Interview: How BudgIT is bringing down the walls

In four years, BudgIT has revolutionized the Nigerian public data and budgeting system with easily accessible creatives such as infographics, Apps, interactive website, social media.

BudgIT has stimulated public interest and awareness in government budget, finance and expenditure. Through attracting creatives, BudgIT has broken down the complexities around government budgets and engendered discussion on government spending.

The company was founded in 2012, right around the time of the subsidy protest, but it has since gone on to be on the forefront of citizen activism and the push to promote transparency in government spending.

In this interview with YNaija’s #Impact365 series, co-founder  and Chief Executive Officer of BudgIT, Seun Onigbinde, speaks on the work BudgIT is doing and the experience so far.

1. In the last few years, BudgIT has caused a shift in public discussion and promoted transparency in government. What was the original intention for founding BudgIT?

The idea behind BudgIT is to ensure that every citizen has equal access and understanding on how public finances are spent. This is the idea, and we believed the use of infographics and interactive applications are important to tell that to the public. We have stayed on that idea but also putting the Nigerian context into it. That’s why we do some work on the oil industry too and also corruption cases. We have come to realise these issues determine the size and efficiency of public resources.

2. Do you believe BudgIT has achieved its mission and objective?

Wow. Why will you say that? We are not even close to it. When I mean every citizen should have access and demand service delivery; I mean everyone regardless of literacy class, socio-economic status or level of interest in governance. This is why it is a long road and having reach over 1m Nigeria through online and offline channels, we know the task is still huge.

3. Have BudgIT faced any form of backlash from the government?

We have not faced any except a period that certain people threatened us because we highlighted a dataset on Lagos State contract. Unfortunately, Lagos State has stopped that enthroning opacity. Sometimes, you get a feeling some folks are not fine with that level of exposure to citizens, but it comes with the work.

4. BudgIT has grown from a startup to a thriving organisation in its own right. How were you able to achieve so much with just a small team?

We have a team of 24 people in Nigeria and Sierra Leone. We have grown from a three-person team to this. I am just glad and grateful to God. It is about understanding the vision and leading a team to carry it on. That’s where you find purpose and tenacity. It is not that rosy, but I worry more about things undone. I am a self-critic, so when you use words like “thriving” in your question, I am not too amused. I still feel there is a lot to do.

5. What do you think is the public opinion about BudgIT?

I think it is mixed. A lot of people believe we are doing great work and some feel we are not. Depending on who you talk to along their partisan interests, people say we are for PDP; another will say we are for APC. I try hard that we stay on the data and ensure balance as much as we can. We know balance is critical to our brand as we know a lot of folks don’t mind poisoning the brand because of partisan interests. You can’t worry about that too much lest you fail to see the bigger picture. I have tried to come up to defend the brand on a personal level, but I think it is not just worth it. Time clarifies all things.

6. You also provide support for the National Assembly, right? In what capacity?

We did in the past, providing policy choices and also training NASS personnel. We even built software for the National Assembly Budget and Research Office. These partnerships were fully paid for by international donors and did not compromise our belief in what NASS should be. We have to press it on NASS that we want its budget open, and this has nothing to do with what we did in the past. It is a very important issue for us.

7. Quite frankly BudgIT has increased citizen engagement in government activities. Do you think this will curb widespread corruption in government?

The first weapon of a corrupt establishment to deny citizens access to information. We can entrust fighting corruption to the randomness of investigative journalists and whistleblowers. We need to institutionalise a culture of openness. This is how to fight corruption, and this is what BudgIT stand for. Let us bring the use of public resources to the open and let citizens ask questions and demand accountability. We might not understand, but transparency is where to start if we want to end corruption but when we put things in opacity, we have foreclosed opportunities for engagement.

8. You’ve campaigned for National Assembly to make its budget public. Any progress so far?

We are following all the conversations, and the latest story is that NASS is facing bureaucratic problems in bringing up its budget. Are we saying that NASS has no budget? Isn’t this unfortunate the Nigeria’s highest organ of accountability just takes the money and spends at will. It always pains me that National Assembly spends more money than eight public universities in a year. Is it not important we see accountability? We will keep pressing on using multiple approaches to ensure this issue is brought into the light.

9. BudgIT has a new product, Tracka. What exactly is it?

It is not a new product as we have experimented it for over year. It is a community of people tracking public projects, providing service delivery feedback to citizens. We have over 3,000 user generated reports and also project tracking officers in 16 states. We are improving the product again giving it a social appeal and that kind of “coolness”.

10. What will the future look like for BudgIT?

Wow. The future is relative, but there has to be a time for me to bow out and allow others improve BudgIT. However, the future I see is a sustainable and impactful organisation driving accountability and citizen engagement in Nigeria. The mission is to see public finance on the lips of everyone challenging public institutions on how resources are expended. The future must not differ from that.

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