A damning Stormont committee report has slammed a “silo” mentality across government.
Revealing details of how an approximately £6bn budget was handled, it also hit out at departments failing to brief committees.
Difficulties in finding out what was getting funded and concern over a “use it or lose it” attitude over unspent monies were also highlighted.
The report, by the Public Accounts Committee, largely breaks down what happened during the run-up to last year’s final budget but notes that problems identified more than a decade ago have still to be addressed.
The Review of the Northern Ireland Budget Process, which follows an Audit Office report last year, makes a series of recommendations, some of which, it notes, might take some time to implement.
Its authors, led by committee chair William Humphrey, believe “breaking down the silo mentality that exists across government is key”. They found government departments are not communicating properly.
“The committee heard evidence that this has already created difficulties in agreeing a set of priorities and allocating funding accordingly,” added the report, which notes the budget equates to around £8,400 per head of the population.
According to OECD principles on the delivery of budgets, they should be “transparent and accessible to enable debate”, but the process here, and a lot of technical language, makes it difficult for stakeholders to “understand what programmes or projects are being funded to allow them to challenge priorities”.
Mr Humphrey described this as an “issue of great concern”.
He said: “This seriously impedes the scrutiny function of committees and we believe this is an area that requires significant reform.”
It also addressed the UK Treasury’s Budget Exchange Scheme, which rules money must be returned to London if not spent in time. Under the scheme, only 0.75%, around £60m, can be rolled over.
“The committee considers that this creates a use it or lose it mentality in the NI public sector, which heightens the risk that sound expenditure decisions will not be made,” the report found.
The committee heard evidence from department heads as well as the Auditor General Kieran Donnelly and the chair of Fiscal Council Sir Robert Chote.
Sir Robert welcomed the support for long-term fiscal planning contained in the report but lamented the “golden opportunity” of a three-year budget now lost.
He said: “We noted that there were some useful advances in transparency in this draft budget, but there is much more that could be done – for example accompanying the spending proposals with an up-to-date forecast for spending in the current year and comparable figures for previous years.”
The PAC’s call for alignment between the Programme for Government and budget process “chimes with what we have heard from our stakeholders”, Sir Robert added.
He said: “Many also said that they had difficulty following the budget figures, and the council intends to continue to prioritise this area of transparency.”