New Online Portal Provides Greater Budget Transparency in Myanmar
August 10, 2016
After four months of much-awaited pronouncement, on July 29 Myanmar’s National League of Democracy-led government finally released its 12-Point Economic Policy outlining key priorities under the country’s new reform strategy. Among these were commitments to strengthen public financial management through more prudent and efficient public spending and to create an open and transparent budget process.
For more than five decades, government financial information was simply not available or accessible to the public in Myanmar. Budget data was often considered a state secret and in the initial years of the democratic transition, accessing such information still required high level contacts and a long and tedious approval process. As a consequence, the majority of the people in the country, including many professionals, researchers, and even government officials, are not familiar with the budget process, how priorities are determined, or how much the government spends.
It’s therefore not surprising that Myanmar scored 0 out of 100 in the 2012 Open Budget Survey, the first year that the country had been included in the rankings. In the 2015 Open Budget Survey, Myanmar received a score of 2 out of 100, and ranked third from the bottom in terms of budget transparency. That may not seem to be much of an improvement, but the growing awareness within both the government and civil society about the need to improve the country’s woefully inadequate public financial management system as well as public accountability is starting to bring about some concrete change.
Union government budget information is increasingly becoming available and accessible. While the full version of the Union government’s budget document has not been widely disseminated publicly, specific information for each sector or ministry is now available on the respective ministry’s website. Snippets of analysis pertaining to budget priorities also sometimes appear in the government’s official gazette, and in some cases, are reported in local dailies. Outside of the Union government, the state/region governments have started making similar efforts to reach out to their citizens. Almost half of the 14 state/region governments are now maintaining their respective websites containing updates on government services and contact information. Unfortunately, these websites still do not include financial information, and even access to the print versions remains limited and still involves a long approval process and can still require going through personal networks. When it is available, these financial documents are only provided in raw data format. The challenge then is two-fold: how to access budget data and then make it intelligible to ordinary citizens.
As part of The Asia Foundation’s support of an open budget process in Myanmar, on August 4 our partner, the Open Myanmar Initiative (OMI), launched the country’s first online budget dashboard to provide an accessible tool for exploring Myanmar’s published budget data in the interest of enhancing transparency and encouraging discussion and analysis of the country’s budget process and allocations. The interactive portal organizes and presents the budget data of Union and state/region governments in user-friendly visual formats (below is a graph showing budget income for agriculture and irrigation, for example).
Targeting the media community, the launch event drew 20 representatives from local media organizations who were eager to use the dashboard as a source of their future news and analysis. Prior to the media launch, OMI also presented the budget dashboard to the Ministry of Planning and Finance on July 11. The Ministry immediately recognized the dashboard’s usefulness and committed its support of the effort, and was enthusiastic about the prospect of having a medium to communicate financial information outside of government.
The idea for the dashboard originated with a research report on State and Region Public Finances in Myanmar jointly produced by The Asia Foundation and the Centre for Economic and Social Development in September 2015, which collected and analyzed fiscal year 2013-2014 budget data of all 14 state/region governments. The dissemination of the report to stakeholders inside and outside of the government revealed the need for such budget information to also be made available to the wider public, members of Parliament, and government officials.
The dashboard currently contains FY 2016/2017 budget data for the Union government and selected state/region governments and FY2013/2014 state/region budget data. OMI is steadily updating the data for previous fiscal years as these are made available to the current set of state/region government officials.
Understandably, much work is still needed to make the dashboard more comprehensive so that it is an effective tool to foster transparency, accountability, and citizen engagement. For one, there is a need to complete the state/region government data, add more years into the data set to enable more meaningful analysis, and to be more prudent in fact checking the data to maintain the integrity of the dashboard. There is also a critical need to promote the utility of the dashboard to state/region governments to assist in their decision-making, which would hopefully encourage them to share more of their more recent budget data for the portal. It is also important to increase the visibility of the dashboard among citizens so that it becomes a platform through which they can participate and have oversight over the government’s budgetary decisions for the first time.
The NLD-led government has clearly made establishing a more transparent public financial management system and culture a priority. But overcoming the decades-old practice of restricting access to government information remains a significant challenge. However, the commitment from civil society, private sector, and the international community to support necessary reforms is stronger than ever, and new tools such as this that encourage the public to take advantage of access to information will only help support the government to succeed in its promise.
OMI’s Budget explorer was developed by Ewan Keith, Loren Velasquez and Giles Dickenson-Jones with the help of Statistics Without Borders.
Bing Bonoan is a program manager for The Asia Foundation in Myanmar. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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