Academic journal article Public Finance and Management

NGOs HOLDING GOVERNMENTS ACCOUNTABLE: CIVIL-SOCIETY BUDGET WORK

Academic journal article Public Finance and Management

NGOs HOLDING GOVERNMENTS ACCOUNTABLE: CIVIL-SOCIETY BUDGET WORK

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Efforts to make public administration more efficient and more democratic need not take place entirely within government. For example, "budget work" by nongovernmental organiza-tions and other types of civil-society collectives is one way in which government fiscal policy and administration can potentially be made more transparent and thereby more democratically accountable. A logical framework and an exploratory analysis of 72 organizations doing budget work based in 26 countries illustrate some of the ways in which the practice of budget work can be pursued in response to specific political and economic contexts and goals. Con-sistent with the framework, certain transparency-related goals and activities are common to virtually all of the organizations across differing normative conceptions of democracy, and some correlations are apparent between organizational designs and goals and organizational environments and between organizational activities and goals.

1. INTRODUCTION

Third-sector researchers and grant makers including the Ford and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations have become increasingly interested in the poten-tial for civil-society collectives such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs)1 to help citizens hold governments accountable (see for example Ed-wards, 2008), thereby improving their democratic as well as service perfor-mance (we borrow this terminology from Skelcher, 2007). This certainly sounds attractive in concept. Accountability, democracy, and performance are all ideas widely espoused by scholars and practitioners and viewed with nearly universal approval in spite (or perhaps because) of the vast range of competing beliefs about what exactly constitutes accountability, democracy, or perfor-mance. But just what does it mean for governments to be held accountable, why would we care to do so, and how might NGOs contribute to that? How does it work in practice, given the wide variety of extant conceptions of de-mocracy and accountability, and of the wide range of political and economic contexts in which democracy and accountability are prescribed by well inten-tioned reformers?

This article takes some steps toward answering such questions by explor-ing one specific area of such activity-civil-society budget work-through the lens of an analytic framework that focuses on effective transparency as one requisite of democratic accountability. Budget work involves the performance by NGOs of technical analysis, public-information and citizen-education func-tions, and other activities meant to improve the transparency and democratic accountability of government budgets and budget processes. Transparency and accountability are sought both as ends in themselves and as means to other ends such as reducing fraud, waste, or corruption; improving the responsive-ness of tax and spending allocations; and building democracy through direct and indirect participation (Robinson, 2008c, pp. 5-6).

Contemporary approaches to nongovernmental budget work are in some ways the 21st century heirs to the work of the New York Bureau of Municipal Research (BMR), a U.S. Progressive organization of the early 20th century. In keeping with the Progressives' projects of making government more business-like and replacing big-city political machines with ostensibly better and more democratic forms of governance, the BMR in 1908 and 1909 organized budget exhibits designed to make New York City's finances more transparent by providing information to the public in an accessible fashion (Kahn, 1993). The budget exhibits were one tool for providing citizens with knowledge and awareness that would empower and encourage them to hold government offi-cials accountable for their use of public resources.

Transposing the budget exhibits' focus on fiscal transparency to the turn of the 21st century, we report here findings from compiling and analyzing an ex-ploratory inventory of the goals; organizational characteristics; and activities of a sample of contemporary NGOs doing budget work in a variety of eco-nomic and political contexts. …

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