Public budgeting provides reflections on government usage of money – the primary source of which are taxpayers. Government expenditures clearly define the purpose of public budgets, as deliberated through various decision-making processes influenced by a great variety of actors. In The Politics of Public Budgets, Irene Rubin provided notable features of public budgeting. She said that public budgeting is characterized through the (1) diversity of the actors involved, (2) open nature of the budget, (3) usage of mechanisms ensuring accountability to the public, (4) constraints provided by law, public opinion, and the like, and (5) the difference between taxpayers and those who make decisions on allocating public money (Rubin, 1999). The complexity of public budgeting lies in the aforementioned characteristics, anchoring on the tenets of public accountability and public acceptability.
Rubin heavily emphasizes on the essence of public accountability and public acceptability to matters related to public budgeting (1999). It is because public money comes from the taxpayers, hence giving them the inherent right to inspect on the government’s usage of their tax payments. The government has to be accountable to the taxpayers in allocating public money for programs. In return, the taxpayers are bound to give opinions reflecting their acceptance on how the government has set and utilized public budgets, which will ultimately affect the government’s reputation (Rubin, 1999).
It is always important to focus on public accountability and public acceptability in assessing public budgets. The government ensures public accountability through the presentation of budget documents, described as an “important means of public accountability” (Rubin, 1999). The public nature of public budget documents renders it accessible to taxpayers and open to their scrutiny. That empowers taxpayers to check if “what officials promised them was actually delivered” (Rubin, 1999). However, it is noteworthy to point out that government administrators may tend to be selective in revealing details in public budget documents. They have wider freedom to select which details to include in the public budget document the more complex the nature of the public budget is. Tension between public accountability and public acceptability helps reduce government secrecy in public budgets. Despite of that, the government still practices selective inclusion of budget details in public budget documents remain to reduce disagreements that can hinder government programs to push through (Rubin, 1999).
The ill-fated Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) satellite project of the United States government highly reflects the accountability-acceptability tension highlighted by Rubin. As The New York Times reported in its article Death of a spy satellite program, both the government and its contractor Boeing contributed to the failure of the whole satellite project (2007). Introduction of the satellite project came in at a time when turbulent changes were happening within the government. The government downsizing efforts led by then-President Bill Clinton effected the transfer of large-scale military projects to private contractors. Congress also cut down on the amount allocated for the budget of the satellite project. In observance of that trend, a bidding process subjected the workings of the satellite project, the selection process having thinned down to two companies – Lockheed, which specializes in satellite construction and Boeing, an aerospace company and the eventual winner of the bidding process desperate to expand to another market at the height of its competition with Airbus.
The government was initially in favor of Boeing’s potential to finish the project, given its promising pool of engineers led by engineer and former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) official Ed Nowinski and the company’s acceptance of the rigid $5 billion budget per 5 years for the project (The New York Times, 2007). Rubin’s tension is highly apparent on the project’s concealed nature. Those who have worked on the satellite project have revealed its highly classified nature, while further testaments have revealed successive mishaps leading to the project’s demise – the nature of such attributing to Boeing’s effort to constrain itself on the limited budget which resulted to the failure of the whole undertaking. It is as if the aggregate $18 billion spent on the whole satellite project has vaporized – there was no substantial achievement reached in accordance to the project goals. Aggravating the whole matter was Boeing’s desperation to expand its market, which eventually transformed to incompetence. In the words of the New York Times article, the aerospace company was describe as “a contractor all too willing to make promises it ultimately could not keep” (2007).
At the same time, various circumstances flourishing at the time of the introduction of the satellite market affected the budget planning process for the satellite project. Government downsizing efforts compromised proper budget planning for a project that inevitably possessed astronomical dimensions in terms of costs. In the name of public acceptability, The New York Times pressed out the aforementioned facts through its article. As shown, whereas the government has exercised public accountability on the satellite project through the revelation of budget figures and several circumstances that led to its dim outcome, the tension was nevertheless apparent due to the classified nature of the subject matter, hence attracting various questions (The New York Times, 2007).
On a personal scale, I have no prior experience on the application of Rubin’s assertion on the tension between public accountability and public acceptability. The closest practical illustration that I can relate to Rubin’s assertion that closely relates to my environment right now would be in the form of a class project that requires funds. In that case, it is inevitable that the class must give equal monetary contributions to build up the funds for the project (unless if some students volunteer to contribute larger amounts) and elect a set of officers who will administer those funds. With the objective of meeting a target grade or incentive for the project, the class is entitled to information on how the class project funds are spent. Students can choose to refer to the main objectives of the class project, which they can correlate to the usage of class project funds. If some students think that there is mishandling of funds involved, then they can lodge any form of dissent demanding proper usage of the funds, alongside other forms of remedies discretionary to the nature of the case. It is in that aspect of that case in which I believe Rubin’s assertion of public accountability-public acceptability will apply.
The students in the class, being microcosmic representations of citizens within any form of government jurisdiction, have one common goal concerning the usage of class project funds (which is the aggregation of their contributions) – to accomplish a class project and to achieve the highest possible grade standard for it. Yet, as Rubin asserts, the students have no direct power to manipulate those people tasked to administer the funds. The whole scenario I have provided above can be reminiscent of a representative form of government, in which citizens elect a congressional representative – one who appropriates budgets for programs within its jurisdiction. The citizenry can choose to vote out or refuse to reelect the representative if there is a strong belief that the representative has mismanaged public funds (Rubin, 1999).
As applied to my case, should there be another class project, the people can choose not to elect the same set of people administering funds for the current class project if they believe that the funds are mismanaged and the project ultimately failed. In the same light, selectivity can also ensue in the case I provided which, as Rubin pointed out, may ease out tensions on public accountability and acceptability. Depending on the complexity of the budget for the class project, funds administrators may choose to remove details that will make the budget document look dubious and instead focus on exposing the highly salient and satisfactory details, which will highlight public accountability on their part. The real danger in that aspect will arise if the whole project ends in failure. Such will inevitably raise questions anew on budget expenditures, as in the case of the FIA – described as highly classified in nature (The New York Times, 2007). There will be a renewal of tension between public accountability and public acceptability once the end to which the public budget serves as means fail to materialize.
Death of a spy satellite program. (2007, November 11). The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/.
Rubin, I. (1999). The politics of public budgeting: Getting and spending, borrowing and balancing. Washington, DC: CQ Press.