UN DESA report finds uneven progress on accountability and non-discrimination despite surge in new initiatives

World Public Sector Report 2019 finds mixed landscape on institutional developments in the areas of transparency, accountability, anti-corruption, participation, and non-discrimination

Despite a surge in the number of laws and initiatives adopted by countries around the world over the past two decades to strengthen and improve governmental institutions, the results are still mixed, and, in some cases, these new developments may be causing new problems, according to the Word Public Sector Report 2019 –Sustainable Development Goal 16: Focus on public institutions.

According to the new report, the institutional landscape has significantly changed in some areas, with countries rapidly moving to develop open government data systems and national anti-corruption initiatives. As of 2018, 139 countries had implemented open government data initiatives that make data available to the public through central portals, as compared with only 46 in 2014. And since 2015, at least 21 countries have passed national antic-corruption laws, 39 have adopted national anti-corruption strategies, and 14 have created new anti-corruption agencies.

But there have also been setbacks and reversals. Discrimination, for instance, remains entrenched. Minorities are still disadvantaged in many countries, and gender gaps remain pervasive, such as in representation in public decision-making. More than 2.5 billion women and girls globally are affected by discriminatory laws and lack of legal protections.

The report, released ahead of the first review of progress on Sustainable Development Goal 16 on peace, justice and institutions next July at the United Nations high-level political forum on sustainable development, takes a unique look at the adequacy and effectiveness of public institutions to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals.

The World Public Sector Report 2019 focuses on the state of public institutions – a vast and complex subject which is difficult to reduce to simple measures. The report reviews recent developments in the areas of transparency, accountability, anti-corruption, participation, and non-discrimination – all key principles highlighted in Goal 16, which aims to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”

According to the report, institutional change in some of these areas has proceeded slowly but steadily. In 2017, 118 countries had adopted a law or policy on the right to information, and more than 40 countries were in the process of adopting such a law. At the same time, new standards of fiscal transparency and channels for direct citizen participation in decision-making are being adopted.

Participation at the local level has a long history, with forms of participatory budgeting now present in thousands of municipalities across the globe, whereas participation in decision-making at higher levels of government is now clearly developing. Over a long period, there has also been a steady development of international norms against discrimination. Those have been increasingly reflected in national legislation, judicial systems and administrative practice.

Political, societal and technological changes are driving these trends. In particular, drastically reduced costs of producing and disseminating information have made the development of the open government data movement possible. The Internet has also enabled almost universal adoption of e-government practices, as well as the sharing of information about corrupt practices and their costs.

Yet a close look at the information available surrounding these developments reveals some complexity. For instance, not all right to information laws have been implemented effectively, with many instruments also not applicable to the private sector, and government transparency initiatives might even increase threats to privacy and increased surveillance.

On accountability, formal government oversight is still uneven and, in some cases, severely limited. For example, out of a sample of 115 countries, the Open Budget Survey 2017 found only that only 29 countries have legislatures that debate and approve key policy recommendations prior to the tabling of the budget. Corruption remains a problem at all levels of development, even though most countries now have a well-developed institutional anti-corruption infrastructure. In general, there is scant evidence of successful cases of controlling corruption and little is known about the effectiveness of anti-corruption reforms.

Among the less known developments highlighted by the report is the role played by supreme audit institutions – the top-level external oversight institutions in charge of auditing governments’ financial statements and assessing compliance and, increasingly, performance. Beyond auditing budgets, for which they are best known, these institutions are critical actors of national accountability systems. They often play an important and effective role in anti-corruption. They provide key insights into the effectiveness of public programmes and institutions. Many also assess governments’ efforts to implement the Sustainable Development Goals – more than 70 supreme audit institutions around the globe have conducted audits of preparedness for SDG implementation.

Within the broader context of the review of progress on the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, more work is needed to provide a comprehensive global review of developments in the institutional arena, especially to determine the outcomes and broader impacts of reforms and processes. At the national level, making the most of information coming from existing institutional processes, including reforms of the justice system, reporting under international treaties, internal monitoring done by government agencies, and reports of oversight bodies, could be a way to build information systems that can start providing answers on these issues.

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