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Monday, September 05, 2016

BudgIT leading civic technology culture in Nigeria - Onigbinde

 The Lead partner and co-founder of BudgIT with Joseph Agunbiade in 2011, Oluseun Onigbinde, in this chat with REMMY NWEKE told ITRealms following his stint with the Aspen Institute New Voices Fellowship and Stanford University; that they are enthroning civic technology culture in Nigeria with what started as a hackathon organized by Co-Creation Hub some five years ago.
Excerpts:
How did you get here?
Wow. Getting here has been with the support of God, people and the entire ecosystem. We have been very fortunate to come at a time when there was Co-Creation Hub who are interested in seeding social tech startups across the world. The budget was also being published by the Budget Office of the Federation and we were very only acting as infomediaries for the public. We also got a lot of people who believed in us from the start. This included Indigo Trust, Tony Elumelu Foundation, Open Society Initiative for West Africa. We have been able to reach over 1 million Nigerians and also have presence in 16 states where we track local community projects. 

What can you tell us about the Aspen Institute New Voices Fellowship?
Aspen New Voices Fellowship is geared towards raising new voices across the world with focus on health and global development issues. These are people who are working to make an impact in their fields and they range from scientists, professors, activists, policy makers and social entrepreneurs. They are currently looking for new fellows and I advise folks doing impactful work in this area to apply. 

What is BudgIT, its objectives and goals?
The goal of BudgIT is to distribute access data to the public in a simple and accessible manner. BudgIT's work is to ensure that every Nigerian has equal access to the fiscal state of the society and uses such information to demand service delivery and accountability. BudgIT uses any lawful means to make this happen and we have a strong presence on social media and also work in rural communities. We track public projects in these states. 

Can you share with us what particular story that triggered or inspired the project BudgIT?
I wanted to leave the bank and do something different. I started with a climate change organization known as Green Acts which did not work out as I thought. I learnt my lesson and while working for the bank I still was looking for something to do. I was just sitting on my desk and I reviewed the applications by Co-Creation Hub. I thought of making the budget accessible after checking up civic projects online. I called it Budget4u. Later, we changed the name to BudgIT. That's how the phenomenon started. 

How has it been championing the project in terms of how easy and difficulties you have faced in recent times?
Leading any entity is not an easy task and it requires to continuously keep being creative in ensuring value is delivered for citizens, investors and all stakeholders. We also have to consider balance in all that we do. It is not easy because a lot of people are averse to accountability of public funds. They take it as being rude. The military hangover still works on them but they don’t understand that democracy is strengthened through accountability. It is a work that is never done. 

How do you feel when Mr. Bill Gates commended your effort back home in Nigeria at the lecture?
I was actually travelling and when I landed, my social media platforms were buzzing. It was delightful moment that the richest man in the world and also the co-chair of the world's largest philanthropy recognizes our work. I was so elated and this kind of validation keeps one on. 

Do you think the Nigeria environment is adopting the BudgIT goals?
Yes. The citizens are getting it and they are delighted when we share new pieces of information in interesting formats. They get it that it is necessary that they can participate in democracy effectively beyond voting in elections. We also have to acknowledge that public institutions are also interested in putting more data out there. We have worked with NEITI, NNPC and other agencies in making data more accessible and incentivizing actions from citizens to ask questions. The environment is changing. Maybe not as rapid as we will want but there is an improvement. 

Are you getting the kind of cooperation you require for mainstreaming the ideals of BudgIT in Nigerian society?
As said before, we are trying to instill the idea of transparency and accountability in Nigeria. Think how we have been making a lot of advocacy on making National Assembly finances open. There is still a lot of resistance from the political class to make budgets and public finances closed. It has nothing to do more than corruption. It is a tough climb but we have to take it step by step. 

Has BudgIT been replicated? If yes, where? And if no, why not?
Yes. I can't say in the exact way but we have people pushing ideas such as TransparencIT or VoteIT. A bit off for me that people trying to take our naming pattern but I am also interested in expanding the civic technology space. The field is so wide and the work is enormous and idea of making issues simple can be applied to different areas of governance. 

How can BudgIT be used beyond a national budget monitoring?
We do work for subnational transparency, making it easy for people in states to have more access to the budgets. We also work to support institutions in Nigeria to improve reporting and presentation. We are also interested in extractive sector transparency. It is not just about the national budget, we have worked to advocate more system-wide transparency and get the society to be more efficient. 

I think it was BudgIT that blow open the millions of Naira, former Lagos State governor, Raji Fashola used in building a website, kindly recount the story?
It is not a whistle-blowing exercise as most people know it. We just brought forward the data presented by the Lagos State Government and we made that line public. The funny thing is that we were interested in interrogating other items in the list of contracts published by the State government but that just took over the news cycle. Lagos State has a Public Procurement Law that mandates it to electronically publish all its contract. It did that and we brought out the data from its haystack and put it into a tweet. It was nothing political and it ties to all the issues of subnational transparency we advocate. We can't talk about fixing this country without transparency and accountability.

Do you think the whistle blowing of those facts yielded the right results?
It did not in my own view. The media did not look into the entire contracts. Mr. Fashola provided a response that muddled the issues and showed he was not informed of the actual cost of these things. It also reinforces that there was no competitive bidding. One thing that baffles me is that why can't every taxpayer have access to contract information and also bid for it? I don’t know but public funds are sacred to me. It is a huge burden of trust to be given the responsibility to manage public funds.  When we say Open Contracting is important to efficient use of public resources, politicians ignore it. There is no data more difficult to get from government than a list of contract, most times it reeks of points of patronage. Believe me, startups in Yaba can build that site for N5m. There was a petition submitted by another organization, I guess the EFCC was not interested. It was nothing personal against Mr Fashola but brings the question into light why does every contract with government has to be one-hit that fixes one for life?

What other milestone can you say BudgIT has achieved since its foundation?
A lot and I will say we have given the budgets to more people, supported at least 8 public institutions in free software and institution building, partnered with 35 organizations and also we were instrumental in Nigeria joining the Open Government Partnership. We are leading the civic technology culture in Nigeria and bringing the transparency into light. The impact can be seen on our website: yourbudgit.com

Where do you see BudgIT in the next 2 to five years?
We are working on a medium term fund and also ensure we become a stronger institution within. We are focused on measuring impact effectively, delivering value to our donors and also ensure that we spread our work in the states and in the sub-region. 

What message do you have for the youth with respect to governance, especially in Africa and Nigeria moving forward?
The young people of Africa need to understand that their future is being expended daily and they can't leave governance to everyday politicians. They need to participate not just by voting but by demanding accountability. We need young voices rising up to demand more efficient use of our resources. 

What next?
To continuously strive towards building a society where the use of public treasury is transparently accessible and explained Nigerians in the simplest and accessible form.

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Pix; Oluseun Onigbinde, co-founder BudgIT

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