Online Click-Through Budgets: An Effective Information Tool on the Current State of Public Budgets

When the minister of finance of the Czech Republic announced at the end of 2011 that the Ministry of Finance website was offering citizens the opportunity to review the current state budget in detail, it was a breakthrough of sorts. Until then, public administrations and municipal authorities had never had the courage – barring a handful of exceptions – to make this information public. And all of a sudden, all obstacles had been removed. The data was being made available in a more or less accessible format; the technology to do this had been around for a long time. And an unexpected incentive came from above (the minister had playfully commented that nothing was stopping individual authorities from doing the same and that they would not incur any additional costs by making their budgets public).

Topic: eGovernment

  • Target audience: citizens
  • Scope: national
  • Status: implemented, in use

Policy Context

Everybody Wants Budgets on the Web

The launch of the “click-through budget” on the Ministry of Finance website marked the beginning of a trend currently visible in the Czech Republic. Even small villages now have their own click-through budgets, and the ones that don’t yet have one will definitely want to change that following the latest municipal elections in autumn 2014. However, it has come become apparent that the method used by the Ministry of Finance was relatively conservative and failed to make use of available technological advancements – the data is shown in tables, and the individual items can be clicked to access lower, more detailed records all the way to identifiable levels (such as “purchase of refreshments”). But there is much more that can be done with the data.

Description of the way to implement the initiative

First Budget Created by Non-Profits

Since around 2009, several non-profit organizations have been focusing on the area of open data. These organizations are funded by donations from private individuals and also by the Open Society Fund, the U.S. Embassy in Prague, and other entities. The first results of this work included an election calculator, a visualization of voting by members of the parliament following the elections in 2010, attendance by members of parliament at house sessions or during voting, the professional histories of politicians, maps of their relations, and other similar web applications.

The next project to emerge was the click-through budget application, which was put together using publicly available data, as a logical follow-up to the previously built tools. The application was aimed at the public, so that people would be able to find out, to a degree, about the division of revenue and expenditure in the state budget. When the Ministry of Finance published its simple application, these organizations had already had a lot of experience and many successes under their belts.

Technology solution

What Is This “Click-Through Budget” Anyway?

The term, click budget or click-through budget, does not have a clear definition. It is an instrument of state information policy, and it also serves civil society. In principle, it is a dynamic web application that loads and displays, on request, the revenue and expenditure of a selected entity based on a required categorization (accounting, time, etc.). It typically uses visual elements (charts) to make the presented information easier to review, but this is not the case in all implementations.

It needs to be emphasized that the click-through budget is an application targeted at the layperson (voters, citizens), and an incorrect interpretation of the returned values may lead to flawed conclusions. For example, it is necessary to understand budget consolidation (transfers between several accounts belonging to a single accounting unit, which result in incomes on one side and expenses on the other, but has no real impact on the overall budget) or balance (a positive balance is a surplus of income, and a negative balance is a surplus of expenses, but neither is good or bad, and neither is evidence of right or wrong actions on the part of an administration).

In addition to providing citizens with numbers, click-through budgets, as implemented by non-profit organizations, also strive to use the data for analyses from which various conclusions about the health of public finances can be derived. These applied uses include statistics about the spending habits of different administrations and comparisons of expenditure priorities based on chronological, geographical, or political criteria.

Technology choice: Standards-based technology, Mainly (or only) open standards, Open source software

Main results, benefits and impacts

Examples of Use

Rozpočet veřejně, o. s. (“Public Budgets”, a non-profit organization) uses data pertaining to the government-approved budget and its modifications provided by the Ministry of Finance. It also uses data about municipalities from different ministries and authorities (Ministry of Industry and Trade, Czech Statistical Office, and others). The organization offers curated datasets for download in various formats at http://www.rozpocetobce.cz/zdroje-dat and publishes municipality budgets (including historical data all the way back to 2000) based on areas and types of expenditures. There is also a tool for comparing the economic administrations of two municipalities.

The Open Society Fund offer support to civic activities that help to provide access to state-managed data. They also focus on supporting the publication of manuals on how to work with data. In cooperation with other non-profit organizations, they published brochures on data journalism (for publicists), opening data (for public administration employees), and various analyses based on open data. According the latest OSF report, the openness of the Czech public administration, as reflected by the Open Data Index 2014, is on the rise; the Czech Republic was placed 12th (the same as Sweden).

The Otakar Motejl Fund is managed by the Open Society Fund, and it provides funding for specific projects that use open data to improve the standard of living in the Czech Republic. In the past, it supported, for example, applications for identifying and analysing corruption cases, election calculators, better export of data from the State Cash Register, a system for evaluating transparency in regions, the Otevřete.cz organization, which assesses the openness of authorities, a methodological manual for introducing open-source software in public administration, and many other projects.

Data Sources for Budgets

From the above it is clear that the sources of data for web applications (primarily click-through budgets) are the responsibility of the individual authorities, who have been unable to deal with them beyond the scope of their regular agendas, or have not even tried. From the moment that the Ministry of Finance decided to lead by example, authorities have started to open their data, provide the professional public with access to the necessary databases, and present these databases using their own resources. However, it is well known that the databases are fragmented, full of errors, and require manual work and cross-checking with other sources.

The above-mentioned non-profit organizations have been able to put their know-how to good use and very quickly made use of the data that the individual authorities started to provide. This gave rise to many new applications that focus not only on the state budget but also, and more importantly, on the budgets of individual authorities, public institutions, towns, and municipalities.

In some cases, the data is made available in machine-readable, standards-compliant formats that can be easily parsed, imported into new applications, and efficiently worked with. This is usually the case with ministries or larger authorities. For example, the Ministry of Finance provides data from its databases in the XML format. On the other hand, small municipalities often rely on third parties to implement applications that can extract relevant data directly from their closed accounting systems.

The data has also found a use in private enterprises, which have created their own applications and started to offer them to the authorities for publishing on their websites. In this way, the authorities have, de facto, outsourced the creation of applications for their “own” data. This time, however, it seems that it was an efficient solution – unlike a number of other cases. Every municipality can now have its own click-through budget, and the inhabitants of each town can easily investigate how their representatives administer the budget (even in cases where a municipality has no click-through budget of its own, there are still tools provided by non-profit organizations).

Return on investment

Examples of Click-Through Budgets

Citizens can use click-through budgets from multiple sources as mentioned above: either prepared by non-profit organizations or on the website of a particular institution or municipality. The following are a few examples.

Nové Město na Moravě, Vysočina Region

http://rozpocet.nmnm.cz/cz/ – 10 000 inhabitants, winner of several competitions for its openness with regard to citizens; uses and promotes open-source software.

Liberec Region

http://rozpocet.kraj-lbc.cz – 439 000 inhabitants, Northern Bohemia.

Statutory town of Olomouc

http://rozpocet.olomouc.eu – 100 000 inhabitants, the 5th largest town in the Czech Republic, central Moravia.

Hradec Králové

http://www.mmhk.cz/rozpocet/ – 93 000 inhabitants, Eastern Bohemia.

Uherský Brod

http://rozpocet.ub.cz/cz/ – 53 000 inhabitants, south-east Moravia.

Grygov

http://www.grygov.cz/grygov/rozklikavaci-rozpocet/ – 1400 inhabitants, a village near Olomouc, uses a lot of open-source software.

Supreme Audit Office

http://www.nku.cz/scripts/rozpocet/default.asp – an independent authority that performs audits of the way state property is administered, and the state budget is followed.

Ministry of Industry and Trade

http://www.mpo.cz/rozpocet-mpo/ – very limited and concise application.

Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs

http://www.mpsv.cz/cs/14217 – a concise but functional application that provides information about the structure of expenditure on state social policies.

BudováníStátu.cz (Building the State)

http://budovanistatu.cz – one of the above-mentioned non-profit organizations with a focus on interpreting open data. The entire project is based on open-source software (hosted on the GitHub collaboration site), which utilises data provided in XML format by the Ministry of Finance.

Lessons learnt

Implementation Impact

Access to open data brings a higher level of public control. The use of data-mining techniques can reveal new perspectives and contexts that the state (or state authorities) had not been looking for or even considered. On a number of occasions, representatives of the state administration have expressed their concern about click-through budgets (“it will increase our administrative load”) or fought against them (“there is a risk of lay interpretation and subsequent witch-hunts”). However, we are not aware of any cases in which the publication of click-through budgets would constitute problems or complications for the authorities. It is fair to say that small revolution has taken place – authorities now publish most of the information about their budgets, which was unthinkable only a few years ago. Citizens, voters, and tax payers should be happy about this.

Project Size and Implementation

Type of initiative: IT infrastructures and products

Overall implementation approach: Partnerships between administrations and the private sector

Technology choice: Standards-based technology

Funding source: Public funding, other funding sources

Project size: unknown

Scope: Local (city or municipality), National

Categorisation

Type of document
General case study

Attachment

Documentation
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