Uncertain terms

This week, the Secretary for the Economy and Finance was at the Legislative Assembly. There, he was challenged on the issue of budget control, especially in the case of big public works. Some lawmakers requested a bigger say by the Assembly. The Secretary declined, arguing that existing mechanisms are suitable and deferred to a future public finance law the setting of any new control mechanisms. The subject is certainly important; the issues at stake have implications for the functioning of the government and the political system. The time and cost overruns in some major public works are common and often staggering. The causes are seldom analysed; the details are overlooked or ignored. They suggest serious derelictions of duty but nobody seems to take responsibility and no consequences appear to eventuate for anyone. This is certainly a topical and important subject. And yet, one cannot avoid the feeling that the debate is based on equivocal terms or ill-defined expectations. Some lawmakers want more direct control over the execution of the budgets, it seems. The Secretary disagreed, arguing that current procedures are enough and appropriate. This is a point upon which the Secretary is essentially right. If the issue is getting more detailed and accurate information, that can certainly be done within the existing framework. The general political powers and monitoring responsibilities of the Assembly over the approval end execution of the budget, if used consistently, continuously and deliberately, would go a long way in forcing a more responsible management of public funds and a more stringent assignment of responsibilities. Creating new and necessarily overlapping responsibilities for the various branches of government will not contribute to more transparency or increased efficiency. It is not incumbent upon the Assembly to take on what would be, in practice, executive powers over the budget execution. Should the Secretary have stood just there, the outcome of these exchanges would have been neat. However, being essentially right, the development of the reasoning put forward seemed to yield somehow to the lawmakers – implicitly accepting their criticisms – and undermine his own central argument. In the future Budget Framework Law, transparency will be increased, it was said. Well, what prevents it today? Do we need a law for that? Is there anything in the current legislation that actually prevents the government from being more transparent? And then it is added that according to the future law, for multi-annual projects the government ‘will have to provide an estimation of the overall project budget; of the project’s timetable; and also an estimation of the budget for each year of the project’s foreseen period’. Isn’t it already the case? Can multi-annual projects be approved and budget commitments made without an estimation of the total cost and its distribution over time?! Is it not enough just to actually enforce the existing laws? Somehow, this is a debate that seems to raise more questions than answers.