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The fifth edition of the Global Partners Forum of the Global Partnership for Social Accountability (October 30-November 1) was devoted to public finance, social accountability and human capital. With the World Bank Human Capital Project and the International Budget Partnership, the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency network was a co-organizer of the event. The main goal was to better understand how countries can use their public finances to invest more and better in health and education for their citizens and what roles citizens and society organizations can play, working with governments and other actors.
This is a global effort, presented by the Vice President of Human Development of the World Bank, Annette Dixon, to accelerate more and better investments in people for greater equity and economic growth. Human capital consists of the knowledge, skills, and health that people accumulate throughout their lives, enabling them to realize their potential as productive members of society. The World Development Report (WDR) 2019: The Changing Nature of Work shows that without strengthening human capital, countries cannot sustain economic growth, will not have a workforce prepared for the more highly skilled jobs of the future and will not compete effectively in the global economy.
The Human Capital Project includes the Human Capital Index (link), which is intended to be published once a year. The main objectives of this measurement effort are: (i) to provide policymakers with more information on how to invest in human capital and (ii) to create public demand for human capital investments.
As we know, governments and budgets have a vital role in building human capital. Both as providers of public health and education and as regulators of private providers. But as the human capital index shows, governments often fail to deliver. Most governments commit a significant share of their budget to education and health, but public services are often too low quality to generate human capital.
The discussion about human capital is closely related to the 3 main functions of Public Financial Management (PFM). Sustainability, because human capital requires long term sustained investment, with significant coordination of various agencies, it must be a high level government priority for a long period of time. Allocation of resources, with the difficult trade-offs that investing in a long term policy brings: it is easier to build a school than to ensure good quality of the education of the children -the latter does not always pay off politically-. And third, the question of trust and government accountability, related to oversight mechanisms, transparency and citizen engagement.
Bureaucracies in charge of implementing policies to build human capital often lack the capacity or the incentives to do so effectively. This is why information is an essential first step toward encouraging citizens to demand more from their leaders and service providers. So, better measurement increases policy makers awareness of the importance of investing in human capital.
The search for more effective mechanisms to deliver public services has been at a core of policies enacted by governments around the world. The quest for value for money. In the PFM community, this challenge has taken several forms over the years:
The development of programmatic and results-based budgeting, with performance indicators;
The devolution of decision making to regional and local governments;
More recently, attempts to develop greater involvement of citizens in the preparation, execution and monitoring of the budget.
Since 2012, public participation is a principle of global norms: following the GIFT High Level Principles on Fiscal Transparency, Participation and Accountability, IMF, PEFA, IBP, OECD include the idea of direct involvement of the public in the budget cycle in their revised versions of the fiscal transparency standards. In the international agenda, public participation is not only on how to improve allocations, but also how civil society can help make government more responsive, efficient and effective.
Examples of the benefits of fiscal transparency and informed citizen engagement in budget process () are many but to name a few:
Better resource allocation (i.e. subnational transfers in Mexico, with the role of the media and CSOs leading to changes in the criteria for investment projects approval to observe urban sustainable mobility);
Improvement in the provision of public services (i.e. social accountability / monitoring experiences of sanitation in South Africa or social audits in India);
Better response to the preferences of the beneficiaries of the services (i.e. Kenya devolution experiences and refining gender subsidies beneficiaries in Mexico);
Opportunity for marginalized groups to exert some influence in decisions that affect them (i.e. i-monitor in Nigeria which invites citizens to inform of any budget waste, South Korea open consultations for budget implementation and in Indonesia, LAPOR, complaints on line systems);
Better impact of actions that affect communities in social policies: health sector, community level public works, education, well-being (i.e. participatory budgeting, Brazil).
There are multiple examples of public participation in the budget process around the world. The IBP Open Budget Survey edition 2017 finds mechanisms in 94 countries out of the 115 surveyed (link). There are a variety of innovative examples with different reach in all the steps of the budget cycle: from informing, to consulting, to engaging, to empowering. And public participation is present on tax policies, expenditures, control and evaluation.
For instance, the GIFT network has facilitated an increasing number of ministries of finance to have open dialogues with potential fiscal information users to provide user-oriented information online. Besides having as a result dynamic and interactive platforms, this dialogue has been very useful for everyone around the table for collaboration on fiscal transparency and accountability related issues.
The PFM agenda has evolved dramatically and will continue to evolve. But every time it is clearer that the budget process is also a political process. We will fail if we try to provide only technical solutions to political challenges. That is why partnerships between Governments and Civil Society are critical, which will be important to align incentives and establish productive collaboration formats. Reliable measurements and efficient ways of communication, such as digital technology, are crucial. There is a need to move beyond an adversarial approach and establishing a constructive engagement between CSOs and Government reformers, as part of broader coalitions of stakeholders to push and sustain reform agendas as the one needed for building human capital. This has been referred as the idea of co-creation by the Open Government Partnership community.
From this perspective, it is good to see that the Human Capital Project includes the creation of a community of practice in each country that will address, among other challenges, the production of relevant information. One should hope that these communities include all relevant stakeholders.
PFM institutions will be needed too. At the macro level, aggregate rules that ensure fiscal sustainability may lead to biases against human capital expenditure. Fiscal rules have proliferated around the world to keep fiscal sustainability in check. The next generation of fiscal rules should also address the composition of spending. Other PFM rules could protect public investment in human capital. In this task, the roles of international financial institutions will be crucial. At the micro level, a myriad of institutions need to be strengthened, ranging from results-based budgeting for expenditure allocation, medium-term fiscal framework, the creation of smart integrated data systems, fiscal councils in charge of quality of spending, public investment management agencies, public procurement, and so on.
Let me make a disclaimer with respect to digital technologies as new hopes for citizen engagement (e-democracy, e-governance, e-participation). IT enhances participation in some cases. But it does not resolve two fundamental issues regarding citizen engagement (Civic Tec in the Global South, Peixoto-Sifri).
The first issue relates to unequal participation, which is obvious if you think about it. Civic tech might impede the participation of individuals who are traditionally excluded, and it might further empower the already empowered. In developing and poor countries, the combination of online and offline participation seems to be necessary, as well as alternative participatory designs, if inclusiveness is a value to be pursued.
The second issue relates to government responsiveness. While civic tech dramatically lowers the costs for citizens to project their voices and express their needs, the levels of willingness, capability, and resources available for governments to provide a meaningful response remain the same. Government responsiveness would likely depend on a number of political and institutional factors.
The challenges of unequal participation and responsiveness need to be addressed in any case. The GIFT PP principles (Link), developed in 2015, tackle issues such as inclusiveness, accessibility, sustainability, among other important components to ensure clarity on the rules of engagement with respect to the purpose, scope, constraints, intended outcomes, process and timelines, as well as the expected and actual results of public participation.
However, I believe there is a feature that makes the combination of digital government and transparency quite remarkable. Government management information systems have facilitated to capture and concentrate thousands of transactions daily. For the first time, government data can be in formats that can be machine readable and human readable. In some countries, citizens have increasing access to the exact same data used by officials for decision making. No technological innovation has ever allowed such a potential reduction in the asymmetries of information between authorities and citizens.
Building human capital goes to the heart of reducing inequality. This refers to the question of allocation of resources, with the difficult trade-offs between spending in the present, or investing in the future. It is difficult to raise taxes when citizens are unwilling to pay more as they don’t believe their governments will spend those additional resources efficiently. Thus, a precondition for expanding public expenditure seems to be government’s ability to deliver efficient services, leaving nothing to waste.
Another component is trust in government, which is a key ingredient behind citizen demands. According to the report on development in the Americas (IADB, Better Spending for better Lives) when lack of trust is high—be it because of government inefficiency or blatant corruption— citizens prefer transfers over long-term investments. In face of the need of investing in human capital, this situation could be highly detrimental for development, since inequality and lack of trust may end up undermining the future with lower investments, both in physical and human capital.
Inequality and lack of trust are also related to a missing piece in fiscal transparency. The increasing public concern in many countries about the fairness of tax burdens and elite ‘capture’ of tax policy setting, alongside widespread tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance. This concern has been identified as one of the main reasons behind the growing deterioration of trust in public finances and government management of public resources.
Nevertheless, few governments publish enough information about tax policies and tax administration to allow non-state actors to engage publicly in an informed debate. Here again, the demand side of transparency, participation and accountability has considerable potential to strengthen domestic tax efforts, and to improve the fairness, legitimacy and sustainability of tax systems. But much more transparency on the revenue side is needed.
What are we referring to? Tax openness includes open and participatory tax policy development, routine disclosures on tax incidence (tax burdens) in annual budget documents, transparency and accountability in tax administration, resource revenue transparency (tax expenditures), issues around non-tax revenues (e.g. transparency of and accountability for fees and charges for public services), the environmental impacts of fiscal policies (e.g. fossil fuel tax subsidies), the scope for taxing environmental externalities (e.g. carbon taxes), and the growing area of international transfers of climate finance and how those revenues are managed at the national level.
The quality of public services can be improved by information disclosure that responds to the needs of information users and by engaging the public in the delivery process.
Dialogue between stakeholders can help for the sustainability of reforms that alter systems and inertias, such as building human capital.
The use of digital tools gives the opportunity of reaching a broader audience, playing a potential important role in tackling the engagement deficit in public policies and in supporting better outcomes for citizens.
A long-term investment in building human capital suppose an open and informed debate on the impact of the fiscal system in inequality, which requires more transparency not only in the expenditures side, but also on the revenue side, in order to clearly identify its impact.
PFM news institutions will need to protect human capital investment. Fiscal rules, medium term fiscal framework, smart integrated data systems, fiscal councils should become institutionalized allies of the important goal.