Ensuring taxpayers money ends up where citizens think it should requires time.
Analysing the numbers, comparing levels of spend between departments and debating where you think the money should go is a lengthy process, but one that is essential for effective governance.
Westminster Foundation for Democracy is committed to supporting the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia address this crucial problem through the Parliamentary Budget Office that was established in November 2016. A fundamental problem when it comes to adopting the budget in Serbia is the lack of time that MPs have to review and debate the budget proposal. The need for quick to digest information and analysis is at an all-time high with previous budgets being adopted in just seven days.
The 2016 European Commission Progress Report on Serbia’s accession to the EU indicates that “frequent use of urgent procedures, last-minute changes to the parliamentary agenda, limited support for independent regulatory bodies…undermines parliamentary effectiveness”. It is easy to understand how the European Commission comes to this conclusion given the Governments track record.
Despite OECD recommendations that government’s draft budget should be submitted to parliaments no less than three months prior to the start of the fiscal year, the Serbian Government submitted the 2017 budget proposal to the Parliament on 2 December and it was adopted on 10 December 2016.
Serbian MPs had only 8 days to analyse a 1,200-page document and accompanying opinions from the Serbian Fiscal Council.
Even for the most developed parliaments in the world, which have support from research and analytical experts, this would present a significant challenge. This is why the analysis provided by the Parliamentary Budget Office to MPs was so important. Providing timely analysis, in a digestible manner contributed to a more informed debate in the parliament, whilst helping MPs to better understand what it means for the citizens they represent.
Within 36 hours from receipt of the proposed budget, the PBO prepared the analysis with information on key government policies. It also developed a comparison between the 2016 and 2017 budgets, highlighting the biggest funding variances across various ministries, agencies and programmes. Such a summary was not available to MPs in previous debates and was first delivered to the Committee on Budget, Finance and Control of Spending of Public Funds in time for their session on 4 December.
It was evident from the interaction with MPs that the provided analytical support was much valued. Aleksandra Tomic Chair of the Committee on Finance, Budget and Control of Public Funds, stated upon receiving the analysis, “Thank you for the great effort to do this important work in time for [our] committee session”.
During the week the budget proposal was debated, the PBO provided over 20 supporting documents and analysis to MPs. On 4 December, the budget analysis was sent to all 250 MPs prior to the plenary debate that took place later that day, as well as published on the PBO website. The researchers received 15 requests from MPs in response to the analysis and provided answers to MPs during the debate. Since the analysis provided is solely based on facts and figures, MPs were able to use them to formulate their own political opinions on the budget proposal. The PBO also prepared infographics on revenue and expenditures in the budget proposal, public debt analysis and analysis of key fiscal indicators to make the information more digestible in a short time-frame.
Gorana Gajic, an independent MP and deputy member of the Committee on Finance, Budget and Control of Public Funds also stated “You have presented the budget proposal to us better than the finance minister. I don’t have to chase for information and data presented in the papers. Now I know I can turn to the PBO for information”.
While the long-term benefits to citizens in Serbia cannot yet be fully quantified, it is evident that if the PBO did not exist, both MPs and the public would be left with less information on the proposed budget and where their money is being spent. Deputy Speaker in the NARS, Veroljub Arsic, explained “through this project the NARS will not only support the oversight of public spending, but will also communicate with users of budgetary funds about the plans for their execution.”
Aleksandra Tomic, Chair of the Committee on Finance, Budget and Control of Public Funds added at the press conference marking the establishment of the PBO “I would like to thank WFD for implementing such a project. It is refreshing for the new committee members to work with PBO experts which are not politically biased.”