Accountability Matters: The Importance of a Rights-based Approach in Public Financial Management

Marcel Holder Robinson, Finance Policy Manager (Governments), Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy | June 18, 2017 |

In February, protests erupted in Greece as migrants in the country’s refugee camps protested their living conditions. Scenes on the news showed attempts to block the migration minister from entering an airport to attract his attention to their cause.

They demanded from the government official the most basic of human rights: access to adequate food and shelter.

The protests demonstrate how compelled the migrants must have felt to hold the minister to account. Whether a migrant or a citizen, every person deserves to have their rights respected. And it is up to public service decision makers to ensure that they are.

Public sector leaders must be held accountable, otherwise protests like the ones seen in Greece will be repeated.

A “rights-based” approach to public financial management (PFM) could make a meaningful and significant difference to accountability in governments as it means that human rights are embedded in the planning, delivery, monitoring, and evaluation of public services. And if these rights are not met then public officials must account for how they respond to stakeholders’ expectations.

A rights-based approach underpins the United Nations’ sustainable development agenda, to which many countries have signed on. Government finance is at the heart of development. It is critical to achieving, for example, inclusive growth and improved services for the communities that rely on them.

The rights-based approach is already making waves in PFM around the world. Gender-sensitive budgeting in South Africa, equality-sensitive budgeting in the United Kingdom, and participatory budgeting in Brazil are just a few examples. The International Organisation of Supreme Audit Institutions has initiated, as part of its 2017-2022 Strategic Plan, an assessment of member countries’ readiness to implement the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which introduce the rights-based approach. Unfortunately, the rights-based requirements are not pervasive in all countries’ PFM systems. Clearly, there is still some way to go!

To ensure that a rights-based approach is embedded in public finance, treasury departments around the world will need to redesign their processes to prioritize, authorize, and facilitate government programs’ delivery. Furthermore, internal and external auditors will have to tweak their existing audit plans and methodologies to review and report on governments’ performance. Existing legislations, regulations, and standards may have to be revised to support an effective rights-based administration of public finances. No doubt, political leadership is a key ingredient for this to work. However, this is an opportune time for public finance professionals to fan the flames for greater accountability and transparency.

Reaching the most vulnerable and marginalized relies on a plethora of conditions to be in place. Good financial management systems are among those conditions. And public financials professionals will need to fall in line, raise the bar, and hold those to account who don’t.

 

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