenues, are currently not included, but would prove to be extremely important to be considered for public budget control.
Dustin Homer also presented the work he is undertaking at Development Gateway, an organization that partners with countries and organizations to collect and share information about public spending. Dustin focused on the case of international donors’ interests in how Ministries of Finance are currently spending development aid, and the significant challenges in collecting and making this data available to the public. The participants of these projects agreed that most of the challenges are government related. Projects such as Follow The Money encourage governments to correctly spend international aid.
— Jed Miller (@jedmiller) May 28, 2015
Later in this session, Mor Rubinstein presented the case of Israel’s budget and how Follow The Money helped them to identify money expenditure issues. Thanks to Israel’s open data portal, she and a group of activists had access to budget datasets but not to expenditure details. Furthermore, they realised that the public budget was changing every year around 10% due to the influence of the parliament. Through the help of an Israeli MP, they traced the flow of money for a few months and discovered that this procedure was illegal. In order to make these findings impactful, Mor also expressed that “not everybody wants to know this information because is difficult to digest” and highlighted the relevance of intermediaries; because of the support of other specific activists with more political support, they were finally able to spread the word. From her experience, Mor suggested that partnering with the right intermediary “is crucial, because they have specific resources and skills, and they can do it better than us” (reaching the right public).
Finally, Saied Tafida Sulaiman shared his work on BudgIT and Follow The Flood Money, both civil society efforts to present Nigerian budget expenditure and international aid in easy-to-digest means. Saied highlighted during this session that the objective to develop these platforms was to ensure that money was going to places where it had initially been allocated to. It was not an easy task and they needed to ask governments about how they spend money, involving also how these governments were spending money from international organisations to fight Ebola. This effort has brought transparency and better services. However, he (and many others) does this work during his free time. Ultimately, their work has been also to communicate and educate Nigerian population on the importance of controlling public expenditure by partnering with others, such as journalists, to catch more attention and empower civil society.
— Felipe González (@feligonz) May 28, 2015
Different initiatives are currently being carried out to track government expenditures from public taxes. Two lessons for public expenditure control strategies emerged from the presented cases: the adoption of appropriate data presentation methods and the development of partnerships with better skilled intermediaries for more impactful initiatives. In the first case, appropriate visualisation and publishing methods need to ensure that the effort of collecting and manipulating these datasets is not in vain and also that this data can effectively raise concern among citizens and change governments’ behaviour and attitude. Additionally, bringing other skills and resources to the open data chain (for example by partnering with more experienced intermediaries) can expand the impact of these initiatives. Most of the time these initiatives are led by activists who have limited time and resources, and then partnering with better skilled organizations may bring fresh ideas and strength to better influence governments for more transparency and accountability.