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Working on open spending data in constrained environments

Using a variety of methods and joined up data to gather information to make government budgets and expenditure more accessible and accountable.

Details

Why Open Spending and Social Audit?

Open Spending data in government budgets and spending are difficult to find in open data format for all three levels of Malaysian government; federal, state and municipality. Since Malaysia ranked at #112 on 2015 from #98 on 2014, results from the international evaluation platform of open data standard such as Global Open Data Index reflects poorly on the state of readiness of government for providing online and offline services in this country. How do we fix this? We publish budgets and expenditures as open data on Open Spending platform for re-use and easy to access visualisations by the public. At the same time, we will use social audit as a supporting tool for disenfranchised communities in mapping issues against government budgets to hold government accountable for budget priorities and expenditures, and possibly participate in budgeting decision making process. To test these proposed solutions, we start a pilot project in Kota Damansara public housing, which also locally known as Projek Perumahan Rakyat (PPR) Kota Damansara.

Why Projek Perumahan Rakyat Kota Damansara?

Public housing in Selangor, particularly in Kota Damansara is a good case study to capture data at multiple levels while tying with community development and rights-based issues such as gender-based violence, vandalism, crime, urban poverty, healthcare, accessibility, security and safety.

Overview of the pilot project

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Where do we start?

Freedom of Information Enactment (FOIE) requests

We start with making Freedom of Information Enactment (FOIE) requests for budgets and other informations that are not publicly available in the public domain. Few examples of requests made:

  1. Contact Information Officers, assistants and State Information Board Members

  2. Selangor State Government budgets 2015 & 2016 from Perbendaharaan Negeri Selangor (Bahagian Khidmat Pengurusan)

  3. Infrastructure maintenance contracts/reports from Majlis Perbandaran Petaling Jaya

  4. Financial statement reports on welfare support/distribution from Jabatan Kebajikan Masyarakat Negeri Selangor

  5. Financial reporting of zakat collection and distribution to needy families living in PPR flats in Selangor from Lembaga Zakat Selangor

  6. PPR flats Selangor maintenance report from Perumahan & Hartanah Selangor Sdn Bhd

When making FOIE requests, we have to play by the rules. There is a formal process of filing each requests that we must comply according to the FOIE law. Brief process explained are as follows:

  1. Filling up the Application of Access to Information

  2. Attach formal letter just in case if the receiver requires extra details regarding the request

  3. If the receiver is unable to provide former letter of acceptance nor receipt, photocopy the application form along with timestamp to track the FOIE response period

Social Audit

Without access to expenditure and contracts, structured evidence gathering methods by the communities are needed to hold government expenditure accountable. Social audits are mechanisms in which users collect evidence and publicly audit as a community the provision of services by government.  One of the most essential part of social audit is connecting and empowering disenfranchised communities by providing them an avenue to hold government accountable.  Here, we start our social audit work with having several meetings with communities from PPR Kota Damasara to listen to their issues and map these issues to a broader perspective while tying Open Data and Human Rights together. Few examples of issues shared from the meeting we had are as follows:

  1. Frequent broken lifts

  2. Dirty water from the main water tank

  3. OKU families lives higher floors such as 1 family in unit A-9-9

  4. Elderly lives higher floors such as 1 family in unit A-8-2

  5. Limited parking space - abandoned cars and motorcycles are taking up the parking space

  6. Broken public phones

  7. Leaking sewage pipes

  8. No proper security guards station

  9. Abandoned garbage

  10. High rent charged to residents who visibly viewed as ‘rich’ and to residents who receive the most zakat (tithes) distribution

These community members were then engaged to help collect evidence by taking photos and reporting local governance issues. In addition community members with partnership of Friends of Kota Damasara civil society organization, did detailed house to house poverty surveys to gather socio-economic indicators that will help with future participatory budgeting sessions.

Open Data for Open Spending

An open data project is not an open data project without having data published as open data. For every FOIE requests that we have made, especially budgets, we must convert these budgets into open data format based on the international open data standard. Brief introduction of open data can be found here. In addition, budget IDs plays a very important role because initially, budgets are presented to policy background people to take note of each changes/improvements made according to each departments/ministries budgets lines.

Open Data for Representatives and Government Departments

Participatory budgeting and better access to decision makers also requires knowledge of which government departments, Local Councillors and elected state representatives are responsible for the respective budget and policy decisions. This information is also made available as open data for use as joined up data, to match for government department head, government department contacts with respective budgets. This data is stored with complimentary project of Popit Database and API, which provides a standard way to store and access people and government organizations with the Popolo open government data standard. Civic technology solutions related to government departments such as open spending can use this data to help improve  accountability as well as improving access to decision makers by making it easier to understand who is responsible and how to contact them. This database can also be reused in a variety of ways such as matching high level public officials with contract data to automatically check for conflict of interest.

 

Joined Up Data

 

So, what’s next?

Mapping social audit reports against budgets

One of previous open data project done in Sinar Project is the AduanKu issue reporting platform. In this pilot project, we are treating AduanKu as part of the issue reporting mechanism in filling the gap between decision makers and disenfranchised communities. In addition, there are several on site visits will conducted to identify issues faced by residents of PPR Kota Damansara and validate reported budgets & spending as open data. Then, map these issues against budgets, policies, relevant departments/agencies, SDG Goals, UN HR Instruments, UN Habitat and UNHRP. This mapping exercise will provide leads for the on ground social audit via the urban poverty survey of socio-economic indicators in Kota Damansara public housing in the aspect of community development and right-based issues.

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