How We Track Public Spending

Dr Nat O’Connor[i]

Key words: Public Spending; Taxation; Public Services; Public Sector; National Budget, Government Spending

The full report is available here: Ireland’s Public Spending Explained 2024.

Introduction

A significant part of the Constitution of Ireland sets out how public money is to be managed. Article 10 is about the state’s ownership of natural resources. Article 11 sets up the central fund for state revenue. Article 17 gives the Dáil the imperative to consider the estimates of receipts and expenditure of the state once they are presented to them, and it also restricts opposition TDs ability to propose laws that would cost money. (Presumably there was a fear that the opposition could persuade enough government backbench TDs to back a populist spending proposal that the state couldn’t afford). Article 21 specifies that only the Dáil, not the Seanad, can propose ‘money bills’, which are defined in Article 22 as provisions that would affect taxation, public spending or related matters like the national debt. Article 28.4 4° requires the government to present estimates of revenue and spending to the Dáil each year. Article 29.5 limits the ability of international treaties to impose a charge on public funds unless the treaty is agreed by the Dáil. Article 33 creates the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General to supervise the national accounts. And Article 43 recognises private property but also recognises social justice and the common good, which allows for taxation but not appropriation.

The Budget Process

As outlined in a new report that launched this month, Ireland’s Public Spending Explained 2024, the public finances is a year-long process, between the allocation, spending and accounting for public money. There are key moments in the process, such as ‘Budget Day’ in early October and the publication of the Revised Estimates for Public Services in December.

Ireland’s national budget is tightly controlled, not only by government, but by the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure, NDP Delivery and Reform. A 2016 OECD report had this to say about Ireland’s budget process:

“Over many decades, Ireland has developed a distinctive annual process for raising, allocating and authorising resources. In general, the government (i.e. the executive) has primacy, to the point of dominance, in budgetary matters. While Dáil deputies may table amendments (within tightly-restricted bounds) to tax legislation, expenditure proposals may not de facto be adjusted at all in parliament. In addition, the Dáil vote on expenditure does not take place until after the budget year has begun. In this context, many stakeholders and participants question whether the budget scrutiny processes of the Houses of the Oireachtas and its committees are meaningful or impactful. Some studies have placed Ireland lowest among OECD countries for effective parliamentary engagement in budgeting” (Downes and Scherie, 2016, p. 68)[ii]

Ireland has since established an independent Parliamentary Budgetary Office (PBO) to support TDs in their scrutiny of the budget and public finances, which was one of the report’s recommendations. However, the central dominance over the budget has not fundamentally changed.

The Budget Day tradition is one of the weaker elements of the process. It is an everything-all-at-once day, where the government presents its updated analysis of the economy, and sets out all its changes to tax and public spending for the coming year, including recurrent spending alongside large one-off capital spending. A huge mass of information is published, but very little of it is ever analysed in the media. Instead, the overwhelming focus in reports is on ‘the money in your pocket’ or ‘how the budget will affect you’, ignoring the fact that how public money is spent to collectively purchase goods and services can have a much larger benefit to household’s finances than small changes to tax or welfare.

Opposition spokespersons are given the documents on the day, and this means that they do not have a chance to analyse them before making a comment. (In other jurisdictions, politicians are given the papers and are locked into a room hours in advance so they can prepare a more detailed response, while being prevented from leaking them in advance). As a result, in Ireland, on Budget Day, the opposition ends up making prepared remarks or giving generic reactions, which does not serve the public interest. By the time they have had a chance to form a more considered view, the media opportunity to present this has all but evaporated. 

There is a need to get the ‘reform’ part of the budget process back on track, by which is meant greater openness and transparency. For example, it makes no sense that the hundreds of tables of spending are not machine-readable, which would allow researchers to make quick calculations. Instead, in order to analyse the data, there is a laborious process of copying across data. The PER Databank does make some data available as a download, but it isn’t quickly updated when the Revised Estimates for Public Services are published, which is unhelpful.

Recommendation: An Alternative Budget Timeline

There is a strong argument for breaking up the Budget Day into at least five different occasions.

  1. Local government funding should be allocated by June, with a requirement that all local councils must confirm their own budgets before Christmas, so that they begin the year with more transparency about local spending.
  2. Capital budgeting should be given its own day, so there is more serious focus on long-term investment, infrastructure and control over wayward projects like the National Children’s Hospital.
  3. Taxation should be announced separately and in advance of spending, so that there is a focused discussion of where money is coming from and what are the economic, social and ecological effects of taxation.
  4. Public services—and relevant non-voted spending like Ireland’s EU contributions—could be one or more days. (There is an argument for separating out Health and Social Protection as they are large, complex areas of spending).
  5. There should be a separate day for Ireland’s national debt and deficit to be scrutinised.

Each of these areas of public finances is plenty for one day, and it would give politicians and the media more opportunity to explore efficiencies and effectiveness in public spending than the mad scramble to report headline figures when everything is presented all at once.

The full report is available here: Ireland’s Public Spending Explained 2024.


[i] Dr Nat O’Connor has taught politics and social policy since 1999, and is currently an occasional lecturer in Maynooth University and UCD. He has a PhD in political science from TCD and a MA in political science and social policy from the University of Dundee. In a voluntary capacity, Nat is chairperson of the Irish Social Policy Association (www.ispa.ie). Nat has authored and co-authored a range of reports and academic papers. You can find him on TwitterX @natpolicy

[ii] Downes, Ronnie and Scherie Nicol (2016), ‘Review of budget oversight by parliament: Ireland’, OECD Journal on Budgeting, Vol. 16/1. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/budget-16-5jlv0r0g8zd7