Government spending

0 CommentsPrint E-mail China Daily, October 27, 2009
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We share some people's disappointment that the budgetary information the city of Guangzhou made public does not offer specifics about some of the most-cared-about parts of government expenditure.

Everyone concerned about the possible corruption and extravagance in official institutions would like to know exactly how much has been spent on receptions, transport and overseas trips. It is so because these are the alleged "black holes" in government spending.

Unidentified "competent authorities" have been quoted as saying that in 2008, public institutions spent upwards of 200 billion yuan ($29.4 billion) on receptions, 400 billion yuan on vehicles, and 300 billion yuan on overseas trips. That is a total of more than 900 billion yuan. Yet, since there has never been an official confirmation in this regard, the scale of government spending has remained a conspicuously "grey area" over the years.

Sources in Guangzhou's Bureau of Finance cited technical, or systemic, reasons for the absence of relevant details; not that they wanted to conceal such information. But the current pattern of financial statistics does not process information the way we want. In other words, at this point, government account books follow an approach unacceptable to the lay public. While we are curious about the amounts allocated specifically for dining and wining, maintaining public vehicles, and various overseas tours, the current accounting practice does not treat things that way. For instance, they claim, expenses on business trips are split under various categories depending on the their different purpose. That explanation is technically sound.

So even though the Guangzhou financial authorities are willing to share with us that kind of information, they cannot, because they simply do not have it.

And that has not taken into account the astronomical extra-budgetary expenditure. The impressive proportion of extra-budget spending serves as a serious reminder that a considerable part of some government institutions' expenses are beyond legislative oversight, not to mention public scrutiny. The source of extra-budget, for one, has invited suspicions. How come some government departments have mammoth extra-budget incomes? Why is not there an account of the sources? Is there the possibility that all incomes inexplicable to the public are classified as "extra-budget"?

Compiling and reading budgetary reports may entail some degree of special expertise, or at least background information. That the governments' financial data is managed this way is the combined outcome of professionalism and practical needs.

However, if the information published cannot inform the public about what they care, the meaning of disclosure will be compromised. The disclosure in Guangzhou has revealed a gap between public expectations and the way government information is managed. We hope Guangzhou sets an example in managing such a gap.

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