Uganda’s recent election ushers in a 30th year of power for President Yoweri Museveni forcing many young Ugandans’ to call for change. Election criticisms along with persistent inequality and corruption scores have shattered trust in the democratic system but there could be signs that political structures are changing. In 2014 the Ministry of Finance (MoF) launched Budget.go.ug, an open budget data website of national and local budgets and performance to promote transparency. Along with anti-corruption reforms towards the end of 2015, this shows a greater willingness to improve governance and promote access to information. Uganda currently leads in East Africa for open data, as ranked by the Open Budget Survey.

President Museveni’s National Ruling Party (NRM) made budget reforms soon after gaining power in an effort to reduce local gate-keeper’s power and fight corruption. For example, the 1992 Mid-Term Expenditure reforms led to newspapers regularly publishing national government releases and introducing processes for citizen participation in budget planning. The Budget portal builds on these reforms and has been endorsed by President Museveni. However, the NRM’s need to retain power along with pervasive educational inequality continues to undermine citizens’ participation and weakens any impact of attempts at greater transparency.

Opening up government budget data

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” Louis Brandais claimed when he famously celebrated the benefits of openness on governance structures to reduce corruption and immoral behavior (Other Peoples’ Money, 1914). Today much donor funding is driven by the UN’s recent call for a Data Revolution, which carries with it an edge of technological determinism. How are civil society groups in historical contexts of genocide and dictatorship making use of this powerful disinfectant?

With this question in mind I traveled to Uganda to interview civil groups, journalists and officials on how the Budget.go.ug website is being used. Ultimately, I found that while it appears that actions have been taken to open government spending up, these have largely been superficial and real impacts are yet to be seen. Overall knowledge of the budget portal is low; the African Centre for Media Excellence estimates only 30% of journalists are aware of it while even fewer are aware about Uganda’s Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. The lack of knowledge goes beyond civil society and into government structures as well. Few MPs know about their responsibility to open up data. Because of this, public debate continues to be dominated by hear-say, as one data-journalist explained in an interview about the uses of the new data, “We have a general problem with our people, this information is available, but still you find them [journalists] going on rumors.”

MoF newspaperprint
Ministry of Finance and Planning advert in Red Pepper, July 29, 2016. Photograph: Elma Jenkins

Research shows the most prominent use of sub-national budget data, or data of spending at the local level, has been with data visualisation. For Example, the Development Initiative recently launched an interactive map of the Ugandan budget. However, limited digital access means visualisation inherently excludes large segments of society.

Civil society groups such as The Advocates Coalition (ACODE) which seeks to increase citizens’ awareness of the budget process in order to increase transparency and accountability, have been attempting to overcome the digital divide by ensuring hard copy displays are improved. ACODE trains volunteers to access and display data locally in community buildings and notice boards as a tool to inform people of spending on their local services.

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Hard copy displays of local budgets. Photograph: Elma Jenkins
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Volunteers signing up to receive e-mail updates on their local budget data from the MoF. Photograph: Elma Jenkins

Where this is combined with improved communication platforms, open data has led to more and better monitoring of local services. Early examples of data used to question local councilors on local radio stations demonstrate how transparency and accountability can be a new form of citizens’ surveillance.

However, the open data movement in Uganda has come with some security concerns for those moving it forward. For example, a group known as the Black Monday Movement who used data to highlight local and national government corruption were shut down after being branded as opposition. This demonstrates how accountability is limited due to the NRM’s increasing needs to maintain power by policing citizens’ initiatives. The problem is also not limited to state apparatus, ACODE volunteers revealed in interviews how some members were threatened by politicians too.

Despite the promise open data has, to offer a new channel for political participation and accountability, there are still many examples of failing public services in Uganda. Citizens have found that when they follow online feedback options, they are not actually helped. Furthermore, budget data that is voluntarily released only accounts for 15% of the national budget, and this is for areas of social spending such as schools, roads and hospital. As journalist , “Most of the expenditure is considered classified and you can’t get it, [such as] defense and state house.” Clearly many limitations to transparency with open data initiatives exist, including increased anonymity with online data.

The demand for data

Civil society groups continue to demand for more data on actual social spending and information from public reviews, but they still have few options to access it. Between 2008 and 2011 a total of only 10 out of 33 FOI requests were granted. It is evident that international rankings like the OBS can be skewed. Development donors should be aware of what transparency and open data policies actually look like on the ground and to what extent they respect FOI requests as policies are never external to the political structures that create them. Just as Uganda’s decentralised political structure has been shown to fail to give citizens power, open data on its own cannot empower people. Without concerted efforts to make data democratic, it can contain and replicate the many power structures it has the potential to dismantle.