"If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it." – Peter Drucker (Management Consultant)
“In God we trust, all others must bring data.” – W. Edwards Deming (American Statistician)
When thinking about financial health of a company, or even a household, we know it’s important to understand their assets and liabilities. The quality of those assets makes all the difference. All things being equal, a homeowner with a house in good repair in a desirable neighborhood can get a bigger loan at a lower interest rate than someone whose building needs a new roof in a run-down location.
Countries are also judged by the quality of their assets and whether public investments strengthen prospects for sustainable economic growth. At a time of growing unease over indebtedness in developing countries, it is more important than ever that governments understand and report on the quality of their investment projects, as well as the state of physical assets in the form of bridges, roads, clinics, or schools. A true picture of financial accounting must include government’s main assets and liabilities and those of their State-Owned Enterprises.
But do countries know what they own? Not just what they owe? Recent diagnostics suggest they don’t. Let’s take a closer look.
Development partners, credit rating agencies and investors were keen to assess strength of countries’ public financial management but until recently didn’t pay much attention to public investment and asset management. It was only in 2015/ 2016 that such global diagnostic tools like the new Public Expenditure and Financial Accountability (PEFA) framework or dedicated Public Investment Assessments started looking at how national and sub-national Governments track their assets.
We took a look at the 52 PEFA reports since 2016 that have been made public to date and that include indicators on public investment and asset management. Overall, the performance on these core dimensions of good financial management is very low, particularly regarding asset monitoring.
On a ranking of A-D, with A marking best performance, the bulk were rated either D and C as can be seen in the figure below. Only the City of La Paz in Bolivia achieved an A on both scores. Only 42% of the assessed Governments had good scores on public investment management (A or B), while 58% scored a C or a D on both public investment and public asset management. When zooming on public asset management we found that a staggering 98% of Governments scored C or D, meaning basically that they focus more on new investments but do not know nor track the resulting stock of physical assets.
Figure 1: PEFA ratings for public investment and asset monitoring
Only in one third of the cases (17 of 52) were the flow and stock tracking ratings consistent. Even where information systems on public investment projects or assets exist, the quality of data may be lacking. Less than 10 percent of PEFA’s suggest tangible assets in financial reports, most probably for lack of comprehensive and current data on such assets. Moreover, PEFA only focused on the largest projects. The qualitative assessments suggest that among the different types of public assets, most efforts are being put into registering land assets, including for legal and taxation reasons.
And the Challenge is Getting Hotter
Countries without a comprehensive and up-to-date asset registry face challenges with planning and project selection, as there is no feedback loop that could inform prioritization or optimization of scarce public investments. For example, new vocational training centers are being build when neighboring primary schools are closing for lack of pupils due to an aging population or expensive new infrastructure are being built where there is no demand (the famous white elephants) when existing bridges threaten to collapse. Accurate data on the condition of public infrastructure and the need for maintenance can help avoid under-budgeting and the deterioration of public assets.
This gap in information makes it harder for governments to cope with climate-related extreme weather events. The growing frequency and severity of climate disasters are causing crippling damage and losses. For example, Dominica suffered 216% GDP of weather-related damage in 2017, Thailand 12% in 2011 and Kerala 2.6% GDP in 2018, according to the damage assessments.
Public infrastructure and assets, such as transport networks, are particularly exposed to such climate risks. A comprehensive asset registry would help governments assess the vulnerability of their respective assets, make better choices about mitigating the risks and prepare for reconstruction efforts. This is particularly important for developing countries which are more exposed, less resilient and as thus hardest hit by climate disaster.
For all these reasons, many countries have started mapping their public assets and critical infrastructure, like Kerala, India for example. Some countries went further and have embarked on projects to build full-fledged digital twins of their physical infrastructure. These include Virtual Singapore, as well as proposals in the UK. These digital government frontrunners may point to visions of future public asset and investment management innovations. But the global benchmarks to-date suggest that governments are still close to flying in the dark.
Addressing these public blind spots requires more coordination. Responsibility for public infrastructure assets is typically spread across different agencies and levels of government, even for one asset type. SOEs may also be responsible for assets, or balance sheets across government and SOEs. Ministries of Finance are increasingly coordinating this information fiscal and accounting reasons, and technology makes it easier for them today.
Success requires a four-step approach:
• foster demand for asset information and optimization, ideally by Ministry of Finance;
• prioritize key asset classes based on economic and fiscal significance and climate risk exposure;
• deploy new technologies, including richer image and sensor data acquisition, leveraging local and global private sector initiatives and partnerships;
• mainstream public asset information requirements in whole-of- government approach as part of annual and medium- term planning, budgeting and financial reporting.
Going forward, better public asset data is vital for a better management of fiscal consolidation and optimization, to catalyze private investments, manage threats of climate change, and make public debt more sustainable.
References and sources
PEFA Assments. The authors analyzed 52 PEFA reports post 2016 made public and which include Public Investment and Asset management (indicators PI 11 and 12), of which 21 were conducted at the sub-national level.