Access to pertinent public data is crucial to inform and mobilize citizens in demanding better governance. Experience shows, however, that the process involved in garnering public data is arduous and often confronted with strong resistance. To begin with, the planning and execution of government programs and budget are seldom performed in a transparent manner and even when the information is made available, the technical use of the language and the procedures involved in the execution make it very difficult for a lay person to decipher and analyze them. Problems are also encountered with incomplete or badly maintained records of public expenditures and service delivery. In addition, the officials who are in charge of managing the programs are cautious in releasing the records for fear of consequences from the disclosed information. In spite of these constraints, methods have been developed to promote transparency in the planning and implementation of public programs and budget through what has been a long process of information gathering and advocacy campaigns.
Both macro and micro-level initiatives are being carried out to make information on government programs and budget available to ordinary citizens, who then use it to track and monitor public expenditures and impacts. At the macro-level, efforts have been made to educate citizens on the processes involved in budget formulation and execution. Tools such as budget literacy, budget analysis, demystification of the budget (simplification of technical contents and procedures), awareness training and coalition building of civil society organizations have been launched. Public Expenditure Tracking Survey (PETS) is a tool that has been popularly used in tracking public expenditures within various levels of government bureaucracies using citizens’ information and feedback.
Micro-level initiatives to bring transparency in public services include policy and program support in strengthening decentralization of administrative and fiscal responsibilities of the government. Bringing government closer to the people is expected to make it easier for citizens to prioritize programs and track impacts in accordance with their needs and aspirations. Various community-based monitoring tools have been developed to serve this purpose. The work of the NGO, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) is a fine example of using Social Audit to track wage payments on public work programs in India. The work led to the government passing the Right to Information Act in the country, which is regarded as one of the most important cornerstones of participatory democracy.
As mentioned above, the process of acquiring public data is not easy and the Civil Society Organization (CSO) initiating the inquiry may be subjected to threat, intimidation and black listing. It is therefore important that the CSO gain public confidence and support for the initiative. An extensive information campaign on the objectives of the exercise and the subsequent dissemination of the findings through discourse and media channels can create committed volunteers among citizens. Working with youth groups have been especially effective here. Similarly, identifying individuals outside the program who are knowledgeable about the program and corresponding administrative structures can be useful in obtaining specific documents required for the inquiry. Discussion with residents who have worked on or live nearby a particular project can be illuminating. The best alternative, however, is to be physically present at the scene of operation and conduct an investigative inquiry with project stakeholders, including beneficiaries, contractors, laborers, engineers and government officials in-charge.
The advocacy campaign and public hearings that follow from the information gathering phase should be planned in a way that provides opportunities for the citizens and public officials to engage in positive discussion on the subject of inquiry and come up with corrective measures to improve the situation. The forum should allow public officials to explain or justify their position and for citizens to be informed about the bureaucratic processes involved in planning, budgeting and executing government programs and budget. One should be particularly careful of the perception (real or imagined) of disproportionate influence by vested interests during this stage to avoid distrust and lack of cooperation between government and civil society, which has the potential to defeat the purpose of the entire exercise.
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