Editorial: Government math: Show us your work

We generally like what we hear about the Cayman Islands government’s budget plans for the upcoming year, but the budget documents themselves have us confused.

Frankly, we can’t make heads or tails of a good portion of the 380-page Annual Plan and Estimates for 2013/14.

Neither can Auditor General Alastair Swarbrick, who said, “I would personally find it very difficult to assess how the administration is going to spend $517.9 million of public money and what the public will get in return.”

Rather than defining expenses according to type (salaries, utilities, etc.) or even by department, the government’s system of “output budgeting” lumps expenses together under “output groups.”
These output groups carry labels ranging from the somewhat specific ($150,000 for burial assistance for indigents) to the extremely vague ($325,639 for “a business climate conducive to local commerce”).

We’ve never understood how any large complex organization such as the government could operate based on such practically useless guidelines. As it turns out, the government doesn’t actually work that way.

In response to a reporter’s query, Ministry of Financial Services chief officer Dax Basdeo produced samples of much more detailed, line-item expenditures. In other words, glimpses of an actual budget.
When asked why he doesn’t attach this information to his ministry’s public budget documents, Mr. Basdeo replied, “We can’t. There’s a specified format that I have to follow.”

We beg your pardon? Ministries can’t provide details on how they spend taxpayers’ funds because of “specified format” restrictions?

Mr. Swarbrick’s opinion is that government should simplify its overly complex budgeting framework, considering it hasn’t brought about accountability anyway.

On the other hand, Deputy Gov. Franz Manderson says output-based budgeting is vital to measuring the performance of chief officers and civil servants. Mr. Manderson said government “should publish more information … not less” about its finances and performance.

Mr. Swarbrick and Mr. Manderson are both right.

We know government has detailed line-item budgets that supplement the information contained in the Annual Plan and Estimates. Those line-item budgets should be shared with the public forthwith.

Apart from publishing convoluted and incomplete budget documents, the government has made Mr. Swarbrick’s job as auditor all the more difficult by being even more vague about expenditures that aren’t related to defined outputs or necessarily any particular ministry.

The expenditures include a hodgepodge of payments for pet projects, such as the nation-building fund, housing grants and various scholarship programs, as well as officials’ emoluments and subsidies to statutory authorities and government companies.

Don’t be misled by the expenditures’ de facto categorization under “miscellaneous.” It’s one of the most interesting parts of the budget, and for 2013/14 totals some $117 million, comparable to recent years.

Given the discretionary nature of many of the expenditures, and the history of their abuse by elected officials, this should be the most transparent part of the budget, not the least. Many of the items, such as scholarship grants, overlap with better-structured initiatives by ministries.
Those funds should be the first to be wrested away from politicians making discretionary decisions.
We’ll apply a mantra hammered into us by primary school teachers: If you want us to trust your arithmetic, show us your work.