Taking Proactive Disclosure Seriously, By Seember Nyager
In November, 2014, news around the procurement of cooking stoves by the Federal Ministry of Environment sparked a public debate. According to the media, the Federal Ministry of Environment had signed a contract to purchase 750,000 clean cooking stoves at the cost of 9.2 Billion Naira. The project which would roll for five years, is initially targeted at 4 million rural women; 2 million of whom would be identified through the fertiliser e-wallet scheme and another two million who have been registered by a Non-governmental agency.
The public questioned the source of these funds (was it in the annual appropriation or was it from a special account such as the ecological fund?) to the expediency of the scheme and ultimately focused on accountability mechanisms to check the utilization of these funds.
Justifiable or not, perceptions such as these lie at the heart of some of our toughest governance challenges as a country. These perceptions are the result of information being passed around in snippets with little means of verification and with insufficient public accountability mechanisms. For some people therefore, the passage of the Freedom of Information Act signified less reliance on rumours, and better access by everyone to the facts around public resource management.
As some institutions increasingly comply with the legal mandate to provide access to public expenditure information on request, Nigeria has also come to that point where more emphasis needs to be placed on proactive disclosure and the development of data standards that would enable effective linkages to be made across the entire chain that leads to public service delivery. In that way, confidence that our Government works in the public interest would be rebuilt.
Efforts to institute a culture of public accountability through the Freedom of Information Act 2011 has seen various levels of compliance from Government agencies. Some key agencies of Government such as the office of Accountant General have shown a tremendous level of compliance by consistently providing procurement monitors with details of capital releases made to Federal Ministries departments and Agencies on request. These responses from the Accountant General have provided insight into the fact that budgetary releases to Government institutions are made in lump sums and not necessarily on a project by project basis. As a result, only the public institution implementing a project can provide information on how much from its released allocation, has gone towards the implementation of a certain project. In the case of the 9.2 Billion Naira cooking stoves, the Ministry of Environment as the implementation agency is the only institution that can provide enough data on how much from its released allocation has gone towards the purchase of these stoves and how many beneficiaries have been reached by the scheme in any given period.
Knowing that the public would value information on the utilization of public resources, making such information available not only on request but also proactively should be a priority within Government institutions. Further, it is crucial that across Government institutions, there are standards consistently being followed in presenting public expenditure information.
Based on requests for specific project expenditure information made to individual Government institutions, it is notable that in the responses, there is often no particular standard used to present the same kind of information by Government institutions. Whilst some indicate “contract name”, others have “project title” as the header. Whilst some contracts seem very specific, others seem to lump together various contracts under one header. In addition, no Government institution has provided specific percentages of the released funds that went to each project. Also, the same information is often presented under different names by various Government institutions in custody of information related to a specific expenditure.
For instance a budget line in the Annual appropriation may differ from the name of the same project in the procurement plan or in a project implementation document. All of this makes it tedious for any project monitoring unit, whether state- based or independent, to verify the performance of projects vis-à-vis budgetary allocations and releases. This also contributes to whatever perceptions people hold on the utilization of public resources and demeans whatever is left of the public trust. Whether we accept it or not, such imprecision also creates a corruption risk as it makes resource utilization elusive and untraceable, further creating room for more leakages in the public finance sphere.
The first step in enabling everyone to see and understand the big picture of how public expenditure ties to public services is the proactive disclosure mandate that helps all concerned parties access relevant information in (almost) real time. This would require the identification of sources of various expenditure information and clear lines of responsibility for keeping such information up to date.
A proactive disclosure mechanism that is deployed public service wide would also work best if there are data standards. This would help to ensure uniformity in the presentation of records and enable precise linkages to be drawn across the entire public finance sphere. Enabling data accessibility in multiple formats including formats that permit the data to be reusable would improve our current levels of analyses and minimize the human error of multiple people inputting data that is already available. Data standards would also ensure that data, once standardized can be viewed through a variety of formats in order to meet the information needs of various stakeholders.
If proactive disclosure is taken seriously, the efficiency that would result would be phenomenal. Our budget implementation reports would become richer by actually linking allocated resources to projects and services on ground. Our parliamentarians would be able to link budget appropriations to actual budget releases, right to specific community projects; and would then be in a position to provide accurate updates to their constituencies. Based on this, the community would be better placed to provide feedback on the extent to which the budget is delivering the required service.
What would really enable the big picture is when relevant agencies such as the Office of the Attorney General, the Judiciary and the National Assembly enforce the proactive disclosure mandate available in the Freedom of Information Act, 2011. Its operability would be further enhanced when key institutions such as the Bureau of Public Procurement, the Ministry of Finance, the Office of the Accountant General agree on standards for making public finance data available and these standards are made applicable service wide.
Achieving this big picture is not a far cry from where we are. If we have come this far in providing legal frameworks that support proactive disclosure, all that we really need is respect for the rule of law and regard for public accountability. Nigerians are watching and the actions of our Government institutions would determine where our Government’s priorities lie.
Seember Nyager writes for the Omidyar-supported project, #GoingLocal; jointly implemented by BudgIT Information Technology Network and the Public and Private Development Centre (PPDC)