A report by the budget transparency group found that the use of audit reports by civil society in order to help hold governments to account was “troublingly low” across all regions in the world.
They were most used in south and central Asia, and eastern Europe, but even then by only 36% of the organisations that responded to a survey conducted for the report.
Paolo de Renzio, senior research fellow at the International Budget Partnership and author of the report along with Massimo Mastruzzi from the World Bank, said this was concerning because audit reports are “pretty much the only way to access an independent assessment of how governments spend public resources”.
He highlighted that most of the other documents on public spending are produced by governments, and may or may not be “reliable”.
The main reasons for such a low uptake of audit reports by civil society are availability and accessibility, said de Renzio.
Many governments do not make such documents publicly available or do so only after long delays. Where audit reports are easily accessed, de Renzio said they are “often shrouded in very obscure language”.
He said audit institutions too often seem to see themselves as a “keeper of a very specific kind of knowledge” and “make little effort to make sure that the work they do is understandable to the average citizen or even a more technical audience”.
This can prevent audit reports from being used as a proper tool for transparency and accountability by civil society, citizens, the media and even parliaments.
The report, published yesterday, looked at how civil society organisations around the world use public budget information in a bid to discover why, despite transparency initiatives by many governments around the world, governments, civil society and citizens don’t reap the supposed benefits.
“On the one hand you see governments making efforts to make more information publicly available and complaining that nobody uses that information,” explained de Renzio. “While on the other you have civil society that says governments aren’t giving it the information it needs.”
Based on results of the survey, the report identified some “relatively easy” steps governments could take to realise the intended rewards of transparency initiatives, which include increased citizen engagement, improved oversight and enhanced accountability.
These include using dedicated web portals, with a user-friendly interface, to host information, ensuring that existing, publicly available information is in open data and machine readable formats, presenting data in a consistent way to facilitate cross-checking, and to making more detail available, such as information on revenues and investment projects.
“These are things governments clearly have at their disposal, it would only be a matter of organising the information and making it available in user-friendly formats,” noted de Renzio.
This would save civil society organisations substantial time and effort spent finding or extracting data published in PDF format, for example, and then fixing inconsistencies or cleaning datasets before they can start analysing and cross-referencing.
De Renzio also said the report identified a host of other measures that can be taken, but are “a bit more complex, a bit more complicated, and would require more effort and time from governments” as well as “dedicated systems” to implement.
The report found there was high demand for local-level, sector-level and disaggregated data, or for a linking-up of financial and non-financial information, for example. De Renzio noted this would be much more difficult for governments to respond to in a short timeframe.
While implementing the relatively easy measures could have a significant impact, de Renzio noted this would only address part of the problem. In the longer term, governments should seek to tackle these more difficult issues, which could make a real difference to how civil society uses information to hold governments to account.
“It’s how you do transparency that determines whether it works,” de Renzio concluded.