Open Government in Practice – Open Budgets

Paul Braithwaite has been leading the Building Change Trust’s work exploring the issue of open government over the past year, focusing on the international Open Government Partnership initiative and its potential in Northern Ireland.

Here he explores what open government can mean in practice through focusing in on one approach that has been gaining serious traction around the world: open budgets.

The Trust is hosting the launch of the NI Open Government Network on 5th November (more information below).


Abba sang about it, Pink Floyd sang about it, even Monty Python sang about it, but when it comes to having effective government it really is all about the money, money, money.

Countries seeking to become a member of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), an international framework of government commitments to transparency, accountability and participation, must meet four eligibility criteria, with fiscal transparency sitting at the top of the pile. This requires the timely publication of essential budget documents and an open budget system.

Budget transparency is known to lower corruption rates, empower citizens, contribute to better policy making and effective budget allocation, while improving overall service delivery. In times of austerity and over-stretched public services an efficient use of resources is more important than ever before and, in order for a government to maintain the support of its people, they must have faith that public money is being spent where it is needed the most.


Open Budget Standings

As one of the founding nations of the OGP, the UK has increased its efforts to systematically collect and publish data on government spending and performance for essential public services.
The UK ranked third in the 2012 Open Budget Index, moving up from fifth in 2010. All key documentation is made available to the general public, from pre-budget statements to In-Year reports. The survey only assesses national government provisions so Northern Ireland isn’t covered, but a quick (admittedly cursory) browse shows that most of the key documents are published by the NI Executive too. (see this link for example)

So far so good – should we rest on our laurels then? Not quite.

One key qualifier to the above is that the Open Budget Survey is global in nature, so it is no surprise that western, so called ‘developed’ nations (a misnomer since all countries are inherently ‘developing’), mostly find themselves in the upper echelons.

But crucially, it is only when transparency is combined with proactive public engagement, that real improvements in governance, and ultimately outcomes for citizens can be achieved. And in this area the UK is found to be somewhat lacking by the International Budget Partnership:

UK Open Budget Country Report grab

Source: Open Budget Index 2012 Country Report for the UK


Anyone who has contributed to a public consultation process in Northern Ireland, with its accompanying sense of ‘tick-boxery’ will know that we fare no better, and arguably somewhat worse than the rest of the UK.


Participatory Budgeting?

So what does proactive public engagement in budgeting processes look like then?

One approach that has been growing in scale and scope, since it was first tried in Porto Alegre in Brazil in the 1980s is participatory budgeting. Participatory budgeting encompasses a range of methods designed to directly involve citizens in decision making regarding spending and investment priorities for a local budget.

The budget will tend to belong to a local council or other statutory body and can range from a neighbourhood level up to a city or national level budget. New York City has been experimenting with this approach for the last few years and between September 2014 and April 2015 residents of 24 council districts across the City are directly deciding how to spend $25 million of taxpayers’ money. This video gives a bit more info on how it works:

Participatory budgeting usually starts at a very local level but can grow from there to influence how national resources are allocated, reported and spent. For example nowadays in Brazil, the law requires Federal Government, States, Districts and Municipalities to provide real-time information on their budgets and spending through electronic means. Officials post their expenses online within 24 hours and, as a direct result, corruption has fallen and faith in the government has risen.


So what could all this mean in Northern Ireland?

Could participatory budgeting be tried in Northern Ireland, perhaps initially as part of the new Community Planning process in the new Councils?

Ultimately open budgeting is just one of many issues under the open government umbrella and the Building Change Trust doesn’t have a view about what the specific priorities should be.

We simply think that a more open government is a ‘win-win’ situation for everyone involved. It provides an opportunity to restore public faith in the integrity of institutions and enables citizens to have a greater say about government priorities to ensure there is a more suitable match between public services and public needs. For politicians, the onus is no longer solely on them to resolve seemingly intractable problems. Rather it becomes a shared endeavour across society.

The Building Change Trust is hosting the launch of the Northern Ireland Open Government Network on 5th November at Malone House in Belfast. The event is free and open to all, the registration page is here

The Minister for Finance and Personnel, Simon Hamilton MLA, will be a keynote speaker, along with a representative of the Cabinet Office and a panel including Queen’s University Belfast’s Professor John Barry, Anne Colgan (Chair of the Irish OGP Civil Society Forum) and a number of representatives from civil society and the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise Sector.

For more information contact Paul Braithwaite on or via Twitter on @Paul_BCT or #opengovni

For an overview of the Open Government Partnership initiative see the video below:


  • Martin Keegan

    The state of fiscal transparency in Northern Ireland is an offensive joke.

    The article above only bothers with open budgeting, let alone expenditure. Look at any local government website in Great Britain, and you’ll find a page about their expenditure over 500 pounds, e.g., … enabling the public to build up a detailed picture of what the council is up to.

    This practice seems non-existent in Northern Ireland. Is it because far too many contracts are pork-barrelled on a cross-community basis, doubling the cost, which would show up immediately if they published the details? What is going on?

  • mickfealty

    I think we should see these examples as proof it can be done, and something to take on to the launch in Belfast of a campaigning network to bring these to the fore.

    Without going too much on the defensive, we have a culture of secrecy in Northern Ireland, not all of which is to with the pork barrel. Some of it is actually related to past (and present) issues of Health and Safety.

  • mickfealty

    PS, I’ll let Paul come back to that on Monday, it’s a good point to raise.

  • Martin Keegan

    Here in Bosnia they did manage to get some kind of budgetary information out of the hundred-odd governments (local, entity, cantonal, national etc), so it can be done, but the politics is different: it is the Left that calls for spending restraint to starve the ethnonationalist parties (roughly).

    What is this campaigning network in Belfast?

  • Hi Martin. The network is only really getting off the ground – there’s been a few of us – individuals and voluntary sector reps – meeting over the past few months looking at the whole issue of open government and whether it has any mileage in NI. The issues undoubtedly resonate anyway. Wednesday is the launch proper so we’ll see what happens after that.

    By the way totally agree on your first point – the whole budgetary cycle needs opened up including expenditure. Actually that Open Budget Index i referenced does look at expenditure reporting too. Would be really interesting to get them to calculate how NI measures up internationally – currently we’re somewhat flattered by hiding within the UK’s 3rd position globally.
    Interesting that progress is being made in Bosnia – they’ve actually joined the OGP too so i wonder if there’s any link

  • Martin Keegan

    Ok – is there any sort of web presence for whatever it is that is launching on Wednesday?

    Well aware re Bosnia and OGP – I was at the curious meeting the Bosnian government had in London about that; you’ve linked to Lagumdžija’s letter re OGP, but that guy is very much yesterday’s crisp packet and it remains to be seen whether there’ll be progress on OGP once the electoral dust has settled.

    I did try to engage with the IBP when they didn’t quite spot the sarcasm in my writeup at , but fundamentally, the Open Budget Index indicators target a bunch of asks that don’t combine well with any attempt to get the cost of automated monitoring expenditure down to where citizens groups could afford it. Scoring well on the OBI gets you where you ought to have been in 2004, not where you need to be to enable citizens groups viably to consume the data products published. The contrast with international development is instructive.

  • there’ll be a live-tweet stream using #OpenGovNI and slugger will be helping us a bit with that. we’ll need to build in digital engagement into whatever comes next if we want to keep a diverse group of people involved.

    Fair point about OBI, there’s loads of different ways of ‘publishing’ budgets/expenditure and they don’t really delve deeper into the tech side of things.

    sounds like you’ve plenty of experience on this issue – would be interested to hear more about the Bosnia experience, perhaps some useful parallels for NI? I suppose one upside of mandatory coalition here is that there’s no risk of the government changing any time soon so at least there’s continuity!