“The system of public finance, particularly since the beginning of the global economic crisis, has once again become the centre of attention,” says Veroljub Arsic, Chairperson of the National Assembly of Serbia’s Committee for Finance, State Budget and Control of Public Spending. “Even though we have institutions like the state audit institution that controls the legality of spending, it is not enough.”
Mr Arsic, who is also the Serbian Parliament’s Deputy Speaker, is well aware of the need of parliaments across the Western Balkans region to integrate oversight of public spending and revenue-raising. His committee is receiving help in its work thanks to the establishment of a Parliamentary Budget Office in Serbia – the only country in the region to have such an office after Greece. The establishment of the PBO is supported through a three-year project of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, with assistance from the Scottish Parliament in implementing the project.
(Above: Staff from the Parliamentary Budget Office visit the Macedonian Parliamentary Research Institute)
The PBO, which is staffed by four researchers, is expected to provide much-needed research support to the committees, with the goal to assist them in overseeing the government’s fiscal and economic policies. “The will to control public fundraising as well as spending those funds is getting bigger,” Mr Arsic explains. But until now MPs have found it hard to conduct the scrutiny which is increasingly expected by voters. “We have great expectations from this Office, because it should secure help and support for MPs during the budget process, especially the process of reporting and finalising the budget.”
It’s not just Mr Arsic and his committee which is expected to benefit from improved financial scrutiny. The programme aims to replicate the expected success of the PBO in Serbia across the region. Mr Arsic has already presented the newly-established body to 40 parliamentarians from the region, as part of the parliamentary conference organised by WFD-hosted Network of Parliamentary Committees on Economy Finance and European integration. The conference passed a recommendation that parliaments in the Western Balkans should look to establish similar offices.
(Above: Serbian MPs meet with staff from the Financial Economic Analysis Office in Ukraine to share best practice on establishing a Parliamentary Budget Office)
All eyes are now on Serbia with regards to financial oversight. MPs from the region will be looking to see what the benefits of such an office are for the MPs and for the citizens. Financial scrutiny matters because each year parliament allocates billions of euros to implement policies and programmers which affect the lives of citizens. It matters because it ensures that there is a clear link between setting the budget and the operational plans of the governments. It assesses the value for money provided by government services and it investigates matters of public interest. It addresses financial issues raised by constitutes or community groups. Financial scrutiny in parliament matters because at the end of the day it provides a challenge from the MPs on how resources are utilized by the government and what is the value of their impact.
The establishment of the PBO office in Serbia contributes to the development of democratic culture and practices and overall good governance. The PBO will contribute to the extent to which parliament holds government institutions to account and to their constituents.
It is these principles of effective oversight which Mr Arsic now hopes can be replicated across the region. “Our parliament will always have an open door for regional cooperation,” he says. “I have no doubt the office will be a success and we can share that success with our friends and neighbors.”