Online Availability of Fiscal Information: How do States Fare?
Shuchita Rawal and Divya Chirayath
Transparency in budgets at all levels of governance is crucial for ensuring a healthy public finance management (PFM) system. It strengthens the accountability ecosystem around budgets and helps in formulating better policy decisions at various tiers of government. Availability and accessibility of fiscal information help facilitate public engagement with budgetary processes leading to meaningful public discourse around PFM issues. Recognising this, the Fifteenth Finance Commission also recommended making budget documents available in the public domain both offline and online, so that citizens have access to such data.
Need for budget transparency at the level of states
In India, budgets are made at three levels, viz. Union, States, and Local Governments. Transparency in budgets at all three levels of governance is equally important for the smooth functioning of the system, optimum utilisation of resources, and effective implementation of planned interventions (including schemes and programmes). Since governments at the sub-national levels (i.e., States and below) are increasingly being held responsible for fund utilisation and programme implementation in various sectors, transparency in budgets at these levels is of utmost importance.
Timely online availability of budget documents and data in an accessible and easy-to-comprehend manner is the foremost criterion to ensure transparency in budgets. Moreover, the availability of fiscal data at sub-national levels in a disaggregated form enables citizens to hold the government accountable for the services it provides.
As of today, all Indian states have started publishing their budget documents online. However, different state governments follow different practices for developing and publishing budget information/documents online. Budgets published by the state governments bring forth nuances of allocations and expenditures which are also relevant at the district level because a significant amount of funds flow into districts from state governments.
Given this context, we present a brief assessment of the online availability of fiscal information at the level of states along with a few recommendations for improvement, which will, in turn, lead to greater citizenry engagement in the fiscal governance discourse.
Initiatives on availability of budgetary information
Various initiatives have been undertaken by the Government of India (GoI) to promote e-governance (including the availability of budgetary information) along the entire spectrum of governance.
As defined by opendefition.org, “Open data and content can be freely used, modified, and shared by anyone for any purpose”.
One such initiative is the National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy (NDSAP) published in March 2012. The focus of NDSAP is to ensure proactive disclosure of government-owned “non-strategic data in public domain” and “empowering the citizens to secure access to information under the control of public authority leading to the transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority”¹. It is also called as India’s ‘Open Data’ policy. Budgets form an integral part of the shareable data listed under NDSAP. The implementation guidelines of this policy specify the standards for publishing budgets online.
Further in 2015, GoI launched the ‘Digital India’ programme with a vision to transform India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy. It is centered on three key vision areas which promote ‘Digital Empowerment of Citizens’. With a focus to make government documents accessible to citizens anytime, anywhere, it emphasises making citizen-related documents available electronically in a standard format and making them accessible to citizens through web portals and mobile applications.
Universally accessible digital resources, availability of digital resources / services in Indian languages, collaborative digital platforms for participative governance etc. are among the key areas covered in the programme.
Snapshot of the state budget documents published online
Based on the principles outlined in the NDSAP and the Digital India programme, we have identified seven key parameters to assess the online availability of budget data of state governments². The assessment below takes into consideration the availability of the budgetary information/documents published on the web portals/websites developed and maintained by State Governments. It provides a snapshot of how the states fare in terms of the following indicators:
(1) Availability of data and documents: It implies making relevant budget data and documents available in the public domain (through online mediums) in the appropriate formats. Currently, all the states web-publish their budget data and documents on online portals (through state finance departments’ web portals and websites). However, not all the relevant budget documents and data are made available in one place or on designated web portals. For instance, documents like the Annual Activity Reports of the administrative departments, Finance Commission Reports, etc. are not available on the web portals of the State finance department of several States.
(2) Accessibility and Comprehensibility: It implies publishing fiscal information in machine-readable formats such as Open Document Formats for Spreadsheets (ODS), Comma Separated Values (CSV), or Excel (XLS, XLSX), and HTML for helping the users to reuse the data. At present, Odisha is the only State that publishes the budget data online in Excel format (Sikkim used to do it till FY 2020–21).
(3) Readability: It implies the publication of fiscal information including budget documents in at least bilingual forms (vernacular language as well as English/Hindi). States, namely Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, and Uttarakhand publish their budget documents (at least some if not all) in more than one language.
(4) Usability: It implies that the fiscal information must be presented in a disaggregated form, both for vulnerable sections of the society such as gender, children, persons with disabilities, minorities, etc., and social and economic sectors, such as agriculture, nutrition, climate, etc. to help the users understand the States’ budgetary priorities towards these issues/ sectors. Many States present special budget statements focussing on different sections of society as well as sectoral statements. The table below provides the information in this regard:
(5) Completeness: It implies that complete fiscal information / data must be made available in the public domain and it should be supplemented with metadata that describes and explains the variables in the raw data, along with formulas and explanations for how derived data is estimated. No State web portals provide any metadata, descriptions, or guides to help understand the data they provide for the users.
(6) Timeliness: It implies that data must be published on a real-time basis. To facilitate long-term analysis and year-wise comparisons, it is recommended that fiscal data for at least previous 10 years should be made available online. Most States publish their State Budget documents online on the same day the budget is presented. States for which the budget data is not available online for 10 years or more include Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir, Manipur, and Telangana.
(7) Relevance: It implies that publication of budgetary information should be done using charts, tables, figures, and other visualisations that help demystify complex fiscal data. Along with this, disaggregated data should be presented in the budget documents / papers / reports to facilitate debate and discussion among various stakeholders and the public at large. Many States like Rajasthan, Punjab, Telangana, Jharkhand, Haryana, etc. provide such visualisations in different budget documents. States like Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Kerala, etc. have developed dedicated dashboards / portals to display budget information using visualisations.
From the assessment exercise, it is clearly evident that despite having an Open Data Policy in existence for the past ten years, only one State publishes budget documents in Excel format. Similarly, states adopt varied approaches to making budget data relevant- while some states provide charts and visualisations in different documents like Budget at a Glance, Budget Briefs, or Budget Summary, some others have dedicated portals for Budget Data Analytics. Evidently, there is a long way to go to achieve fiscal transparency at sub-national levels, and making data available online in standardised formats is just the first step towards it.
What can Governments do?
(1) Orientation of Government Officials: Government officials from various departments must be thoroughly oriented on the meaning and need of open fiscal data. Training sessions on open data formats, conversion of data to open data formats, metadata, and other technical aspects must be conducted periodically.
(2) Learning from Best Practices: Some States perform better than others in terms of online publishing of fiscal information. These can help other States through consultations and workshops that highlight the challenges and learnings from their own experiences.
(3) De-jargonizing Budget data: Making data available is a necessary but insufficient condition to promote public engagement. If the available data is loaded with jargons and technical concepts, it can deter citizens from engaging with this data. It is therefore important to publish budget documents that provide guides or explanatory documents to deconstruct both technical terminology and data. It is worth noting that the Government of Tamil Nadu publishes one such document, titled Citizen’s Guide to Budget, which helps citizens understand the various aspects of the State’s Budget through visual representations and graphics.
(4) Partnering with Civil Society Organisations: Civil Society Organisations can play an important role in partnering with Governments to enhance fiscal transparency. For instance, one such initiative is Open Budgets India (OBI) — An Open Data Portal on Budgets in India³. It provides budget documents for all States, for various years. The Government of Assam (GoA) has been providing its budget data in excel format to OBI to present analytics and visualisations that increase the usability and relevance of its budget data. This engagement has also facilitated the publishing of budget data of GoA in machine-readable formats along with metadata on the OBI portal through Assam Budget Explorers. More states should explore the possibility of utilising civil society expertise through collaborative partnerships.
The need and importance of transparent budgets only increase as we go down from national to sub-national levels. The ease with which citizens can access fiscal data at their State and district levels is an important determinant of their ability to demand accountability in public spending. While some efforts have been made by State Governments towards the provision of fiscal data in the public domain, it remains to be seen how States improve the ‘openness’ of this data.
Authors acknowledge the inputs and insights shared by Dr. Nilachala Acharya and Dr. Mitali Gupta (CBGA). Authors work with Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA), New Delhi. Views expressed are of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of CBGA.
Citations and Footnotes
- For further reference: https://dst.gov.in/national-data-sharing-and-accessibility-policy-0
- It is crucial that relevant budgetary information should be made available timely in public domain (on both offline and online mediums) in appropriate formats. However, this piece is assessing the status of availability of these on online mediums only.
- OBI is a comprehensive and user-friendly open data portal that facilitates free, easy and timely access to relevant data on government budgets in India. It can be accessed here: https://www.openbudgetsindia.org/.