"As governments launch massive spending measures to address the COVID-19 pandemic, the latest Open Budget Survey (OBS) points to weak transparency and oversight of government spending." Visit the international OBS website and New Zealand results.
The pandemic is testing public trust in government
The coronavirus pandemic is a global public health threat and a source of unprecedented economic dislocation. People are looking to government to both protect public health and provide relief from economic hardship. Citizens have also looked to government for timely and reliable information to protect themselves, their families and their communities.
The crisis has put to the test, public trust in government. Some governments have risen to the occasion. Others have not, with dire consequences for citizens.
2019 Open Budget Survey
In this context, the release of the 2019 OBS report is particularly timely. The International Budget Partnership (IBP) and its network of independent country researchers provide a comprehensive assessment of three key elements underlying public trust in government:
- the scope and timelines of public access to substantive and reliable information about government finances and policies
- the strength of public sector accountability mechanisms through legislative oversight and independent audit
- the scope and quality of opportunities for direct public engagement with government during budget formulation and implementation, as well as in legislative review and audit processes.
New Zealand once again tops the survey for budget transparency. Underlying the country’s consistently strong performance is a legal framework, in which comprehensive legal requirements are embedded (Public Finance Act) and application of robust accrual accounting practices to public accounts.
New Zealand consistently scores high in the underlying Open Budget Index (OBI) focus on public availability of information covering the full budget cycle. The scope and strength of Office of the Auditor-General audit oversight is also an area of consistently solid performance.
Persistent areas in need of improvement
Accessibility vs availability of information
Much of the New Zealand budget information is available, but not accessible. The “Citizens Budget” is still not meeting expectations for making information broadly accessible (or attractive) to “non-specialists”. Treasury’s recently developed “Basics” series while a step in the right direction stands to be improved in both presentation and scope. Another clear opportunity exists to more effectively communicate information about public resources to a broader audience by greater investment in web-based data visualisations (“info-graphics”).
The assessment indicated Parliamentary oversight in New Zealand has improved to being just "adequate". Opportunities exist for the new Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO), which will be operational starting in July 2021, to bolster relatively constrained/weak legislative oversight across the budget cycle.
Limited public engagement
Opportunities for routine annual public engagement/dialogue with the Government remain limited. The latest OBS results show the composite score for public engagement slipping from 59 to 54.
Low hanging fruit
The 2109 OBS results show New Zealand continuing to be a high performer in the “headline” OBI assessing public availability of information. However, results for specific OBI questions also point to the persistence of specific gaps in public availability of essential information. These gaps are well within the Government’s (Treasury’s) capacity to address.
- Strengthening web-based data visualisations (“info-graphics”)
- Increasing the scope of mid-year (and other in-year) reporting on spending for specific programmes
- Improving the scope and presentation of information in the plain-language “Basics” series
- A public comprehensive budget calendar, inclusive of designated entry points for broad-based public consultations on policy priorities
- Developing “alternative displays” of public spending with the ability to drill down into specific sectors or policies according to given characteristics. Displays can align nicely with the “wellbeing” budget framework
- Increasing the scope of mid-year and other in-year reporting on spending for specific programmes
- Providing comparisons of forecasts and actual outcomes in annual year-end reporting, with explanation for variances
Producing the Open Budget Survey
The results of the 2019 Open Budget Survey are the product of an intensive 18-month effort involving:
- Collection and review of extensive documentation and data
- Completion of the 150+ survey questions by country researchers
- Submission of completed questionnaires for both independent peer and government review
- Responding to all comments and alternative assessments raised by reviewers
- Tabulating results as scores and rankings, conducting analysis and drafting reporting materials
- Dissemination of findings for discussions among stakeholders.
This information is derived from a media release by Jonathan Dunn, the NZ Country Researcher for IBP/OBS.