Destination Democracy via Technology: BudgIT as a case-study
To preserve the dignity of democracy, as well as the associated freedom of thought and socio-economic development it guarantees citizens, access to information is critical. Economists argue that information asymmetry is a key feature of market failure; a scenario where one party possesses a larger cache of information than others. Such unfair advantages lead to dysfunction, maintaining and growing greed, resulting in a devastating collapse of any working systems. The dynamics are the same in the sphere of ideas and actions that constitute a democracy. Information asymmetry and its devious manipulation were the primary catalysts behind the last global economic recession which rattled industrialised nations, with colossal job losses and a bursting of housing bubbles that finally pushed banks to the brink. The resulting liquidity crisis relentlessly demolished established behemoths, particularly Lehman Brothers, a 158-year-old institution.
The elements that destroy markets and bring countries to their knees decades after – gross information asymmetry, weak institutions and greed – are equally manifest within the corridors of democracy. To ensure citizens are kept in the dark is to make information surrounding the use of public resources accessible to a privileged few. Our work at BudgIT across several African countries shows overwhelmingly that access to information on budgets, contracts and accrued revenue are the first things concealed from the public by the political elite. The immediate consequences are the creation and continuation of an uninformed electorate. The lasting results are the destruction of any social contract, allowing corruption to thrive on an industrial scale.
This has been the story of Nigeria in particular, where its citizens remain unable to match the volume of resources from oil and taxes to the country’s poor socio-economic indicators. With a population of 180 million, Nigeria has over 100 million poor people, according to its National Bureau of Statistics. Research by BudgIT shows that, in the last 55 years, Nigeria has earned at least $700bn in oil revenue; an amount that should ordinarily have leapfrogged her developmental indices. A dearth of information enabled the frittering away of significant revenues from oil and taxes, in plain sight of the people, while visionary and honest leadership were abandoned for wheeling and dealing with the national purse.
The challenge of transparency is illustrated by the fact that, even when technology states the facts and figures irrevocably, government officials (who are the source of information) often exhibit ignorance of a comprehension of the full picture painted by their actions within the ambit of public expenditure.
Technology remains the surest way to combat deficiencies in Nigeria’s democratic process. This is because it is the most impartial tool there is; an authoritative voice that curates, analyses and translates policy actions into black and white, failure or success. Specifically, this lone voice is the best antidote to the vestiges of military rule that perpetuate the brazen opacity on the management of public funds. Though Nigerian is now in its longest round of democracy since 1999, the spirit of the military regime, which permitted leaders to not deign to communicate with the people, is very much alive and prevalent.
A glaring example is that Nigeria’s central government publishes the budget with full details, yet has always refused to disclose its contracting process and the beneficial owners of awarded contracts. This has provided an opportunity for a tiny elite to corner state resources, lining their pockets, and confidently delivering sub-par public services. The extent of Nigeria’s vulnerability to oil (which sustains a rentier system beneficial only to the corrupt) was more or less revealed only when the economy tipped into recession, as oil prices hovered below $50 per barrel. Nothing in the books or in the public domain prepared Nigeria for this fall out.
These are the challenging parameters within which BudgIT operates, and where we put technology to use. The Nigerian budget remains a thick document with dismal performance, especially in the area of capital projects implementation. With still significant earnings from oil and rising non-¬oil revenue, we conceptualised and rolled out Tracka, an online platform that allows individuals to monitor public projects within their communities. Tracking officers also visit project sites and interview residents to ascertain the progress, or otherwise, of developmental projects as earmarked in the budget. Tech tools have enabled us to scour the budget and, melded with boots on the ground, curate the status of projects. We have cases where projects were never started, many abandoned and several more where the responsible government officials were unaware of the projects’ existence. Collating all this information online has ensured the people and their governments at local and federal level can see what is happening, in real time.
Furthermore, public data literacy is a core challenge in Nigeria, as most citizens are automatically excluded from public finance discussions, based on their literacy status or language barriers. A serial abdication of government responsibilities, difficulty in reading the budget and non-performance of the budget have increased the lack of interest among citizens. This has weakened citizens’ ability to access/retain empirical and independent information, the bases to demanding accountability or provision of basic infrastructure in their neighbourhoods. We continue to mitigate this challenge by using technology to facilitate seamless collaborations with local civil society organizations (CSOs) in the area of extensive training on budget comprehension. Augmented with printed graphics in local languages and town-hall meetings, BudgIT has successfully achieved the distribution of over 150,000 copies of simplified budget documents in 16 states, with Tracka directly leading to the completion of over 80 community projects.
A veritable example is Kaduna, which remains Nigeria’s first and only state to pioneer an open budget system at sub-national level, in partnership with BudgIT.
BudgIT is founded on the premise that if citizens achieve access to quality information and use this to articulate their unique wishes for effective service delivery and optimised use of public resources, then Nigeria will leapfrog into a more inclusive, prosperous country. Through rigorous mining of mostly unstructured data, we use digital and offline media including infographics, interactive applications, apps, SMS, print and other technology tools to reach out to citizens, tangibly deepening social awareness of budgetary issues and reshaping the conventional use of civic technology in Nigeria. Also, our work in elevating the clout of civil society has led to the creation of the Open Alliance, a cluster of CSOs working towards the implementation of the Open Government Partnership.
We have reached over 1.7 million Nigerians, conducting and disseminating research/analyses on local, sub-national and national budgets, whilst enhancing engagement between citizens, the private sector and governments alike. BudgIT has supported over 15 public institutions, including the National Assembly’s Budget and Research Office, with programmes that facilitate adherence to global standards of transparency and accountability.
BudgIT’s Twitter stream represents the first level of engagement on our creative presentation of the budget and, with more than 70,000 followers, it is a hive of daily commentary. This stimulates informed debate, amplifies citizens’ voices and ultimately increases accountability in government. Currently, our sphere of influence online is witnessing sustained growth, mainly from the social-urban youth demographic. We have morphed into the largest independent repository of government data in Nigeria – BudgIT’s website has over 1,400,000 unique visitors, while we have also processed in excess of 27,000 data requests from local and foreign users within policy, private sector, economic, non-profit and academic circles.
The rise of civic-tech movements worldwide is providing new insights into citizen behaviour, with the potential to build more efficient public service systems. A recent study by BudgIT showed that people in rural areas are more enthusiastic in taking action, upon access to budgetary information that is targeted to, and/or aware of their geographic location and social status. We are also seeing that our work will require civic-tech tools with a laser focus on health, agriculture, education and security. Therefore, a myriad of opportunities to create green shoots in Nigeria exist, given the civic-tech industry is valued at over $50m. Be that as it may, what is painfully obvious is a dearth of data and poor seed funding approaches to support the new ideas that will rapidly advance civic engagement in Africa’s most populous nation.
As new innovative tools such as OroData, FollowTheMoney and Budeshi continue charting a new trail towards changing Nigeria’s civic culture and democratic discourse, we are also learning that technology is, in essence, just a tool. Nigeria will need to match these technologies with a systemic approach towards accountability which allows – and forces – public institutions to engage with and respond to citizens and CSOs. For instance, pervasive impunity has led to situations where there is a blatant disregard for the Freedom of Information Act 2011, despite its enactment. To initiate and sustain the use of technology for democracy in Nigeria, a culture of transparency that results in the proliferation of information that is comprehensive, timely, accurate and usable must take hold. This must be backed by leaders who are tangibly aware they are obligated to routine discourse on (and disclosure of) public resources, in line with the constitutional rights bestowed on citizens in any self-respecting democracy.