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Open government empowers students, from Portugal to Peru

New computers, recreational equipment, a school garden, or recycling equipment? In Portugal, students are having their say. For six years now, the Ministry of Education has hosted an open budgeting initiative – Orçamento Participativo das Escolas, or OPEscolas – reaching some 200,000 young people in 90% of the country’s public schools.


Now, on the 2022 International Anti-Corruption Day, a new case study delves into its design, impact, and future as part of IIEP’s international research project on open government in education: learning from experience, in collaboration with the Centre for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra (Centro de Estudos Sociais da Universidade de Coimbra).

Open budgeting resonates with the key principles of open government – transparency, accountability, and citizen engagement – which are key to achieving fourth Sustainable Development Goal 4 for equitable and inclusive quality education and lifelong learning for all. 

Through several hundred interviews with the school community – including headmasters, parents, and students – the researchers found that this policy of student voting on budget proposals has increased the sense of belonging and overall responsibility towards the school community. Interviewees reported greater confidence in the proper use of school resources that met actual educational and learning needs, as well as in their own ability to make improvements in the education system. In this sense, students could learn about citizenship and democracy and gain first-hand experience regarding the merits of participation. 

“The participatory budgets allow students to get involved in the reality of their school,” responded one headteacher from a cluster of inner-city schools, adding that it helps to “promote the spirit of initiative, decision-making and teamwork, and to improve the situation of the school, based on the proposals made by the students.”

Open budgeting for schools is Portugal’s largest and most emblematic example of open government initiatives in education. The case study also found that levels of participation differ throughout the country, with lower levels in the Lisbon Metropolitan Region and higher levels in the north and centre of the country. Some of the winning proposals were also sometimes not realized, undermining the value of such an initiative. 

While the case study highlights its broad successes and merits, it also puts forward some recommendations to help guide it into the future.  

6 recommendations for the future of open budgeting 

  1. Understanding the level of participation should be about student involvement instead of number of schools joining the open budgeting initiative. 
  2. The initiative should continue to target the 12-17 age group as its primary audience.
  3. Students should have autonomy in the way they organise discussions for different ideas and schools should set aside prime time to allow for a broad debate.
  4. Budget proposals should occur within learning and teaching contexts to encourage higher rates of participation in the debates and voting. 
  5. Municipal authorities and schools should strengthen their partnerships to increase the budget allocations and to support execution of the winning projects.
  6. There should be a structured monitoring system at the national level to better understand how the initiative has evolved over the past six years and to make improvements going forward. 

Youth auditors in Peru 

A second case study takes us to Peru to learn about a youth auditors programme where students in public schools provide oversight of educational services to encourage participation and prevent corruption. Led by the Office of the Comptroller General of the Republic, this initiative is another strong example of an open government initiative in the education sector.  First launched in 2010, more than 960,000 students nationwide have since participated, leading to more than 559,000 school oversight reports. Participants are typically in secondary school, between 14 and 16 years old, and since the onset of COVID-19, the audits have expanded geographically with by virtue of them taking place virtually. 

In the new report, which focuses on Lima and Ica, one student reported: “I think the programme is good because it allows young people to participate as citizens and give their opinion and point of view, and also how to control and be vigilant with the problems that happen in society.”

In fact, this is one of the youth auditor’s main objectives – to strengthen the role of future citizens in their community by instilling ethical and civic values in students by having them monitor education service delivery.  

Since 2020, with the shift to virtual audits, parents and teachers have also increasingly joined the audits. According to one teacher in Lima, “All the teachers in the area became involved to work on the virtual audits. Our work was more systematized, and the students were more involved and more aware of their role as vigilant citizens of the education sector.” 

The programme generally entails a number of steps, from awareness-raising, planning, and execution to communicating and following up on results. Regarding the future of the programme, the researchers presented six recommendations including a hybrid modality and making it an official open government policy. 

6 recommendations for the future of youth audits 

  1. Conduct virtual workshops to learn more about students’ impressions of the youth audits. 
  2. Combine face-to-face and virtual oversight of educational services. 
  3. Generate greater knowledge among teachers, students, and parents about the roles and responsibilities of the actors involved in the programme.
  4. Facilitate greater dissemination and accessibility among students and parents on the findings and results of the audits. 
  5. Ensure that the Comptroller’s Office follows up on the educational institutions that have pending observations from the oversight reports.
  6. Encourage the participation of civil society and parents and strengthen the programme as an open government policy in education.