Monitoring local authority expenditure
With the waste in public spending and the rising current expenditure and growing cuts to services, the common response is to join the droves of outraged citizens demanding more transparency and monitoring of the institutions. But more needs to be done.
In fact, even citizens can and should monitor spending as they are armed with a very powerful weapon– the right to vote. What matters is how they decide to use that vote, either wisely, superficially and based on emotion. Let us not forget that when the loose spending habits of politicians begin to surface, those politicians were backed by citizens. In order to change how the public sphere is run, we must not just point our attention to the elected, but also to the voters, because they have the power to oust a corrupt or do-nothing administration, and vote in a more competent one.
Exercising the right to vote is not an easy practice, not even when voting for local representatives, which in Italy is the institution where the relationship between the electorate and the elected is very strong due to close proximity. Often people claim that they know their Mayor, but really they only know of them or have read about them in the local papers. So, how do you choose a mayor? Certainly not based on their proposed promises, nor on their political resolutions which are often not followed through.
The only way to evaluate a government is to know how much and in what fashion they have spent money. For example, if a local mayor values education as a priority, proof of this is not in how often they declare it, but rather in how much of the budget is allocated towards education. Therefore, the local council budget must be the first factor for any pondering voter. Yet, it is also inconceivable to expect the citizens to take the time to study a budget.
This is where our project comes into play, WINDOW ON THE GOVERNMENTS, which assesses local council expenditures to provide the electorate with information on their budget figures. The aim is not to pass judgement on individual councils, but simply to offer citizens the means to evaluate their local government so that they are able to vote more responsibly.
We have begun to monitor central council governments from the start of their terms, beginning with those elected in 2011.
For every council, we collect and file the manifesto that won them the election. It may seem somewhat banal to do so, but campaign manifestos often go missing shortly after the polls have closed, and perhaps not by chance.
Then, every yearly budget is put on file and examined. This is no mean feat given that budgets are not easily accessible, not even on the internet, apart from extracts or past budgets; in addition, the budgets are often incomprehensible despite the ignored requirement for greater transparency and conciseness in these complex financial documents. At the end of the five-year term, the budgets are then analysed and compared to other local councils.
This is more of a political undertaking rather than a bookkeeping operation. We are not concerned with the numbers themselves, but rather what they reflect. In other words, combing through each and every figure is unfruitful. What we are searching for are the answers to the following questions:
–Which sectors did the local council spend more money on than other sectors?
-How much and in what manner was money spent compared to the promises inherent in the campaign manifesto?
-How much and in what manner was money spent compared to the previous administrations?
-How much and in what manner was money spent compared to other councils of a similar size and wealth?
Comparing administrations is particularly instrumental in the assessment. For example, the fact that a local authority invested €100,000 on social services over the course of one year could be difficult for a resident of Florence to conceive. But knowing that Bologna spent double that amount could make a difference in their vote at the local election.
The ‘Window on the Governments’ project came about from an experiment conducted by the Fondazione Etica in 2010 which observed a sample group of central local governments. The results were then reported using comprehensible language targeted to laypeople, in our 2011 Il Mulino publication titled “Il Federalismo che già c’è. Come vengono spesi i soldi dei cittadini nei Comuni italiani”(Federalism is already among us – How the local authorities spend tax payer money).