Martin Henry, Contributor
How well is Parliament able to discharge its critical function of oversight of the nation's public finances? The three chief functions of a legislature are lawmaking, oversight, and representation.
Oversight of public finances is always important, but very much more so now because of our high debt burden, which is caused in the final analysis by a critical failure of the legislature to control public expenditure. Meeting the debt-management requirements of the International Monetary Fund will need the critical engagement of the Parliament.
A team out of the World Bank/Caribbean has prepared a report, Jamaica Parliamentary Oversight of Public Finances - An Institutional Review, which was recently tabled in Parliament. The review was in response to "a request from the Government of Jamaica to review the structure and capacity of Parliament to undertake its constitutional role with respect to oversight of the nation's public finances."
It is an important report deserving of much wider publicity and greater public attention. The report is "particularly timely because one of the most pressing challenges facing Jamaica is its high level of debt". And addressing this challenge, the report says, "will require a clear prioritisation of spending, and a collective effort to squeeze efficiencies from limited public funds. It will also require attention to Jamaica's fiscal policies and budget-management practices. In all this, Parliament must play a critical role in helping the Government put Jamaica's public finances on a more sustainable path and make public spending more effective."
But as things now stand, the operations, infrastructure, and support services of the Parliament are "woefully inadequate", the report finds. As a few thoughtful local voices, including mine, have been saying, without a World Bank report and in the face of strong public hostility to the proposition, we will have to spend more to save more by improving capacity and efficiency.
The review team concluded that "Parliament's role in lawmaking with respect to public finances and related issues is less than optimal". The report "finds that for Parliament to better fulfill its constitutional role for oversight of public finances, it will be vital to strengthen its structure, processes, and infrastructure, and better coordinate with the executive arm of the Government."
The woeful inadequacy of Parliament "significantly undermines the work of Members of Parliament (MPs), committees, committee clerks, and parliamentary staff". The report identifies "immediate needs to ensure proper oversight of public funds". These needs include: better research support for MPs and for committees, better Information Communication Technology (ICT), more support staff, and a professional development path for parliamentary staff.
But "equally vital is a new building to house Parliament, with adequate facilities for members and the public oversight committees to perform their responsibilities more effectively." Jamaica, the report said, could draw inspiration from Antigua & Barbuda, which built a new Parliament building as part of that country's 25th anniversary which is now one of the most state-of-the-art Parliament buildings in the region with multimedia and other technology features along with conference and workshop facilities.
Noting that the "weight of the executive within Parliament itself" is a part of the problem of suboptimal performance and the need for greater independence from the executive with better coordination between both, the review team suggested that Parliament should assume responsibility for setting its own budget and for managing more effectively its administration and financing by strengthening its internal governing structures. "International good practice is for a Parliament to be responsive to its own needs and administer its own affairs," the report says.
One of the strengths of the report is its references to best practices in other Parliaments. I have spotted throughout the report references to the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, Scotland, Germany, and Sweden. We do not have to reinvent the wheel.
Measures were recommended that could enable Parliament to become more effective as an institution, and specifically with respect to oversight of public finances. The review team is recommending stronger pre-legislative (including pre-budget) and post-legislative scrutiny. With pre-legislative scrutiny, suggestions can be made by government backbenchers and members of the Opposition on proposed legislation. It would reduce the time spent on later stages of the legislative process and lead to better legislation and less need of subsequent amending of legislation. But post-legislative scrutiny should routinely review laws three years after they were passed to assess impact and efficacy.
As I have long been advocating, the report supports a greater involvement of Parliament in the whole budget process as one of the primary functions of the legislature. "Parliament should play a greater role in the pre-budget process, debating the government's budget priorities and the detailed choices before Jamaica. This pre-budget process should involve a plenary debate."
Select committees should use the time between the pre-Budget report and the main Budget to engage the citizenry in consultations, reinforcing the role of Parliament as a body of the people's representatives, and then provide feedback to the executive of Government, the report recommends.
The review team wants to see a transition from line budgets to performance budgeting, which would make managers far more accountable for whether expenditure has achieved its planned purpose. Current line budgeting, the public should understand, is a cobbling together of competitive demands from ministries, departments and agencies of government making coherent strategic planning around clear objectives all but impossible.
The review team also wants to see far better coordination between ministries and Parliament on matters like strategic planning, performance budgeting, and performance reporting. As well as induction and training for MPs providing an orientation to their role, and to the operations of Parliament, and exposure to "macro-fiscal management" particularly for members of the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC), and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
Both the PAAC and the PAC are in need of stronger technical support. A technical unit headed by a parliamentary budget officer has been recommended to provide "independent support on budgetary matters throughout the year".
"Other Parliaments," the report notes, "have introduced business committees or legislation steering committees to allow greater input and agreement among all interested parties about the shape and timing of the legislative programme." And the Jamaican Parliament should do so, the report recommends. Or, considering the radical nature of the proposal, adopt a modified version of it.
The Scottish Parliament was referenced as a good case in point. A parliamentary bureau is responsible for the timetabling of all bills from both the executive's legislative programme and from individual members and is independent of the executive, unlike the pure Westminster model. Members of the bureau are nominated from each of the parties in the Parliament with smaller parties and independent members being able to come together to nominate a bureau member.
More support for Parliament is not about giving more money from scarce resources to unworthy politicians. As the World Bank report sums up in its executive summary, "Well-functioning Parliaments [and we don't now have one] promote good governance; enhance transparency and accountability, including for public expenditure and their results; widen public discourse on national priorities and options; and build better partnerships between officials and representatives and their electorates." And, "in all this, those among the citizenry with the least have the most to gain."
The review team says they consulted widely with civil-society organisations and media representatives. These two groups are very well known for bashing Government. They are very well positioned to help in selling to a sceptical and cynical public the importance of investing in improved governance. I am doing my bit.
Martin Henry is a communications specialist. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.