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CASE STUDY ON AN OGP PROJECT TO IMPROVE THE PUBLICITY OF FISCAL DATA IN HUNGARY

Location

In recent years the Prime Minister of Hungary, Orbán Viktor, has led the Fidesz party to institute a series of restrictions on the civil liberties of the Hungarian people, while civil society organizations point to increasing corruption in the government as a whole. A large number of these complaints are due to a lack of transparency in the government.  Since joining the Open Government Partnership (OGP) in 2012,due in part to pressure from civil society organizations, the Hungarian government has committed to and executed numerous projects to increase transparency and government accountability. The planning for these projects included collaboration between government officials and civil society organizations. One such project was an effort to increase the publicity of fiscal data, which resulted in the Hungarian State Treasury publishing the central government’s budget on an online database, in order to make this fiscal information more accessible to the public. Though the database includes some graphs and charts, its publication was not publicized by the government, nor is it a format that makes for easy comparison with past budget figures. Thus, though the government completed its goal to increase publicity of fiscal data, as outlined in their 2012-2014 Open Government Partnership Action Plan, they did not succeed in creating a database that meets the standard set forth by the civil action societies involved in the early stages of this project.

            Lessons Learned:

  • Because there were few checks on the actions of the government, and the partnership with the OGP was voluntary, there was little incentive for the government to comply with all of the recommendations given by civil society organizations
  • The vague goals outlined in the OGP Action Plan meant government officials could ‘complete’ their projects by improving transparency by the absolute minimum margin
  • In order to increase accessibility of fiscal data by the general public in a way that matters in the ‘big picture’ there needs to be more concrete goals for the publication of fiscal data, as well as better publicity of the information that is available  

Main Report

1. Backgroundfor the OGP Publicity of Fiscal Data Project

Hungary became a participant of the Open Government Partnership in 2012, and has since then created and carried out action plans to make the government more transparent and responsive to the Hungarian population. These actions plans covered a variety of programs and specific projects, each working to address some part of the larger issue of corruption within the Hungarian government. Complaints of corruption have increased over the past six years, since the Fidesz party came into power in 2010, and Prime Minister Orbán Viktor has lead the party (which has a two-thirds majority in Parliament) to institute restrictions on the civil liberties of Hungarian citizens.

            In response to these restrictions, members of Hungary’s civil liberties society have called on international actors to pressure the Hungarian government to recognize and curb the undermining of civil liberties and freedoms. These organizations have included the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and Transparency International Hungary, which called on the Open Government Partnership (OGP) to “launch a thorough investigation into the situation in Hungary, with a special attention to the deterioration of the space for civil society.”[1] According to the HCLU, “the rule of law, democracy, pluralism, human rights and the role of independent institutions as checks and balances on political power have been systematically undermined in Hungary” which has included limitations on the public’s access to information.[2] The HCLU called the limitations on access to information a barrier that “hinders civil society in fulfilling its watchdog role.”[3] Transparency International Hungary also saw the restrictions on public access to information as a severe infringement on the rights of Hungarian citizens.[4]

            In order to address this issue, one of the goals in the first OGP action plan for Hungary was to publish the draft central budget as well as the implemented budget, and to present this data “through figures and charts” so that it is accessible to and understandable by the general public.[5]The project was carried out between September 2013 and June 2014.[6]Though this is a small step towards eliminating corruptions within the government, it is a necessary step to make the decisions and actions of the government more transparent and accountable.

2. Actors involved with the OGP project in Hungary

            There were several significant actors involved in this project, both internationally and locally. Firstly, the Open Government Partnership was the organization with which the Hungarian national government worked to develop this action plan, and the specific projects within it. It should be noted that the relationship between the OGP and the government is a voluntary one, and that the OGP can only “secure commitments from the governments [it works with] to their citizenry to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.”[7] Therefore the burden to complete any project outlined within the action plan falls upon the participating government itself. Hungary began officially participating in the OGP in 2012, and after the 2014 elections, the Ministry of Interior was assigned with the implementation of OGP projects.[8]In order to bring about change, the OGP creates opportunities for dialogue and collaboration between government agencies, civil society organizations and the private sector.[9] Since it joined in 2012, Hungary developed an initial action plan that spanned a two-year period, within which the budget project was included.

            The funding for the projects comes from both national and EU funds, but the money itself is managed and allocated by the Ministry of Public Administration and Justice, a branch of the Hungarian government. The sum of the funds allocated for these projects was EUR 50,000 and was “earmarked for OGP action plan implementation.”[10]The development of the action plan itself is done through consultation with the OGP, and “overall, Hungary developed the OGP plan in a somewhat participatory way.”[11] The Ministry of Public Administration and Justice, with support from the Ministry for National Economy and the Hungarian State Treasury were the lead institutions for the budget project, detailed within the action plan.[12]

            Civil society organizations were also involved, and these organizations pushed for this type of project to be pursued in the first place, and placed pressure on external organization to work with the Hungarian government on such a project. As mentioned previously, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union was one such organization, as was Transparency International Hungary, Sunlight International and K-Monitor, all of which are primarily focused on increasing government transparency and accountability.[13] These organizations, along with other civil society organizations, were involved in the drafting of the action plan, and were invited to join a Civil Consultation Forum (CCF)[14]These “in-person consultations” provided the opportunity to meet with government officials, though there were “a number of political conflicts” between participants due to “allegations of corruption and closing of civic space for civil society organizations.”[15] Two major scandals that occurred during the planning processes, the “new license regime for selling tobacco projects” and a restrictive amendment on the Act on Freedom of Information, caused several active civil society organizations to leave the consultation forum out of protest.[16]

The Budapest Institute for Policy Analysis, in partnership with the Independent Reporting Mechanism of the OGP, carried out the evaluation of the projects detailed in the action plan, including the budget project reviewed here.

3. What has been done to achieve the goals set forth in the OGP action plan, and with what results

            The specific task within the larger action plan was the improvement of the publicity of fiscal data. In order to accomplish this goal, the Hungarian government published the central government’s budget, including proposed expenditure and final figures for the budget year, through an electronic database. The database contains a few charts and graphs, but these are simple representations of the overall budget. However, they might help convey the big picture of the budget data. This budget data was published on the Hungarian State Treasury website in 2014, and is downloadable from that website in an XLS format.

            Though budget bills and acts have been made available in the past, there have been few documents published by the government with unbiased, correct and easy to understand information on up-to-date budget items. Budget bills and acts are usually difficult to understand by the average citizen, “due to the legislative jargon and to the complicated classification of expenditures.”[17] In this regard, the published budget information took a new approach by breaking down the expenditures by category and policy area, instead of by the spending agency or institution.[18] Organizing the budget information by spending category instead of institution makes it more user-friendly to read, and makes it clearer what the money was actually spent on.

            However, it must be noted that though the project was considered completed by the OGP, there are still many issues with the way the budget information was organized and published. Though the approach taken by the OGP was unique in that it “facilitated the active participation of third-party, nongovernmental stakeholders” there were still many shortcomings in the final product of the project.[19]For one, the breakdown of the budget is not fully compatible with the official Eurostat Classification of the Functions of Government (COFOG). This means that the expenditure data “cannot be compared without background calculations with the budget data of other (benchmark) countries” nor can it easily be compared with expenditure data from different years within Hungary.[20] Secondly, the Hungarian government has “not communicated its achievement via any official channel” and there are also intermittent issues with the documents posted online.[21] This means that, though there was an important step taken towards transparency, the results of this project are less-than perfect and do not function in the most effective manner to inform citizens of the government’s expenditures. Though the OGP considers the goals of the project met, and has labeled the project completed, we should hesitate to say that the current presentation of the central budget effectively increases access to information and transparency.

4. What did we learn?

            Because the allocation of funds was directed from within the Hungarian government, there were few checks to ensure thatrecommendations from civil society organization were actually included in the project plan. This resulted in a plan that had somewhat vague goals for how the outcome of the project should look and function, and it showed in the final product. Though the Hungarian government technically achieved its goal to improve the publicity of fiscal data (i.e. it met the goals outlined in the OGP action plan for this project), it did not meet the vision of transparency recommended by civil society organizations.

            Thus, we learned that though increased transparency may be achieved on paper, that does not mean it will be achieve in practice. There are still numerous issues with the budget information published on the Hungarian State Treasury website, which were outlined in the previous section. The Hungarian government managed to increase transparency by the absolute minimum amount needed to ‘achieve’ its goal as outlined in the OGP action plan, which, in the larger picture, does little to increase accessibility of fiscal data by the genera public- especially considering the lack of publicity granted to this accomplishment. If the Hungarian government wishes to actually increase transparency, there need to be measures taken to ensure that the recommendations of civil society organizations are taken more seriously, and that future projects regarding fiscal data publicity are specific in how they plan to increase public access to information


[1]"HCLU Called OGP to Investigate the Situation in Hungary." HCLU Called OGP to Investigate the Situation in Hungary. Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, 9 July 2015. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. <http://tasz.hu/en/freedom-information/hclu-called-ogp-investigate-situat....

[2]"HCLU Called OGP to Investigate the Situation in Hungary." HCLU Called OGP to Investigate the Situation in Hungary. Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, 9 July 2015. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. <http://tasz.hu/en/freedom-information/hclu-called-ogp-investigate-situat....

[3]"HCLU Called OGP to Investigate the Situation in Hungary."

[4]"Az Információszabadság Minimuma." Transparency International Magyarország. Transparency International Magyarország, 2015. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. <http://transparency.hu/Az_informacioszabadsag_minimuma?bind_info=page&bi....

[5]"Open Government Partnership Independent Reporting Mechanism Progress Report: Hungary." Opengovpartnership.org. Ed. Petra Edina Reszketö. Open Government Partnership and the Budapest Institute for Policy Analysis, 2014. Web. 22 Nov. 2015. <http://www.opengovpartnership.org/sites/default/files/HU IRM Progress Report 2015 EN for public comment.pdf>.

[6] “Open Government Partnership Independent Reporting Mechanism Progress Report” pg. 24

[7] “Open Government Partnership Independent Reporting Mechanism Progress Report” pg. 9

[8] “Open Government Partnership Independent Reporting Mechanism Progress Report” pg. 9

[9] “Open Government Partnership Independent Reporting Mechanism Progress Report” pg. 9

[10] “Open Government Partnership Independent Reporting Mechanism Progress Report” pg. 10

[11] “Open Government Partnership Independent Reporting Mechanism Progress Report” pg. 2

[12] “Open Government Partnership Independent Reporting Mechanism Progress Report” pg. 24

[13]"HCLU Called OGP to Investigate the Situation in Hungary."

[14] “Open Government Partnership Independent Reporting Mechanism Progress Report” pg. 10

[15] “Open Government Partnership Independent Reporting Mechanism Progress Report” pg. 2

[16] “Open Government Partnership Independent Reporting Mechanism Progress Report” pg. 17

[17]“Open Government Partnership Independent Reporting Mechanism Progress Report” pg 24

[18] “Open Government Partnership Independent Reporting Mechanism Progress Report” pg. 25

[19] “Open Government Partnership Independent Reporting Mechanism Progress Report” pg. 12

[20] “Open Government Partnership Independent Reporting Mechanism Progress Report” pg. 26

[21]“Open Government Partnership Independent Reporting Mechanism Progress Report” pg. 25