It is no secret that reading or listening to the budget is like going through a 305-item shopping list: As I fought to stay awake reading this document, the main question that came to me was: why are we still preparing and presenting budgets this way?
The problem with shopping lists is that they are so “concise » that they end up being completely vague. This result is that, like we saw on Thursday, supporters will say that the list is full of great things, skeptics will ask: are you sure those should be on the list? Why? How do you pay for all of it? But more importantly, if you’re an academic or you have got a background in running any sort of organization where money is involved, the first question you’ll ask is: where is your data?
The 305-paragraph budget reads like one of those policy papers the laziest student in class would write at University – the budget supplement being the mish-mash of vaguely-related data hastily copied from Statistics Mauritius (some of which was last updated in 2016), with the hope that the Professor will not ask the harsh questions: How can you decide on the appropriateness of spending MUR 1 billion on 14,000 unemployed if you don’t have data on how much has already been spent, whether any of the 6 programs mentioned has been effective at all anywhere in the world (not to mention Mauritius), whether it’s a better idea to invest in 6 programs instead of 1.
Besides being an interesting tidbit, I am not sure how knowing that we have nine 18-hole Championship golf courses in Mauritius (Budget Supplement, page 37) will allow us to better appraise the budgetary measures for the tourism industry – unless that information was introduced to talk about the sustainable use of our lands? The orange and blue Excel graphics in the supplement, while giving good macro-economic data, do not actually provide the foundation for any of the measures announced. There is no direct link between the data presented in the supplement and the measures announced.
Admittedly, there is a likelihood that the foundational data for the budget may have been shared during budgetary consultations, which I imagine to go something along the lines of a long tea(cocktail) party where someone is whispering in Mr. Jugnauth’s ear: “you should listen to this person here, her idea is cool”. And if that image is offensive to the long hours pulled by the civil servants in preparation for the budget, I should point out that the whole process is so opaque that the layperson can hardly be blamed for imagining what happens behind those closed doors.
So, we have a serious problem of soundness of data and transparency in the budget preparation and presentation, but we also have a third issue. I understand Mr. Jugnauth wanting to take credit for everything – we’ve all had group projects where, like during this budget speech, the presenter says “I” 104 times instead of “we”…right? I can even understand, less cynically, wanting to centralize information coming from different ministries. But in this day and age where
- We know that it’s just good management practice to make projects sound like they are a team effort
- We have access to amazing resources on how to run large organizations
- We are supposed to have access to technology and this government has tried to modernize itself by launching csu.mu, and other e-government initiatives
- We are supposed to have separation of power where the Ministries are the executive arm of the government, ie they are supposed to show their own results independently of the Parliament
Why can’t each Ministry present a yearly public report on the implementation of past measures, with recommendations on how to move forward and requests for greater funding in x and y areas, based on actual data?
A stubborn, but dwindling, part of me refuses to be cynical about our politicians. I will therefore put aside the fact that I still don’t understand that we can have Ministers that double up as Deputies in our Parliament. I will also ignore the well-known fact that the actual people running Ministries are top civil servants, and that part of their job description is to make Ministers look good when things are great, and to sweep under the rug all unfortunate incidents.
However, let’s imagine for a minute this not-quite revolutionary way of preparing and presenting a budget: Ministry A has had 40 new and old programs running during a year. Each department within the Ministry looks back on what has worked and what has not in the past year. Format of the report (worked out with faculty and student researchers, perhaps?): money spent, expected outcome, number of beneficiaries, real outcome, reasons for outcome, proposed solution with feasibility analysis. The report is posted online on mauritiusbudget.com – so Mauritians’ suggestions are also based on more than personal whims – and shared with the Ministry of Finance, who then drafts the budget accordingly. The Budget would read something like this: “as we saw in Report A25, the Youth Employment Program has shown great signs of progress. It is thus my government’s recommendation to increase funding by MUR 1 billion to this program to increase its reach and support 20,000 more unemployed youth”. See how you can score political points for your government, give credit, add soundness to your budget, AND avoid making empty promises?
I’m going to mention here that as a voter, I would absolutely forgive and respect a government that announced a measure, put a pilot in place, evaluated it and realized that it doesn’t make sense to roll it out. Sometimes even the best intentions don’t turn into great outcomes, but I do support a country that tries, realizes (with data) its mistakes, makes changes, and tries again. It’s called lean management and Mauritius would be such a great place to implement it. We no longer live in a world where we get votes by pretending everything is perfect, and it is OK for some of the best ideas not to have the desired effects – learn and grow. That is the real transformative journey this country should be taking.
As a young person and a young entrepreneur, I am tired of reading the cynicism or adoration, depending on one’s bias, that always surrounds political commentary. There are some stupid things going on for sure, but there are also hard-working civil servants and non-governmental agents who deserve to have their initiatives listened to and funded. And transparency weeds out mediocrity. My advice to Mr. Jugnauth as a voter in next year’s election is this: You’ve got one more budget to present: Score points and change the way we prepare and present next year’s budget.
The wonderful part about this plan is that you and your political party will still be able to take credit for great execution and, in the case of poor execution, you can continue to deflect to individual Ministries (who get to blame it on external forces beyond their control). Everybody wins. But the best part is that we will slowly start becoming smart about how we spend our money – by investing it based on more than pure conjecture. Your supporters will be able to adore you with data to back up their claims, and you will shut down skeptics who don’t think you know what you’re doing – they may disagree with how you’re interpreting the data, but you will earn the reputation of someone who can back up what he says, whose word means something.
How do we do all of this? Get the Mauritius Research Council on board and take one month to invite Professors and final year students from tertiary institutions around the island to manifest interest in this as a dissertation/end of cycle project; take two months to set up a standard report template and assign researchers to a specific department or Ministry, and the rest of the year goes to gathering the data. Deadline for submission: 1 April 2019.
Mr. Jugnauth, if you want to leave a lasting legacy in the country, be bold and open the door to data and reporting, get young people involved in this endeavor and you will score political points for reducing our socio-economic woes by relying on sound data rather than the intellectual leaps currently necessary because of our meager data – that’s the type of legacy that will be hard for future governments to eradicate, and the type of legacy for which you will be remembered by those who normally never make it to your office/cocktail party during budget consultations. After all, the first axis of this year’s budget was for unemployed youth and women, but what was the median age, gender and employment status of those consulted for these measures?
- 2007 Laureate in the Arts Side at QEC
- Graduated in 2013 from Yale University (USA) in Global Affairs
- 2016 Total Startupper of the Year
- Mandarin and Portuguese speaker, having lived in China and Brazil for a year each
- Passionate entrepreneur, business consultant, and political observer
- Believes that the future of entrepreneurship lies in human-centric businesses and social enterprises