Regulation and transparency only way to cut wasteful spending

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A file photo taken during the Tet lunar new year festival in February 2013 shows three public cars parking near the Tran Temple in Nam Dinh Province, whose users apparently had used them for a private purpose of visiting the temple on a new year festival

The rules must be made clear, and all spending be made public, to rein in useless government expenses, National Assembly Justice Committee member Nguyen Sy Cuong tells Vietweek.

Vietweek: Minister of Transport Dinh La Thang recently called on his subordinates to use no-frills airlines for working trips to cut travel costs. What is your opinion?

Nguyen Sy Cuong: I support Minister Thang's appeal. This reminds me of the wasteful spending at administrative agencies that has led to the incurable budget deficit. Minister Thang's example should be applied at many other governmental agencies across the country. It would help save a lot for the state coffers.

I've personally seen several senior officials take economy class flights on working trips instead of business class, which they are eligible for. That not only cuts travel expenses, but also helps them stay closer to the people.

It's plausible for a government minister to practice thrift and frugality. But does it seem infeasible for a government to do so when there are no regulations governing official expenses?

According to the Finance Ministry's Circular 97, issued in 2010, which regulates expenses for work-related trips, the leaders of [state] agencies and organizations can decide whether officials [of those agencies/organizations] can take airplanes for working trips. Since this circular took effect, I have seen few people take the train or the bus on working trips.

The problem here is those assigned to approve travel expenditures can't control what officials actually do. There are cases when only one official and one or two subordinates are needed for a trip, but somehow a dozen other people end up traveling on the government tab and the large group also visits several unnecessary sites for leisure. Another example is when a ministry holds a meeting in a certain city, it will invite four or five local officials to the meeting when just one or two is enough. So, what I mean is, for the thrift and frugality policies to be successful, it depends not just on legal stipulations but also on officials' awareness of the issue.

National Assembly Justice Committee member Nguyen Sy Cuong
The leaders of agencies that spend wastefully or exceed their spending estimates must be publicly reprimanded

Besides travel expenses, the public is also upset about spending on lavish receptions at state agencies. Isn't there any measure to straighten this out?

This fact is indeed painful. Wastefulness is really serious at our state agencies and businesses. A bottle of alcohol may cost as much as several ticket airplanes. Lavish and wasteful receptions take place not just at central government agencies and state corporations but also at local government agencies. When there are meetings or guest receptions, there are costly parties. If those parties are not sponsored by a certain business, they will be paid for by the government budget. And if the parties are funded by a certain business, it inevitably will receive something in return. At the very least, that business is able to build or strengthen its relations [with the local government], which it will exploit later for benefits.

It is high time we stipulate that such excessive spending on receptions not be allowed. On the other hand, senior officials [who are on a working trip to a lower level government agency] must review the reception program and reject expensive items in advance. Senior officials setting an example that way will gradually put an end to parties after meetings and receptions.

However, it's best to limit the number of meetings that require long periods of time and long travel distances, which cost a lot of time and money. Online meetings should be highly encouraged. Many businesses use online conferencing now to cut costs, so it's not difficult.

Many lawmakers have supported setting fixed rates for expenditures, including for the travel expenses of officials eligible to use public cars. What do you think about this?

I'm all for setting fixed rates.

In recent years, the government has been calling for reducing current expenditures by 10 percent. I think we must first decide the lowest possible budget earmarks for current expenditures [every year], then we'll work to cut 10 percent from that level. [Many state agencies] inflate [their expenditure estimates] and then claim that they can cut those inflated costs by 10 percent. [Without a fixed level to start with], it doesn't work.

In my opinion, as the government's revenues are currently lower than expected, we should calculate the minimum expenditures at state agencies in a thrifty manner. If these agencies can save some from that fixed rate, they can spend that savings on employees as wage increases or bonuses. That way, employees at those agencies will help the government monitor their leaders' expenses, because instead of money being used by a privileged few, it will be divided equally to all workers in the forms of wages, bonuses and other allowances.

Every year, agencies that set good examples in practicing thrift and frugality must be honored and rewarded. The leaders of agencies that spend wastefully or exceed their spending estimates must be publicly reprimanded. Practicing thrift and fighting wastefulness must be considered among other criteria for promoting or demoting heads of state agencies.

In terms of public vehicles, the best way to fight wastefulness is to study the problem and issue regulations on the management and use of public vehicles to determine which [officials] at which levels are allowed to used public vehicles. Those regulations should also stipulate the maximum monthly fuel expenses. Before these regulations are issued, we need to publicly review our annual spending on public vehicles and its percentage of total current expenditures, and how much will be saved thanks to the new regulations. I believe that can be done if there's determination at the highest [government] level.

In order to realize what you've said, all government expenditures must first be made public. But such statistics are still officially considered "confidential."

That's correct. In many other countries, any spending by the government is made public for the people to monitor. If any spending is unreasonable, the [official] responsible for approving it has to justify it, and also has to use his or her own money to compensate for cases of overspending.

In our country, stipulations on public expenditures are both insufficient and unspecific, therefore even if we made expenses public, it would be really hard for the public, including even the employees of the agencies whose spending is being made public, to know whether those expenses were compliant with regulations.

Therefore, first, regulations have to be completed, then expenditure must be made open to public scrutiny. But we should not [use this as an excuse to] delay dealing with the issue until the next [cabinet] term.

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