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How can the government be held accountable for the use of public money?

Dr Alberto Asquer explores the concept of government and the role played by elected and non-elected officials in strengthening accountability.
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The argument that the government should be held accountable for the use of public money is largely uncontested nowadays. We all want to know how and where our money is being spent, after all. The issue, however, is precisely how governments should be kept accountable for their financial conduct. Thankfully, nowadays there are various mechanisms in place that may contribute to strengthening the accountability of the government to us as citizens and taxpayers. First, we need to remember that government is a concept that includes several components, in particular individuals, who, because of their position or occupation as public officers, act in the public interest.
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When we say that we would like the government to be held accountable then, we should bear in mind that we are actually concerned with keeping individuals accountable for decisions that they make as public officers and that impact on the management of public money. We also need to distinguish between elected and non-elected public officers. Elected public officers typically occupy public office for a limited period of time, which often depends on the electoral cycle. The non-elected often spend their entire career as employees in the public sector. Both will have different forms of access to financial resources, so the tools for keeping them accountable are different. One important mechanism for holding elected public officers accountable is free and fair elections.
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Thanks to the electoral cycle, the possibility that another party or political opponent could win the elections can make the government more careful about managing public finances prudently and effectively. In principle, at least, if voters are not satisfied with the performance of public services delivered through the use of public money, then they have the opportunity to support a political alternative to the government in power. All public officers are subject to legal accountability mechanisms, which includes compliance with the Constitution, laws, decrees, rules, codes and other legal instruments that set out those actions that public officers should follow and those that they cannot take.
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And where there are legal accountability mechanisms, there is also a role for an independent judiciary system, which can enforce inquiries and the trials of public officers to judge how they manage public money. Finally, public officers have to comply with administrative accountability mechanisms. These are regulations and systems intended to ensure that the financial resources are managed properly at the organisational level. These will include, for example, independent auditors that review whether accounting records are correct; ombudsmen that hear and address citizens’ complaints; rules for whistleblowing, that is for the protection of employees who secretly report information about cases of misconduct; and the administrative courts that oversee charges over responsibility for the financial mismanagement of organisations.
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There is no single answer to how the government can be held accountable for the use of public money. There are, instead, several institutions and mechanisms that are designed to prevent, limit, or detect and sanction wrongdoings

We all want to know how and where our money is being spent, but how should governments be kept accountable for their financial conduct?

Dr Alberto Asquer explores the concept of government and the role played by elected and non-elected officials in strengthening accountability.

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Understanding Public Financial Management: How Is Your Money Spent?

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