- The Washington Times - Monday, February 2, 2009

The United States is not alone when it comes to keeping the inner workings of its government secret - a practice that President Obama is attempting to change.

The International Budget Partnership (IBP), a Washington-based research group, said an overwhelming majority of governments withhold more information from their citizens than the United States - especially when it comes to money.

Eighty percent of the world’s governments fail to provide adequate and timely budget information for the public to hold them accountable, according to a recent report by the group.

IBP’s Open Budget Survey 2008 found that nearly half of 85 countries studied provide minimal information to the public and that only five, including the United States, provide extensive information.

“Transparency is critical for citizens to hold their government to account and is fundamental to the public´s trust in government,” said Nancy Boswell, president of Transparency International USA, a global organization fighting corruption.

One of Mr. Obama’s first acts as president was to sign an order to make the workings of U.S. government more transparent to Americans. In the U.S., however, complaints about official secrecy are mainly national-security-related.

In contrast, budget debates such as one in Congress over the mix of tax cuts and government spending needed to boost the economy are quite public, as sparing over Mr. Obama’s proposed stimulus package illustrates. Still, parts of the U.S. budget, such as pork-barrel spending targeting districts of influential congressional members, tend to remain obtuse until after they become law.

“Those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government,” Mr. Obama said in his inaugural address.

By restricting access to financial information, governments prevent the public, journalists, commentators, academics and civil society organizations from holding officials accountable, and often hinder legislatures and national audit offices from working effectively, the IBP report says.

The lack of transparency also allows governments to hide unpopular, wasteful and corrupt spending.

In Equatorial Guinea, for example, a top official purchased a $35 million vacation home in California, according to a Senate investigative committee. The amount was $10 million more than the government’s budget proposed spending on health care for its impoverished population in 1995.

The report also cites Saudi Arabia, which has an estimated $400 billion in assets but publicizes almost no budget documents.

The International Budget Partnership said it hopes that its research will increase public access to governmental budget information, IBP Director Warren Krafchik said.

“Open budgets are empowering. They allow people to be the judge of whether or not their government officials are good stewards of public funds,” Mr. Krafchik said.