Who stops the waste of taxpayer′s money? | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 28.05.2012
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Germany

Who stops the waste of taxpayer's money?

The German government is insisting that other European countries stick to their austerity programs - but in Germany itself there are few institutions that can control, let alone stop, exorbitant state expenditure.

A piggy bank on top of a German flag

Sparschwein Euro Sparen Symbolbild Bundeshaushalt

It would take 168 years for Germany to pay off its current government debt of over two trillion euros ($2.5 trillion). Even that long-term payback plan would only be possible if Germany paid off a billion euros every month and did not take on a single cent in further debt from now on.

This calculation was made by the German Taxpayers' Federation (BdSt) to demonstrate how problematic Germany's budget policy is, and how important control mechanisms are. The BdSt is a private body that represents some 300,000 members, making it the largest organization of its kind in the world

In Germany, decisions about expenditure are made by politicians in town councils, the 16 state parliaments and the Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament.

There are bodies which assess whether that expenditure is sensible, and whether the taxpayer's money is being invested properly: on the state level it's the Regional Audit Courts which are responsible, on the national level it's the Federal Audit Court.

Karl Heinz Däke presents the 2008 report

The BdSt keeps a record of the worst examples of public waste

Toothless tigers?

The Federal Audit Court in Bonn employs around 600 people, who process more than 500 cases a year, advising authorities to use money more effectively, or even to abandon a project. In one instance the court discovered that the military had ordered boats that were not suited to the operations they were intended for.

"We try to focus on the areas where billions of euros are being spent," court spokesman Martin Winter told DW - that often includes social affairs expenditure, as well as industry and agriculture. "It becomes particularly critical whenever the question of subsidies arises." He claims that the examples of "misplaced expenses" are so numerous that the court's work could potentially save the country between 1.5 billion and two billion euros a year.

But the court is not allowed to do any more than advise, and it has no power to punish an authority for misspending cash. The German constitution does guarantee both the federal and the state audit courts complete independence to investigate whatever department budgets they care to. Surprise audits are also possible, and the courts have the right to see all the files they want. But they can only report faults to the authority in question, giving them the opportunity to correct errors before anyone finds out about them.

These mistakes are only published - in a yearly report - if the authority has not followed the audit court's recommendations. In that case, the faults can be reviewed by the federal parliamentary budget committee, the only body with the power to intervene.

Demonstrators throw imitation bank notes out of a window

The BdSt says 30 billion euros go to waste every year

Punished for mis-spending state money

Essentially then, the final decisions, like the original budgets, are made by politicians with party-political interests. This circular process and the possibility of hiding mistakes have been heavily criticized by the BdSt.

The BdSt has been fighting state waste for decades, and has come to be recognized - by the population, if not by politicians - as a second controlling body. Every year, it catalogues what it considers the worst examples of waste and publishes them in a "black book" where people can read of controversial budget allocations - gold-rimmed manhole covers, superfluous bridges, uniforms ordered in the wrong size, overpriced construction projects or road repair works. All in all, the BdSt claims that a total of 30 billion euros are wasted every year.

"Whoever spends tax money irresponsibly or without thinking it through should be punished," demands BdSt President Karl Heinz Däke. It's a proposal that has been floated for decades - but so far nothing has been done. Hordes of legal experts have worked on the notion, but have not failed to find a solution that would conform to the constitution.

And politicians from almost all the parties defend the authorities, arguing, in the words of former Finance Minister Theo Weigel, "If such punishments were introduced, no one would make any decisions in this country ever again."

Critics of the idea also point to existing German laws that punish fraud and disloyalty to political office. And then there is the problem of proof - public money is obviously never deliberately wasted, say the parties.

But in response to such objections, the BdSt says that all too often, those in office dole out public money with too little sense of their responsibility. Governments seem to follow the motto: "I don't care - after all, it's not my money."

Author: Wolfgang Dick / bk
Editor: Michael Lawton

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