Towards an Open Government Budget for Hong Kong

The HK Budget is out, and Open Data enthusiasts, engaged citizens and media are still reviewing it. The speech, figures, and now the data tell a story about what happened since last year and what is planned for this year. While others are looking between the lines, comparing totals from previous years, line spending of bureaux and departments, and new “sweeteners”, we are looking at the budget differently: at the format it is in and how everyone can better dive into it, better understand it, and have meaningful insight.

With the budget in a more open data-friendly format, more people can more easily review the budget, crunch the numbers, and get the answers they’re looking for. More is possible when people can get right into the budget without needing to scrape totals and dig up past budget totals and build spreadsheets and databases.

Last year the FSO (Financial Secretary’s Office) released the estimates figures as an Excel Spreadsheet file, and this year the estimates are released in a machine-readable CSV format. These are steps in the right direction to support a more accessible budget for better transparency and oversight of the budget. Open Data Hong Kong supports civic engagement and review of the budget, and part of our efforts is working with Code4HK on a “Hack the Budget Hackathon” for engaged citizen to apply their skills, interest and curiosity on the budget.

Few government documents have as much impact on the public as the government budget. It is important the budget is transparent, supports participation for decision making and policy making, for effective oversight and accountable review. The goalposts for these are changing. With rising levels of public capacity to review the work of government, technological tools to solve problems, and changing methods of engagement between government and the public, there are many opportunities for government budgets to report, engage and react:

  • Budget transparency – use open data formats to provide accurate quality detailed structured data;
  • Budget participation – remove barriers and conditions of use of the budget, and support fora (online and in-person) of public engagement of the budget;
  • Budget oversight – support mechanisms for timely updates, and means to address questions, policy recommendations, and review of government priorities and programs.

Governments around the world are moving in this direction, and so is Hong Kong. Projects like the Open Budget Survey rank and compare countries with links to budgets for comparison.
To better support public review of the budget, we submit the following 3 recommendations:

Unconditional: Remove any restrictive terms and conditions or licensing on budget data.

Currently the budget data is covered by the restrictive Data.One terms and conditions which include conditions such as “The Government reserves all rights that are not expressly granted in the Terms of Use” and “you shall not use the Data in any inappropriate, defamatory, obscene, or unlawful manner”. Even if the government won’t exert their power on this, the looming threat and control is not based on what is likely but what is possible.

Structured: Support structured data for better quality data and greater detail of totals;

A structured data format (ie: provide a schema and provide data in XML or JSON format) is richer better quality data. You can see where the totals come from, how they total up, and what fields are linked from where.

Historic data: provide past budgets in machine-readable format

Past budget data helps to review trends and comparability. Digging these numbers from currently available information is tedious and unreliable, requiring authoritative and consistent figures.
Earlier this month we presented to FSO our set of recommendations ahead of a discussion to realise this. See the presentation material (has some updates). We will continue to follow-up and provide advice and direction to achieving these goals.