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BudgIT Nigeria soaring higher as it opens more doors for transparency through personalized data availability

The BudgIT foundation, Nigeria’s civic technological organization has once again raised the bars for standards of transparency and accountability within just 9 years of its establishment in areas of public finance as it recently launched a personalized data portal that provides the exact breakdown of monthly allocations to the Federal, State and Local Governments. This new personalized data platform allows each individual to access statistics on government budgets and ongoing projects according to distinct localities.

BudgIT Foundation
BudgIT Foundation is a Nigerian, Lagos-based not-for-profit, private and civic organization that utilizes technology for citizen engagement alongside institutional improvement to trigger societal advocacy and changes.
The beginnings of BudgIT
Co-founded by Oluseun Onigbinde (Director) and Joseph Agunbiade (Chief Technology Officer) at their headquarters in Yaba, Lagos state, Nigeria, the idea behind BudgIT was birthed in March 2011 but officially launched in September of that year. Gabriel Okeowo is the Principal Lead of BudgIT.

March 2011 was when Oluseun and Joseph met and worked together at a hackathon competition organized by Co-Creations Hub (CCHub) to solve governance-related issues using technology, specifically themed ‘Tech-In-Governance, where they emerged as runner up winners.
Prior to March 2011, Oluseun worked in research & strategy at First Bank while Joseph had long been into technology and soft wares as an entrepreneur. Oluseun’s job gave him experience about the data gathering process and rigors involved, which already sparked the idea of making data openly available for Nigerians for the purpose of accountability for government. This was especially since most national finance and expenditure issues surrounded the budget.
Before then, the national budget was a bulky PDF file which was uninteresting as well as difficult for Nigerians to access and comprehend. However, converting the PDF data to excel sheet was a lot of work for us and ate up a huge chunk of our time. So, the next step was to eventually turn it into a database and infographics. This was done using three key approaches: having the literates who can easily work with excel; literates who find excel uninteresting and prefer database to easily search for key information; and visual persons who preferred infographics. These 3 tools helped us to gain the attention of the citizens, for which engagement with citizens was not only initiated but sustained over time through conscious and deliberate decisions to appeal to the various literate spectrums.

Excerpts from the interview with co-founder Joseph Agunbiade

How has BudgIT been able to access data given the issues of data unavailability which has plagued Nigeria and many African countries for so many years?
Most data have always been available in a public space but is hidden and we have never tried to use illegal means such as hacking people’s database contrary to what some people think. The worst-case scenario is to find contacts inside the concerned organisation to help us get the data needed and we have started partnering with states and government bodies by including pushing OPEN alliance and Open Treasury Portal (OTP) with them. Lagos is one of the most recent partnerships and it has been forward thinking but quite difficult to partner with until Sanwo-Olu, the current Lagos state governor came into the picture and shocked us by reaching out to us for partnership in desiring to make the state’s data fully public. Currently, we now work with the Lagos State Ministry of Budget and Planning.

Enugu state is one state that has done tremendously well over the years and Lagos state is recently doing well. These collaborations go a long way in giving us privileged first-hand access to data. Putting the data together requires a lot of research such as using the Freedom of Information Act 2011 (FOI) bill to request for data.
How do you get funding for your numerous activities and projects in Nigeria and across the world?
Well, that’s quite tricky but funding is never guaranteed for us. The fact that we get funding from a particular sponsor this year does not guarantee funding from the same sponsor next year so we have to lobby on a yearly basis. Every now and then, these donors choose different thematic areas of focus, for instance corruption, so BudgIT aligns their own strategic objective for that year to fit this focus area. And because finance is something that impacts almost every thematic area, it is easier for us than if we decide to pick the thematic area ourselves, say health which is quite different from corruption in this scenario. So, finance opens us up to lots of possibilities.

The second strategy for funding is that we do our possible best to be fully accountable and transparent since as a not-for-profit company, it’s very easy to decide to siphon the company’s funds. So, individually, we have our own businesses, and Seun has gotten a lot of fellowships and so our eyes are not on BudgIT’s money. Moreover, we are disciplined enough with a very solid account unit to ensure that project funds are actually spent on the right projects with well-paid personnel via our developed sustainability model. For instance, most donors give funds for two years and tell us to hire workers for that particular job as we deem fit. After the two years, it is not the donors concern if those workers are retained or not. So, using our sustainability model, we ensure that we do not always have to fire people but keep employees with fully paid quarterly, half-year and end of year bonus salaries.

This is in addition to sending staff on training to institutions like Harvard and INSEAD Business School (Institut Européen d’Administration des Affaires/ European Institute of Business Administration) because we have locally developed our strength and capacity through our own secret recipe. Often times, when donors come in and see our capacity, they are often impressed and feel very confident to commit to funding BudgIT for the second time. A practical example of more-than-one-time sponsors are the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Omidyar Network now called Luminate, Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), United Nations (UN) support, Ministry of Defence Art Collection (MODAC) and the British subsidiary of DFID for which we have done consultancy projects for DFID. This is because sometimes, our funding comes from directly working for these people, especially the international donors as we do not work for government.

Four years ago, we created a business for profit company called FITILA for data journalism to provide infographics such as when we worked for Nestle for two years in helping them with their annual report. BudgIT has also created an accelerator program called Civic Hive which empowers people that have ideas which are similar to BudgIT. From the brilliant minds of people who accelerate ideas, we have gotten Amplify and Gavle who are the main guys providing the legal drive for #EndSARS.
Have you encountered any form of roadblocks from government since you’re exposing cats in the bag?
Well, government is a rather blanket statement and on the contrary, the political elites have been more forthcoming in partnering with us as against the private individuals in form of civil servants and those working in the ministry. Of course, this does not mean that everyone in the civil service tries to sabotage BudgIT, just a few ones with ulterior motives who benefit from the people’s ignorance, have tried to oppose the BudgIT process due to selfish personal reasons. Ultimately, we have had a lot of handshakes but we have also had a few threats.

I remember one of our field officers in Niger state who tracked some things in that state and the politician involved traced the guy to Kaduna and used the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) to catch him. We had to quickly contact some few people in power even governor Nasir El-Rufai and before the governor could say Jack Robinson, the rogue guys had moved our field officer to police headquarters in Abuja. So, we had to engage the Senate President, Bukola Saraki who had been promising us his unwavering support for citizen engagement and that event was time to prove his words, which he did and under 24 hours, we got the person’s freedom. Also, look at when the Lagos state governor went in yesterday to secure the freedom of people that had been previously captured by the police force. So, for public office holders, lots of eyes are on them and people are able to demand accountability as the civil service persons seem to be the ones frustrating the system the most compared to singular politicians who might want to initiate some things but will be unable to if persons at the ministry say no.
We have also had the support of a King who visited our office and we were elated to have such support. Overall, BudgIT has had more applauds and relatively fewer threats than expected when we publish some information about certain politicians. This means that people including some of the politicians silently love and appreciate our works and this tells us that we can do more especially with more activists and related agencies playing in that space.

The issue of extravagant salaries and allowance of members of the House of representatives has been heard of but data availability has handicapped a lot of Nigerians from really delving into this. Does BudgIT have access to such data?
We got some data when Saraki was in power, just before he left, following our campaign on #OpenSARS but this kind of information is not always available, so there is no update on this data yet. Nonetheless, the figures of earnings for these House of Reps is ridiculous. The reason why it looks like BudgIT has not succeeded in this regard is because of the various forms of allowance such as sitting allowance and the likes because one of the ways to evade attack is by using the term ‘allowance’, which makes it a bit difficult for the people to fight/oppose it.
Given the experience so far, what would you say moving forward given the current realities?
For us, our story is centred around creating more engagement by citizens to know that public service holders are their employees and by being consistently active without relenting and like the Arab Spring, we can maintain this to create a change. There is much more accountability to be demanded in health, police, justice and even transportation sectors of the country. Gavle is doing a whole lot in supporting the #EndSARS protest and I’m privileged to be on their board. For instance, imagine the people come out and protest with the same effort that why should Danfo buses still be plying the Nigerian roads by demanding for better and effective transportation system as people are tired of being complacent.

BudgIT is committed to accelerating and actively engaging people who have creative ideas over those who are satisfied with peanuts and inadvertently mortgaging their future. For us, this can go as far as engaging activism among people in their dialects including the Hausas until victory and success is certain in a sustainable manner. This will encourage doing things the right way and restructuring such that the government does not just make decisions randomly and without considering the people. Although Northern Nigeria is aligned with the British who put them in power, we need a more liberal North and the entire country as well where the people can say what they actually what. The west, east, south and even the north should be able to freely control and manage their own resources. In fact, clamoring for Biafra and the likes will reduce if the regions know that they are managing themselves and their resources with an agreed portion, say 10 or 20 percent given to the Federal government. There might be small issues but it will be easier to deal with. Besides classifying the North as one does not fully encompass the North West, North Central/Middle Belt and North East and these regions are abundantly endowed with resources. So, more active engagements help people to better realise who they are and make the best demands from government for a better society.

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