Since 2011 when it was founded, Civic Tech firm, BudgIT has grown to a dependable source of data and information and has remained a civic organization that applies technology to intersect citizen engagement with institutional improvement, to facilitate societal change. A pioneer in the field of social advocacy melded with technology, BudgIT uses an array of tech tools to simplify the budget and matters of public spending for citizens, with the primary aim of raising the standard of transparency and accountability in government.
In this interview, Lead Partner for BudgIT, OLUSEUN ONIGBINDE, speaks to CHIDIEBERE NWANKWO on the company’s operations, government and the industry as a whole.
Tell us about BudgIT and how the Civic Tech Sector has fared in Nigeria
BudgIT is a Civic Organization that simplifies public budget and transforms the lives of citizens through service delivery monitor. BudgIT’s methodology is deploying refined data mining skillsets to creatively represent data and empower citizens to use the resulting information in demanding improved service delivery. Beyond budget access, BudgIT functions on the premise that budgets must work for the people.
BudgIT emerged from Co-Creation Hub (CCHub) through a Hackathon that was done. BudgIT is the premier social incubation lab in Nigeria. Then the whole idea was to use it to transform governance, use technology to transform governance. When the Hackathon was done, we came second. There were different ideas on how to track public projects, around neighbourhood watch, also around explaining the budget to the citizens. That was for me the evolution of Civic Tech, the kind of technology that dissects the interest of citizens and governments, and kind of creates a form of relationship towards improved outcomes. And we have held on as an organization that has been able to use technology – social media, digital technology, data mining and different forms of Applications to simplify the budget and also help the government to be more accountable to their citizens. Now we are even getting to see more evolution of Civic Tech. For example, now you have people who are interested in the justice sector, we have people who are interested in security, who are interested in food, in health, in education. And different circles are coming together to think out the best ideas that can simplify issues, that can smoothen the relationship between citizens and government. And it is a step forward in what we are doing.
Relying on donor funding, we have worked with 42 civil society organizations to revamp their digital outlook, policy analyses and report presentation formats, and are currently experimenting with Nigeria’s first Data Journalism platform. Our past and recent engagements in the public sector include partnerships with the National Assembly, the National Assembly Budget and Research Office, the Budget Office of the Federation and the Kaduna State Government.
On request, BudgIT has also provided support to the Nigerian Extractives Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI), the Ministry of Budget and Planning and the Lagos State Ministry of Budget and Planning. Simultaneously, BudgIT continues to influence the national agenda on public spending, with its policy papers covering government finance, sub-national viability, Open Government schemes, as well as the analyses of anti-corruption and transparency initiatives. As a member of the Civicus Alliance and Open Alliance, BudgIT is also leading the charge to ensure Nigeria’s membership of the global Open Government
BudgIT, which was began as an idea incubated by the Co-Creation Hub in Lagos, Nigeria now has additional offices in Sierra Leone, and Ghana.
After identifying social issues, what happens next?
What we do when it comes to the budget is that after the budget is published, we take every single line on the item and review it, so that we define the importance of this budget to the lives of the citizens, simplify that to the people; and we put government officials on the alert and use our own channels – social media, digital media, offline, we put them under pressure. We also involve citizens in the campaign. We have had some modest successes in this regard. This is because most times the budget has become a political tool between the executive and the legislature. So, its always difficult to even get the kind of progress that you want, especially when you want the National Assembly to adjust the budget in a way that benefits the people, but you see that everybody is just looking for their own personal gain. But I think it is part of our own crusade and our own campaign that the entire political system in Nigeria needs to be overhauled, and has to be undertoned by a new law. The same thing we are doing when it comes to law, one of our “incubatee” called Gavel is doing that. Gavel also does swop on justice.
The problem with Civic Tech is the patient capital that will allow you time before you guarantee success. You don’t control the factors of success.
What are some of the challenges in this sector?
The first challenge is the misconception of our work, being termed as opposition to the government. Unfortunately, this comes from citizens that you expect to be much more aware. So we understand that the baseline for our work, which is civic education, is grossly inefficient.
And we also believe that people don’t understand that in a democracy there is a form of relationship between the government of the state and the citizens of the state. We need to learn that we should set that baseline, that foundation; because people tend to misunderstand, thinking you are just a busy-body, just a rabble-rouser, or an interloper on issues that has to do with the budget.
The second challenge is the form in which data comes. Data comes in a very complex, difficult form. You have to go through a series of conversion. We still don’t have an open data culture in Nigeria, which allows the user to do quality visualization or analysis on the basis of that. So the quality of data and content are also our challenges.
Thirdly is the scale. We will want to be bigger, attracting partners, supporters, and donors that fit into the kind of goal that we have as an organization. So that is the real form of challenge that we have as BudgIT. But we have continued to find different narratives and smart approaches to overcome these challenges.
The one that may not be universal is the enthusiasm of government institutions themselves because Civic Tech exists within a democratic context. So, if you have a descriptive democracy, if you have a situation where public rights of citizens are being assaulted, you can’t have Civic Tech thrive there. If you have a system that understands that public resources have to be fully accounted for, public trust has to be preserved, you are bound to have the rise and growth of Civic Tech.
If we also have a data culture, where people can build things on top of a data culture, for example, at BudgIT, it was the budget office bringing the budget up that we were able to build under the layer, which is to simplify the budget.
So most of the time the challenges globally is that some countries have seen the boom of Civic Tech. Like the US and France, they have seen great progress when it comes to data culture, and very inclusive and an open space to exist.
Freedom of Information Act
The first thing about FoI Bill is that it is supposed to be your last weapon in the call for accountability. Public resources are for the public, the knowledge of that should be made known to the public. But when they are not proactively disclosed, then you go and use the FOI Act, because the FOI Act makes a strong case for proactive disclosure. In case there is no proactive disclosure, you go ahead and use the FOI Act to compel a public institution to make the disclosure.
It’s been mixed, just because there is no strong political will from the top in our fight against corruption. Freedom of information will have to be a critical weapon to that, and we have not seen that. It’s always been an evolution. The law itself does not have enough punitive measures for those who disobey it, it only says you can go to court. And you can understand how difficult and clumsy the Nigerian legal system is. For me, I think a lot needs to be reviewed when it comes to the FOI Act to be certain that the Act works for the people.
The second thing about the FOI Act is, how to know that there is proactive disclosure.
Civic Tech and what you are doing in information
The field for our work is wide; It’s a huge field. And that is where the challenge starts for us. We are supposed to ask people questions from citizens; we are supposed to make citizens hold the government accountable. For example, I don’t think we have reached out to about five percent (5%) of the Nigerian population. To make a case for Civic Education in this country, we have to really define them, we have to find multiple ways. And that is going to be about new technologies – radio, printed materials to reach out to the people, to understand rights and their responsibilities within the State, and to fully exercise that.
How much more transparency should we expect from the government?
The first challenge is that the whole anti-corruption fight of the federal government lacks proper conceptualization, so you have the government not actually fighting corruption the way it should; fighting corruption without an idea of what actually makes corruption happen. For corruption to happen, that means we have a deep and opaque system; systems that are not transparent. So anybody that wants to steal public money makes sure that the systems are very complex.
The second problem we have is that there is an abuse of discretion. People constantly think that the Minister or governor or anybody can take money out of the treasury without any form of accountability.
In a democracy, there are institutions. For example in Nigeria we have the Bureau of Public Procurement, we have the Auditor General of the federation, each MDA has internal audit systems, so all those institutions have failed. And when all those institutions fail, corruption thrives. So the administration should have sat down to look at those specifically because it is then you can stem corruption; Then you can now use reactives like the Police, the EFCC and the ICPC. So, for me, we have not even seen radical transparency as we want to see. Today, it is difficult to get actual spending data on projects. When you have the budget, the budget is projection, the actual spending is difficult.
The only silver lining is with NNPC where they publish these monthly operational and financial reports. It is a good step in the right direction for an institution that was famously noted as a conduit for the political class game.
What should FG do to save and grow Civic Tech?
When it comes to civic tech, there are a whole lot of areas where there is a need for radical movements, some radical transformation of processes. Look at the way we collect bulk data, individual data, citizen’s data. There is an opportunity there for Civic Tech. look at the way we have challenges around our justice system, there is an opportunity there; look at the FoI. Those things won’t take the spring, they won’t move at the pace they should if the government is not providing an approach if the government takes a reactionary standpoint. The government need to understand that these people are trying to transform society, and we are willing to partner with them, and we are willing to open up to them.
That is what is happening. When it looks like Civic Tech is not having an impact, it is because the government component itself is not transforming the way it should. So, for me, I think that the Government has to understand that it is an opportunity for job employment; BudgIT is employing at least 69 people. So if BudgIT as a single organization has employed about 69 people, what happens if we multiply it by 200 institutions, with different thematic reigns, just like education and health and they are bringing in startup thinking into the processes of government. So, the government can even come up and say, we have problems, we have challenges in this regard, how can technology help us, how can vibrant young minds help us? Those are things that can transform an environment by itself.
We now look at regulatory issues, registration of Civic Tech, how long does it take to register a non-profit organization in Nigeria? It is extremely cumbersome. We are also not immune to the challenges of doing business; we also pay taxes for staff.
The dependence on foreign donors is also not very good. If the government can create its own fund and say, this is a fund that will be managed by an independent body. It will not be out of place.
If the government continues with the same approach of, “this is reactionary”, “they are trying to bring us down”, they are not going to change anything that way.
We have had people from the National Orientation Agency (NOA) that visited to study what we do when it comes to public tracking. If we work together as partners, we can manage what we have, as government and as citizens.
Where do you source your funding?
Most of our funding comes from international donour organizations, and right now we are mainly funded by Gates Foundation and Media Networks. We also have donations from Mc Arthur Foundation and D Society. We also have a business unit in BudgIT that provides bespoke specialized services to clients like banks, multinationals. But it is not really the major fraction of our business. Our major work is non-profit, to transform the lives of citizens by properly educating them and simplifying public financial data and allow them to hold public officers to account
How easy is it for citizens to access your services?
You can access us online through our website, www.yourbudgit.com, we have a strong social media following, we have programmes on radio in Kaduna, in Niger, in Kano, and we are expanding to more states soon. We also have campaigned on TV with our partners, “Enough is Enough in Nigeria”. So we are accessible. And we also have our programme, “Tracker” which has presence in 24 States. We have officers who track public projects in 24 States. We have a very broad appeal.
The project tracking officers are paid every month and their work is to follow local communities to ensure that projects that are cited in their communities are properly delivered.
We also have “Fix our Oil”, where we have a strong interest in how to ensure there is a measure of efficiency in the extractive sector. Majority of the corruption in Nigeria come through the extractive sector.
When we think through everything, we look at not just citizens, we are looking at the media; that is why we have the BudgIT Media Fellowship. We look at the Civic Society, we work with open government partnership which has acquired over 100 NGOs. We are the ones leading in that front.
So these are different ways we have been able to make an impact in civil society, into citizens, into media, even into public institutions at large.