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Originally appeared on The Morning
By Aneetha Warusavitarana
On the 5th of March 2019, the Ministry of Finance presented the much-delayed budget for 2019. The budget is a tool of extraordinary influence, which is used to affect government revenue, expenditures and national policy. That being said, our budgets don't appear to be exerting that influence, or creating the impact they could. According to Verité Research’s budget tracker only 8% of projects from the budget 2018 are progressing, with a staggering 59% lagging behind in implementation.
Everyone has come to expect the budget, but what purpose does it serve? Why does it exist? During the rest of the year the government continues to make decisions on policy, pass legislature and try to run the country. The allocations made during the budget to specific ministries are not set in stone. The reality is that these allocations are moved around government in a manner than bewilders all involved, and when a year passes and the next budget is announced, it is found that budget promises have not been met, and very little has actually been implemented.
Budgets by definition should focus on revenue and expenditure. In the case of Sri Lanka and the mountain of debt that we need to contend with, this is all the more important.
When looking at this year’s budget, a wide variety of topics have been touched on. The Ministry of Finance has revised taxes on multiple fronts, with a focus on reducing the indirect tax base and increasing direct taxes. However, the budget has not limited itself to detailing expenditure and revenues. There has been a substantial amount of general policy which has been included, bringing up the question of whether there is a point to their inclusion in the budget. Surely these general policies would be better suited in a national policy document or election manifesto?
The policy decisions in the budget 2019 have ranged from establishing a national pension plan, increasing government servants’ salaries, to amending labour laws, and this is where the problem lies. Increasing government servants’ salaries would technically be the duty of the Ministry of Public Administration and Disaster Management (an apt ministry to handle the government sector) and salary revisions should follow a system, and not be dependent on ad hoc decisions. A national pension plan, while much needed is not an endeavor that can be completed in a year. The same reasoning applies to amending labour laws. These two in particular will in all likelihood take at least a few years to be finalized and implemented.
The alternative to the current budgeting process is following a medium-term expenditure framework (MTEF). This framework integrates policy, planning and budgeting for the medium term, combining a top-down resource envelope with a bottom-up estimate of the current and medium-term cost of existing programmes. The result is the alignment of macroeconomic stability and broad policies with more specific programmes. It is essentially a three to five year rolling budget, which sets fiscal targets and allocates money for that time frame. This system addresses the reality that very few projects can be successfully implemented within one year and allows the government to acknowledge this and act accordingly.
What does a Medium-Term Expenditure Framework mean for policy?
Within this framework, policy proposals are considered in the medium to long term context. Spending agencies have a stronger voice, as they have significant input into the design of sector strategies and some flexibility in managing their resources to meet their objectives. New projects are undertaken dependent on whether they are affordable and implementable in the medium term, allowing the government to have a very clear and mostly accurate statement of fiscal policy objectives, fiscal deficit and debt management.
At a project level, this framework creates two main wins. First, both policy and funding are more reliable and predictable. Second, it allows for policy to drive funding, as opposed to the reverse. This in turn means that budgeting is linked more strongly to results, as focus shifts to specific outcomes and what resources are required to achieve them.
What happens to the annual budget?
The annual budget will be announced, but it will simply reflect what is achievable in the short-term, within the larger three to five-year framework. This is beneficial, as spending will be more specific, and tied to clear targets. Funding is not allocated for an entire project, but only for the section of the project that can be reasonably achieved during the next twelve months. The entire budget is more focused on results, and less on broad policy statements. Given the low levels of implementation mentioned earlier, it is evident that a greater degree of specificity, combined with a results-focused approach to the budget is required.
What needs to be done?
Interestingly, even now a substantial amount of planning follows the structure of a three-year rolling plan. The Public Investment Programme or the PIP, is a three-year rolling document which details government expenditure of projects and programmes. The Ministry of Finance also publishes an annual medium-term fiscal strategy which establishes the general direction or objectives of fiscal policy for the next three years. According to the Ministry of Finance website, budget estimates are prepared in the larger context of a medium-term budgetary framework.
It appears that the key components of an effective medium-term expenditure framework already exist. The next step would be to align the annual budget more clearly with these components. Allocations should be made more specific, with clear ties to the three-year plan. New projects and programmes should be introduced taking into account a three-year resource envelope and fiscal objectives. In other words, the budget in its current iteration should be completely overhauled and refined.
Aneetha Warusavitarana is a research analyst at the Advocata Institute and her research focuses on public policy and governance. She could be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or @AneethaW on Twitter. Advocata is an independent policy think tank based in Colombo, Sri Lanka which conducts research, provides commentary, and holds events to promote sound policy ideas compatible with a free society in Sri Lanka.