BudgetPromises.Org is an online platform launched in 2017 that tracks implementation of selected budget proposals in Sri Lanka. The platform addresses two questions on government’s national budget:
- Is the government doing what it is saying?
- Is the government saying what it is doing?
As such, the platform tracks the level of progress in implementation of budget proposals as well as the openness of the government in sharing information relating to the implementation of budget proposals.
The platform is run by Verité Research, an independent think tank in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
The key impact of BudgetPromises.Org has been changing the conversation about the government budget from ‘promise-making’ to ‘promise-keeping’. Since its inception, there was a notable shift in government discourse from making promises to keeping promises. Usually, discussions in parliament as well as the media during the budget speech focus exclusively on costs and benefits of new proposals. However, because of the influence of our platform, these discussions shifted to also focus on the importance of having systems in place to monitor the implementation of promises. These discussions also started to shift to the need for budgets to be formulated better.
In the mid-year assessment of the 2018 budget, we succeeded in changing the discourse from promise-making to promise-keeping. We focused on making government institutions accountable. In the most recent phase, the end-year assessment, we took the next step to highlight the importance of transparency—that is the importance of government being willing to proactively share information about the status of budget implementation with the public. The platform’s major impact lies in its ability to sustain the conversation about accountability and governance around budget issues in an environment where the media only talks about the budget when it is discussed by a politician.
We also observed a positive change in how the government monitors its own spending. In March 2019, the Minister of Finance announced that six committees would be appointed to monitor the implementation of budget proposals. Like many statements made by Sri Lankan politicians, the minister’s promise might not actually amount to a change in practice any time soon. However, in the Sri Lankan context, even the fact that the Minister feels obliged to reassure the public that the government will be engaging in better monitoring of the budget is a win for democracy.
The tools and techniques we used for this initiative are two fold:
The research tools used to obtain the necessary data to run the platform are 1) government websites, 2) Over-the-counter (OTC) checks, and 3) Right to Information (RTI) requests. Web-checks were done at regular intervals to ensure no information was missed. OTC involved calling/visiting government agencies and directly requesting the data that we want. When the first two methods did not work, the team used RTI requests to collect data. In some cases, when the request did not give any results, we had to submit an appeal. Government ministries were classified on our platform according to their willingness to provide information.
Once the platform was updated with the relevant information, we used both mainstream media and social media to disseminate our findings. To target the mainstream media, we held press conferences, did TV interviews, and submitted articles to newspapers. For social media, we utilised audio visual tools such as videos and infographics. The team ensured that all findings were accessible to the public in short, bite-size formats, to reach maximum impact.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The government of Sri Lanka does not have open data policies. As a result, it is very difficult to obtain information about how different ministries spend their money. Hence the hardest part of a project like this is data collection. Some key challenges encountered by our team are:
1. Difficulty in accessing information from ministries: We utilize Right to Information (RTI) requests to obtain relevant information about spending from different ministries. This process is not always smooth, and our team encountered difficulties such as 1) timelines and processes for RTI filing were not followed by officials at government agencies; and 2) it was often difficult to identify a single point of contact within governmental institutions with whom to file RTIs.
2. Lack of compatible information: Even when relevant information is available, it is not always in a useful format. We found that there was a lack of compatibility between action plans and progress reports. This gap meant that it was very challenging for our team to assess progress on budget promises.
3. Web checks – The team scans through government websites to look for budget information. However, most websites are not updated, and sometimes information can go missing. Further, there isn’t a standard format in how they report progress, and sometimes it is found in unrelated pages.
Due to these reasons, obtaining information was and continues to be one our biggest challenges
What can others learn from this project?
The main lessons others can learn from this project are: Public engagement using data is a powerful form of accountability – While we sometimes communicate with policy makers directly, most of the impact we have achieved through BudgetPromises.Org is through the public communication of our findings. We use the media and social media to take our findings to the public, who in turn become more knowledgeable about what the government is doing with their money. When they have this information, they can hold the government accountable to the promises they make each year. Further, media pressure imposes reputation costs on politicians, who are forced to respond when they are accused of being inactive. Push for access to information as a right – The Right to Information Act (RTI) was passed in Sri Lanka in 2016. Under the act, a citizen can obtain public information by a) filing requests from public authorities; and b) obtaining information through proactive disclosure of information by public authorities. Sometimes public authorities aren’t willing to share information th RTI requests, or the information received is inadequate. Further, the government remains weak in proactively providing information to the public. However, BudgetPromises.Org has continued to champion RTI as a research tool, and even tells the public when information is not accessible, so that they can also hold the government accountable for providing information that they as tax payers have a right to. When you can’t find what you need, that is also an important finding – While we push for the government’s implementation of budget promises, we also expose the lack of information, that should be available by law. An integral part of the platform is scoring the openness of ministries. We encourage the media to talk about this aspect as much as it focuses on implementation of