OECD: How to reform the Dáil
OECD report sets out a methodology by which to drive better Dáil engagement with the budget
The Dáil: there is a clear view in the OECD report that parliamentarians’ role in the policy deliberations around the budget is much too limited. It is hard to see the “big picture” about what the Government is trying to achieve, or indeed to track whether the Government is making progress towards its goals. Photograph: David Sleator
The budget is, for any country, a critical tool of national policy and largely determines whether, and how, plans and ambitions can be transformed into reality.
Last year, the OECD prepared a report on how Ireland’s parliament deals with the annual budget process. The OECD found that the Houses of the Oireachtas – the Dáil and Seanad – enjoy a favourable international reputation for the quality and vibrancy of debate, but that the level of meaningful engagement in the budget process is low by international standards.
After the recent general election, the 32nd Dáil has a much more varied spectrum of political opinions and groupings than in the past. Not surprisingly, the question of parliamentary reform is attracting much attention, including the important issue of securing parliamentary support for a government’s budget proposals. It may be helpful and timely, therefore, to set out briefly some of the OECD’s findings and proposals relevant to this topic.
In preparing our report, the OECD met a wide range of stakeholders – parliamentarians from across the political spectrum, committee chairpersons, Oireachtas officials, civil servants from the various government departments, and civil society representatives. We were impressed with the openness and frankness we encountered as people set out the problems and challenges. These issues are set out at length in the OECD report (oecd.org/gov/budgeting/review-of-budget-oversight-by-parliament-ireland.htm) but, in essence, there was a clear view that parliamentarians’ role in the policy deliberations around the budget is much too limited. It is hard to see the “big picture” about what the Government is trying to achieve, or indeed to track whether the Government is making progress towards its goals.
Inclusive and accountable
Against this background, and taking account of what works well in other countries, the OECD put forward 16 proposals for parliamentary reform, of which the following are among the most significant: Introduce an Irish parliamentary budget office to provide specialist support to all parliamentarians on issues of budget policy, including costings of policy proposals, so that Dáil committees are equipped to engage in a realistic way with the details of the annual budget and the estimates (ie the detailed expenditure proposals). The Budget Office would strengthen the parliament as an institution in its own right and would complement the independent work of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, which focuses (and, arguably, should continue to focus) on making sense of complex issues of macroeconomic policy and fiscal rules. The existing Library and Research Service within the Oireachtas provides a valued facility to members on legislative proposals generally, but it is not equipped to extend its service to the specific technical requirements of the budget, finance Bill and estimates.
Engage the Houses of the Oireachtas more fully throughout the process of fiscal planning and setting budget priorities, so that parliamentarians can inform the Government’s deliberations from the outset. This should include aligning the new national economic dialogue more closely with, or grounding it within, the work of the Oireachtas committees, to benefit from the distinct democratic legitimacy of the Dáil and Seanad members.
Configure a new estimates committee to facilitate the above, co-ordinating engagement between parliament and executive on the substance of budgetary matters at key stages of the cycle, and bringing together the insights from the sector-specific committees.
Ensure a speedy vote by the Dáil on the annual Book of Estimates before the start of each financial year (ie within two months of the annual October budget), more in line with international best practice, and freeing up the early part of each year for parliamentary scrutiny of the performance and impacts of public policies.
Establish a national performance framework to articulate more clearly the high-level goals and objectives of overall public policy, showing how the targets for each department and agency contribute to these goals, and providing a clearer framework of accountability to the Oireachtas for progress towards improving the wellbeing of the nation.
Constructive and creative Naturally, parliamentary reform goes beyond the budget process alone, and it is ultimately for Ireland’s political and administrative system to design a package of reforms that can command broad support. The OECD proposals are a modest contribution, intended to stimulate constructive and creative thinking at national level about how Ireland’s long-established structures and institutions can be adapted to the political, societal and economic demands of today.
Ronnie Downes is the deputy head of the Budgeting and Public Expenditures Division, OECD, with a background in Ireland’s Department of Finance and Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Scherie Nicol is a policy analyst in the Budgeting and Public Expenditures Division, OECD, specialising in parliamentary scrutiny, and with a background in the Financial Scrutiny Unit of the Scottish Parliament. They are co-authors of the 2015 OECD Review of Parliament Engagement in Budgeting: Ireland (oe.cd/1iG)