In the Akan chieftaincy hierarchy, the odekro is the lowest sub-divisional chief responsible for ruling a town and making sure the citizens are taken care of. Since 2012, Nehemiah Attigah and the late Emmanuel Yaw Amofa Okyere have served as Ghana’s odekro-at-large in their mission to revolutionize Ghanaian politics by promoting transparency and accountability in the Ghanaian Parliament. In a democracy, every citizen has the right to know how his/her taxes are expended in the delivery of public infrastructure and services. Though yearly budgets in Ghana are presented to Parliament, they are often delivered in a format which is difficult to consume. Today, government over-expenditures hover around 300%. To combat this, Odekro and BudgiT are launching a database to empower Ghanaian citizens to collaborate and track capital projects in their communities. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng spoke to Attiagh about the Ghanaian political landscape, challenges ahead, and how Odekro is helping end politics as usual.
What’s the story behind Odekro?
It all started in 2012 when I started thinking about a public consultation platform to interface with parliament and my co-founder, the Late Emmanuel Yaw Amofa Okyere, was fed up hearing Malik Kwaku Baako always talk about Hansards and wanted to figure out a way to put the Parliamentary debates (Hansards) in the hands of all Ghanaians. Interestingly, we didn’t know we lived just a street apart and were both working on similar projects, until we were visited separately by Dr. Loren Triesman of Indigo Trust. After her visit, she informed us about the fact that we were both working on similar projects. Thus, there was a need to collaborate. We got together over some whiskey and agreed to do. The platform is based on the code base from MySociety (an instance of PopIt) with most of the heavy lifting and localization done by Ian De-souza and Samson Lavoe, our lead developer and UI designer, respectively.
We hoped to mobilize citizens to discuss national issues being debated in Parliament, report issues affecting their constituencies, comment on on-going projects in their constituencies, follow the specific issues the MPs for their constituencies are contributing to in Parliament, and what they are saying, and to generally take a keen interest in how they are represented.
What projects has Odekro worked on in the past?
We have been involved in a lot of social justice and civic technology projects in the past including carry out open data bootcamps, training for journalists, Go to Vote Ghana (providing a platform for voters to find their polling station), and support for other open data initiatives such as Code for Ghana.
You co-founded the organization with Emmanuel Okyere, who sadly passed away last year. How has the organization changed or adjusted in light of his death?
I must say, we were hit hard and couldn’t do any proper work until the end of the first quarter of 2015 where we started re-strategizing and restructuring the team. We have adjusted quite well with old team members taking up new roles and new team members joining the family to push for the achievement of our mandate.
We have changed the look and feel of the platform with still more new and engaging features to come in the coming days. As you can see from our blog, our new content manager (Lolan Sagoe-Moses) is working hard to get people to talk about the issue of parliamentarian absenteeism and effectiveness.
What are the major issues on the table in the upcoming Ghanaian election? Which issues are Ghanaians most concerned about?
Even though most Ghanaians will either be voting on entrenched tribal or party lines, others will be voting on issues such as the economy, energy, education, agriculture, health, and infrastructural development.
There are major issues to do with the current state of the voters register, the competence of the executive in decision making and running the affairs, the integrity of the judiciary, and the commitment of the legislature, especially considering their poor attendance to the house and keeping the executive in check.
We also have a major issue with election year spending and budget overruns.
Why do you think that there has been such rampant over expenditure in recent years?
Existing mechanism for checking public spending consist of a presentation of the Auditor-General’s report to Parliament. Parliament interrogates public officials about over-spending and other discrepancies. The Auditor-General is seldom able to track the sources of unauthorised expenditure because these expenditure items are often added to the budgets for legitimate projects, without proper approval by his office.
Furthermore, the Auditor-General’s department has in the past failed to sanction any officials who have exceeded their budget limits. The Auditor-General’s department also submits its annual reports to Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee years after their due date. Parliament’s Public Accounts committee, which holds public hearings to interrogate civil and public servants, has also failed to sanction any of these officials for their mismanagement and corruption.
We believe these mechanisms have failed because they all attempt to solve the problem after it has been created instead of nipping it in the bud. We believe over-expenditures by public officials on political projects during election years will identified more easily and quickly if they are tracked in the districts and villages where these projects are implemented in real time. Waiting for yearly reports to be compiled allows these officials to cover their tracks. Furthermore, though the Public Accounts Committee’s hearings are broadcast on national television, the committee fails to engage citizens on a day-to-day basis. Our project aims to address this.
How active is Ghanaian civil society and the average Ghanaian citizen when it comes to holding the government accountable for their actions?
There is a certain sense of apathy when it comes to the average citizen demanding accountability. Half of the time, they do not have the information to be factual in their demand for accountability.
How transparent is Ghana’s budget? Why do you think transparency is such an important issue?
Ghana’s budget is made public and available right after it is read by the Finance Minister. However, how many Ghanaians do understand the budget and can relate it to projects and the livelihood? We believe it is the RIGHT of every citizen to have access and also understand public budgets. This will enable citizens to track the use of funds and demand accountability. If one doesn’t know how his/her taxes are expended in the delivery of public infrastructure and services then we are in trouble. Though yearly budgets are presented to Parliament, they are often delivered in a format which is difficult to consume. This lack of information makes it difficult for Ghanaians to track projected figures against the actual expenditures of governments on development projects, especially during election years, contributing to over-expenditures of over 300%.
Odekro and BudgiT seek to use this project to highlight the connections between Ghanaian public budgets, and the implementation of election-year promises. We aim to stimulate citizen engagement with public data by translating budget data into engaging formats. Our approach bridges the information gap about sources of overspending by sourcing this data via citizen engagements, and also engages citizens in the accountability process.
Right now, you’re aiming to get funding for a large-scale project on budget access and monitoring. How much money is at stake and what do you plan to do with it?
Making All Voices Count (MAVC) is distributing £450,000 in the Global Innovation Competition 2016 where available ideas compete for a grant. There are three rounds in the Global Innovation Competition. All finalists will be invited to the Global Innovation Week in Accra, Ghana for the final round of the competition where every successful contestant will receive funding to implement their proposed idea/concept.
We plan to use the funds to scale up the technology solution and carry out public engagement activities to generate discussions around public sector budgets and expenditure. It will enable citizens to collaborate and track capital projects in their community.
This will also include the ability for citizens to create reports of an issue they want to track, engage stakeholders on issues, share issues with their network, and follow discussions on a particular issue. We will hold town hall meetings for citizens to engage with duty-bearers on public sector spending. In engaging with women and other disadvantaged groups, we will demonstrate the link between election-year overspending and lack of lasting development in subsequent years. In educating marginalized communities, we hope to empower them to advocate for responsible use of public funds.