27 January 2013

TL budget process still lacks openness

Timor-Leste's Parliament is discussing the State Budget for 2013, and their plenary debate will be broadcast live next week.  La'o Hamutuk web-published the main budget documents, and local media report politicians' comments every day.  We have also posted our testimony (also Tetum) and briefing (also Tetum).

But how much do people know, how open is the process, and how can citizens be involved more effectively?

The International Budget Partnership conducts an Open Budget Survey every two years, calculating an Open Budget Index for about 100 countries. The 2012 survey was released a few days ago, and Timor-Leste scored 36 out of a possible 100. This is slightly better than our score of 34 two years ago, but is still "minimal," far below average. (Global Open Budget report)

Although Timor-Leste has been a global leader in transparency on petroleum revenues, our budget process should be much better. We scored poorly because little information is available before the Council of Ministers approves the proposed budget, because a "Citizens Budget" in understandable language is not published while the budget is being debated, and because mid-year reviews, year-end reports, and audit reports are not published or are published too late.

We agree with the recommendations by the International Budget Partnership (see their report on Timor-Leste, also in Portuguese). These include publishing the documents listed above, providing more comprehensive and better-classified data on past expenditures and future forecasts, showing how the budget interacts with policy proposals, publishing program-level budget details and conducting a public pre-budget policy debate. We are also disappointed that the Government did not respond to the draft Open Budget Survey questionnaire, so that their views would be included. The complete Timor-Leste questionnaire, with answers and peer reviewer comments, is published here.

In addition to the recommendations in the Open Budget Survey, La'o Hamutuk suggests that the General State Budget should include revenues and expenditures by all state entities, including the TimorGAP national oil company, the National Petroleum Authority, the Central Bank and others. We also encourage Government to make an effort to estimate future outlays, rather than applying a blanket 4% annual increase to every line in the Consolidated Fund budget. Most of the largest expenditures -- salaries, generator fuel, veterans' pensions, infrastructure packages, minor capital purchases -- could be projected more accurately. Together with total anticipated cost information for major projects, this would enable Ministers, Parliamentarians and the public to evaluate the future implications of large programs, which is essential as we export our limited non-renewable gas and oil wealth.

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