[OP-ED] To eliminate corruption, make Vietnam's budget a matter of public record

By Tran Ngoc Anh - Vu Hoang Duong, TN News

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Vietnam's budget ultimately belongs to the public and should be treated as such from the planning to the auditing stages. Citizens should have the right to comment and  monitor every stage of the budgetary process.
Let's begin by considering how Vietnam ranks in terms of budgetary transparency. The Open Budget Index gave Vietnam 19 out of 100 possible points -- a rank that's far below the global average (43) and much lower than other countries in the region (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Timor-Leste).
Three recommendations for the Amended State Budget Law
Some maintain that Vietnamese people don't care about monitoring their nation's budget.
To test this assumption, we worked with Oxfam to conduct a quick survey about the State Budget Law. After only 4-5 days, we'd contacted around 8,200 respondents.
In the survey, people showed the greatest interest in the three following issues:
1. Publish state budgets before they're approval at all levels (89% voted yes)
2. Publish major recurrent state expenditures, such as salaries and administrative costs (90% voted yes) 
3. Publish state debt (93% voted yes)

 

These results match the findings of in-depth interviews and group discussions that Oxfam and other local NGOs operating in Vietnam conducted with 1,147 people and 408 government officials in the five provinces of Bac Giang, Hoa Binh, Nam Dinh, Quang Tri, and Ba Ria - Vung Tau.
The survey showed that people here want to know more about the way their tax money gets spent.
Publish state budget allocation plans before approval
So far, state budget allocation plans remain confidential until they're approved.
Under the current system, the central government doesn't carefully review each provincial development plans when it drafts its budget allocation plans.
Therefore, some provinces enlist an army of lobbyists to lobby the Ministry of Finance for more money before the budget is approved.
After the National Assembly grants a province or ministry some slice of the budget, agencies start lobbying to carve it up. As a result, the budget allocation process is far from transparent and lacks feedback from experts and stakeholders. When there is a budget cut, the process is equally arbitrary, making local development objectives impossible to achieve due to a lack of resources.
It's possible to publish and gather opinions on this process in accordance with international norms.
Every year People's Councils at all levels are permitted to publicize 10 key investment projects to solicit local citizen feedback. Based on that model, People's Councils should organize public hearings to weigh responses from both People Committees and citizens.
Based on that consultation process, they can then prioritize their projects before approving and submitting the final portfolio to a higher level. As budgetary negotiations go back and forth (and funds are cut and added) each People's Council will have a clear sense of what projects the taxpayers feel are most important.
Publish recurrent expenditure
In recent years, recurrent expenditures have increased from 65.4% (2005) to 77.1% (2012) while government investments fell from 34,6% (2005) to only 22.9% (2012).
More simply put, the government uses the vast majority of its money to pay salaries, administrative costs and interest on its debts; less than a quarter of the annual budget is invested in new infrastructure.
This is a growing problem. 
Administrative costs increased from 8.2% (2005) to 10.2% (2012), much higher than the money spent on the state's salaries for its doctors and healthcare workers, which amounted to just 6.4% of the budget (2012).
The loose management of administrative spending--which includes funds spent on government vehicles, overseas business trips, hosting guests, not to mention the continuous growth in the number of state officers -- represents a huge waste of public funds.
It is time for citizens to know how the state is spending their money, how many officers there are in the bureaucracy and whether such an organizational structure is appropriate.
Publish the state's debt
In 2014, for the first time, the Ministry of Finance disclosed detailed figures on government debt to the National Assembly.
As a result, we now know that each Vietnamese citizen essentially owes VND20 million on loans taken out by the government.
The major concern here isn't about our ability to repay that debut, but about how effectively the money is being spent.
When corruption and waste aren't effectively addressed, with each loan, the fear of waste grows stronger.
Inefficient loans to cement manufacturers, shipbuilders, port managers and railway developers have coincided with bribery scandals that have deeply frustrated the public. In addition, the fact that the people responsible are only charged with "losing" the funds or investing them "inefficiently" has gradually eroded the public trust.
The rising growth of public debt only compounds these worries. Noticeably, from January of 2013 to March of 2014 some estimate that Vietnam's public debt increased by USD9,887 billions, equivalent to UDS700 millions/month.
In the end, that would mean each Vietnamese citizen owes yet another USD100.
Many officials grant that public budgets are a good idea in other countries, but argue that it wouldn't matter in Vietnam. Vietnamese people, this argument goes, do not understand government budgeting and therefore have little to contribute in the way of ideas.
They note that we have a different political system.
In reality, the more corruption and public waste we have, the more we should strive toward total budgetary transparency.
If normal citizens do not understand some technical aspects of the budget, experts and members of the media can help explain them. In short, making the state's budget public at all levels is key to restoring public faith in government.

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