Reforming Financial Management In The Public Sector | Article

Lessons U.S. Officials Can Learn From New Zealand

Executive Summary

In governments across the world, public-sector financial systems are being transformed more fundamentally than at any time in decades.

The changes taking place—in governments from Wellington, New Zealand to London, England—respond to a number of deficiencies of government accounting and financial-management systems, specifically,

  • Accountability is unclear.
  • Goals and performance requirements of government departments are poorly specified.
  • Incentives often encourage dysfunctional behavior (for example, year-end spending).
  • Assets are poorly maintained, and changes in value or depreciation are poorly recorded.
  • Losses and long-term liabilities are hidden by cash-based accounting systems.
  • Responsiveness to changing circumstances is slow.
  • Global competitive forces that demand efficiency for survival are often ignored in designing governmental financial systems.

Moreover, an important consideration for fiscal policy is intergenerational fairness. By allowing governments to hide both their liabilities and the real state of their finances, traditional government financial reporting enables governments to pass off present costs to future generations.

These problems are receiving attention in state and local governments in the United States. In response to the inadequacies of traditional government accounting and financial management, the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB), which is charged with setting standards for government financial reporting, proposed major changes in government financial systems. Part of the change includes moving from traditional modified cash accounting (officially called modified accrual) to the business model of accrual accounting.

As U.S. state and local governments begin the transition to new and improved financial and accounting systems, they could find no better model for how to get from the traditional to the new than in New Zealand. New Zealand has moved further than any other government in the world in revamping its financial management, accounting, and budgeting systems.

New Zealand’s reforms have four main features:

  1. Adoption of accrual accounting and budgeting;
  2. Introduction of a capital charge and decentralized authority to buy and sell assets;
  3. Output-based management and budgeting; and
  4. Devolution of financial decision making coupled with increased accountability.

Together, these reforms have had a dramatic impact on the New Zealand public sector. Thanks in part to these reforms, the quality of financial information has vastly improved, efficiency has increased, assets are managed more proactively, accountability is stronger, and public disclosure of information has improved immensely.

For U.S. policymakers embarking on overhauling and modernizing their financial management and accounting systems, the highly acclaimed New Zealand reforms offer powerful lessons. This study concludes with seven strategic lessons on financial-management reform for U.S. policymakers.

Part 1 – Introduction

Getting financial incentives right is essential in management reform. In government, no less than in the marketplace, money is a powerful signal; it prods entities to produce more or less, to care about costs or to ignore them, to be more or less efficient, to take risk or to avoid it. The old command-and-control system gave managers the message that risk would not be rewarded, that inefficiency would not be penalized, that what mattered most was complying with present rules and restrictions.
—Allen Schick, Professor of Public Policy, University of Maryland

When Stephen Goldsmith was elected mayor of Indianapolis in 1992, the city had a great credit rating and slick, four-color glossy financial reports rivaling those of Fortune 500 companies. But when he starting asking around to find out how much it cost to fill a pothole, plant a tree, or clean out the sewers no one could tell him. Without this data, it was impossible to know whether city services were being delivered efficiently, and he couldn’t accurately compare the costs of public-sector delivery with that in the private sector. Explains the mayor, “We used standard government accounting principles that prevented our managers from stealing money, but did nothing to stop them from wasting it. . . . As a direct result, city employees neither knew nor cared about their costs of doing business.” We have heard similar refrains from hundreds of public officials and elected officeholders.

A. Problems with Public-Sector Accounting Systems

The problems Mayor Goldsmith encountered with his city’s accounting and financial-management systems upon taking office were not unique to Indianapolis. They are common to government accounting and financial-management systems all over the world. Six major deficiencies are characteristic of government financial systems:

  1. Accountability is unclear.
  2. Goals and performance requirements of government departments are poorly specified.
  3. Incentives often encourage dysfunctional behavior (for example, year-end spending).
  4. Asset levels are poorly maintained, and changes in value or depreciation are not required to be recorded.
  5. Losses, long-term liabilities, and future revenues are obscured by modified cash-based accounting systems.
  6. Responsiveness to changing circumstances is slow.
  7. Global competitive forces that demand efficiency for survival are often ignored in designing governmental financial systems.

B. The Current Movement to Reform and Reinvent Government

In response to these widely acknowledged inadequacies, there is a growing movement to overhaul government financial management, reporting, and accounting systems. Australia, Great Britain, and Canada are among the nations undertaking a complete overhaul of their financial-management systems.

In the United States, the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB), which establishes standards of financial accounting and reporting for state and local governments, is taking a lead role in pushing public-sector entities to adopt financial and accounting practices more closely aligned with the private-sector business model.

GASB’s new financial accounting standards for state and local governments would take effect the first fiscal year after June 15, 2001. These require, for the first time, that state and local governments use accrual accounting at a government-wide level, meaning that both short- and long-term assets and liabilities must be fully reported for the government as a whole. This contrasts with the present accounting system in which only the government’s cash and other current financial resources are recorded, and then only by separate funds (except for enterprise funds). Recording the value of all assets and liabilities constitutes a sea change in government financial reporting and management, making it difficult for governments to hide liabilities and pass on current costs to future generations without public scrutiny.

Because GASB operates under the principle of “due process” and “general acceptance” for its standards, its proposed new standards have been thoroughly discussed and debated for years among state and local auditors, comptrollers, financial officers, elected officials, bond raters, lenders, citizens, and other interested parties. Within the past two years the standards have come close to gaining general acceptance.

In addition to transforming government accounting, state and local governments in the United States are moving to improve financial management in general. In the budgeting area, for example, there is a movement to expand the focus beyond inputs for the budget (i.e. number of vehicles and number of employees) towards a “performance-based” or “output-based” management and budgeting model. This approach was first pioneered by the city of Sunnyvale, California in the 1970s and since then numerous cities and states have experimented with performance-budgeting models. Few other U.S. governments, however, have moved as far as Sunnyvale in basing budgeting and management decisions on outputs, instead of inputs.

The History of GASB’s Movement to Accrual Accounting

Growing acceptance of GASB’s proposed standards for a government-wide and accrual approach took decades to emerge. One of the important events leading to the consideration of the government-wide accrual approach occurred in 1984 when GASB was created. GASB was designed as an independent standards-setting board to serve a wide range of user needs, not just government officials. To provide GASB with visibility and stature, it was given equal status with the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), the rule-making body for the business sector.

The rule-making body replaced by GASB came under the auspices of the National Council of Governmental Accounting (NCGA). Historically, NCGA and its predecessors rejected a government-wide accrual-type model in favor of a cash-based fund model. The cash oriented fund approach was considered most appropriate for government policy-making needs. However, with mounting fiscal turmoil experienced by several major cities in the 1970s and with growing opposition to NCGA as a private rule-making body, NCGA relinquished rule-making authority to GASB.

Three years after being organized, GASB took an important step in the movement to the government-wide accrual model by developing a new framework for state and local financial reporting called Concepts Statement No. 1 (1987). It established several goals as the foundation for financial reporting. These were:

  • Interperiod equity (also called intergeneration equity).
  • Efficiency.
  • Compliance.

Although GASB did not say accrual was imperative, the first goal, and to some extent the second, could not be achieved without some type of accrual accounting and government-wide reporting. For interperiod equity to be assessed, all costs have to be matched against the revenue for the year; otherwise, payment for promises and commitments made today could be passed on to future generations.

Following the Concepts Statement No. 1 in 1987, GASB took a partial approach to broaching a government-wide and accrual model. In 1990, GASB set accrual standards (Statement 11) for the revenue statement (formally called revenue, expenditures, and changes in fund balances) but not the balance sheet. In 1993, this partial effort (Statement 11) was put on permanent hold until GASB could develop a full- reporting model. Finally, in 1997, GASB decided to offer a major government-wide and accrual element to address the issue of long-term assets and liabilities and to be of value to a wide spectrum of users.

Nonetheless, GASB felt that the fund approach served some users and proposed to allow both the accrual-based government-wide and cash-based fund approach to constitute the financial reporting model. Because two approaches were included, the reporting model is called the dual perspective. Although the dual perspective is still undergoing changes, adopting business-like accounting standards for state and local government has more support than anytime in decades.

To develop a broad and integrated financial-management system, accrual accounting, output-based budgeting and performance measures, devolution of decision making, and strict accountability mechanisms represent the future of public-sector financial management. For lessons on how to implement these reforms in a comprehensive, holistic manner, governments all over the world are increasingly looking to New Zealandæ which has moved further towards a business model of financial management than any other government in the world, with impressive results.

C. The New Zealand Model

Before it introduced its reforms in the 1990s, New Zealand’s financial-management system had the same problems as most other governments. Previously, the New Zealand government had operated a conventional cash-based, centralized, government-accounting system, within a fund-based structure. The system was developed in the late 1960s and had been influenced by the Planning, Programming, Budgeting System (PPBS) model that was also popular in government budgeting in the United States. The system was program-based within a relatively centralized management system.

The fiscal position of the New Zealand government at the time was typical of many governments world wide. A significant proportion of tax revenue was dedicated to meeting annual financing costs. Long-term deficits and accumulated debt were at highly constraining, and possibly unsustainable, levels.

In response to the inadequacies of traditional government accounting and financial management, New Zealand made sweeping reforms. The revolutionary and innovative reforms include:

  • Budgeting, accounting, and appropriations are now all done on an accrual basis.
  • There is a charge for the use of capital. The charge rate is benchmarked to the private sector (adjusted for the impact of taxation).
  • All budgeting and management is done according to outputs not inputs.
  • Managerial discretion is significantly greater than in other nations.
  • Accountability mechanisms have real teeth, with incentive mechanisms more systematic and rigorous than perhaps any other nation in the world.
  • The reforms apply some simple general principles across the whole of government to achieve a high degree of internal consistency.

These financial reforms did not occur in isolation. They were part of a movement to make the New Zealand economy more competitive as well as to make the government more competitive and accountable. The financial-system innovations occurred in conjunction with significant deregulation of the economy, restructuring of government activity, a large reduction in government’s share of the GDP, and extensive corporatization and privatization. A recent U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) study indicates that New Zealand privatized far more as a percentage of GDP in a shorter space of time than other nations studied.

Part 2 – Key Features of the New Zealand Reforms

The ideas underlying the New Zealand reforms apply to any government. They represent good management practices—what one would expect to see in any well-managed organization, public or private. New Zealand’s reforms themselves are not unique, but their comprehensiveness and internal consistency are. The key to the New Zealand reforms, and to governmental reform in general, is recognizing that fundamental change in the performance of government requires changing the incentives facing people within government.

New Zealand shows the extent to which accounting, budgeting, and financial-management reforms can be successfully applied in the public sector, provided that they are part of a well-designed system. For the United States, and other governments, the New Zealand reforms present a challenge: If a government can be run in this fashion, why would we continue with outmoded conventional practices?

A. Accrual Accounting

1. Concept

Alone in the world, New Zealand now operates its entire financial-management system on an accrual basis, using essentially the same accounting policies and rules used by companies in the private sector. The quality of internal financial information is now comparable with that of a large well-run corporation and the external reporting is arguably superior. These changes have received widespread acceptance within the bureaucracy.

All budgeting, whether internal to departments or for the government (as a whole), is now on an accrual basis, meaning the expected impact on assets and liabilities of the government are fully reported, rather than simply reporting the current cash inflows, outflows, and cash holdings of the government. Moreover, monthly budget reports, appropriations, and financial reporting by each department and the whole government are all on a full accrual, rather than cash, basis. As a result, the full per time-period cost of an action is projected and tracked, not simply the cash outlays. Said another way, in the accrual approach to budgeting, efforts are made to make the budget more actuarially sound—known future expenses and income that create liabilities or assets, respectively, and are caused by decisions in the current period, are estimated and placed in the budget.

In order to keep track of budget expectations and actual financial impacts, the annual financial statements of the New Zealand government are produced within three months of year-end. In each period since the inception of the accrual accounting, the financial statements have received a clean audit opinion. In addition, the government produces and publishes annual financial statements on a full-accrual basis, normally within one month of year-end.

A key to the success of the accrual reforms in New Zealand was simultaneously moving the appropriations, budgets, and end-of-period financial statements for government departments to an accrual basis. This enabled plans and the budgets to be measured against actual results. It also avoided conflicting objectives between the budgeting and accounting systems.

The Difference Between Cash and Accrual Accounting

Cash accounting: Records receipts when it is banked and payments (sometimes referred to as expenditures) when cash is paid. It does not record many of the impacts on assets and liabilities that will result from the consequences or events associated with the transaction. For instance, with cash accounting, money borrowed via a long-term arrangement is recorded as a cash inflow. The long-term liability is not brought into the financial statements until it is due and payable. Under accrual accounting, the money raised is both an inflow and a liability.

Accrual accounting: Recognizes events and transactions when they occur, regardless of when cash changes hands. By recording accounts payable and receivable, and thus the change in value of the assets and liabilities, it keeps a running tally of what an organization owns and owes in economic terms. If a government promises pension benefits in the current period and must pay retirement claims in future periods, the liability and expense is recorded when the event occurred. When the cash is actually paid, the liability is removed

Accounting Spectrum: Cash and accrual are important focal points in the discussion of accounting and financial reporting. However, there are variations on each. In governments, the approach can be a modified-cash approach. For instance, governments often record short-term liabilities (those payable with current assets) but only list long-term items “off balance sheet.” These systems are called modified-accrual although they are closer to cash.

Accrual also can vary by the extent of changes and events recognized. More and more, accrual recognizes a wider range of changes and events such as the rise or fall of security prices or the promise of stock options, even though the securities have not been sold or options exercised. The phrases, cash and accrual, are, nonetheless, indicative of the difference between a system that basically waits until cash changes hand versus a system that records events when the event occurs.

With the accrual logic used in New Zealand, the Statement of Financial Performance (also known as the Operating Statement or the Profit and Loss Account) shows the financial results of an organization’s activities for a period. That is, were sufficient revenues recognized to cover all expenses? The Statement of Financial Position (also known as the Balance Sheet) shows all financial items the organization owns and owes at a certain point in time, providing insights to the organization’s ability to pay its entire debt. A Statement of Cash Flows is also provided to reconcile the accrual accounts with changes in cash balances. It provides a picture of cash inflows and outflows. Cash flows constitute an important part of understanding sources and disbursements of cash plus future ability to survive. The cash view is important; however, on its own it is inadequate to assess financial health and performance.

2. Why Shift to Accrual Accounting?

a. Background: Public and Private Financial Reporting Drift Apart
Public-sector and private-sector accounting grew apart over a long period of time. While public-sector accounting has remained on a cash basis, the private sector developed generally accepted accounting practices (which included accrual accounting) in response to several key commercial and political pressures.

First, the distancing of owners and lenders from managers, driven by the development of financial markets, created a need for better and more transparent information on how well departments are run. Second, growing competition drove the requirement for better management information on which to base decisions (such as price setting).

Accrual accounting is designed to provide critical information to owners and lenders. If major pieces of equipment are becoming obsolete, or long-term liabilities are accumulating, owners and lenders want to know now, not when the equipment is sold or scrapped, or when the liabilities come due. The absence of similar pressures in the public sector caused the stagnation of public-sector accounting. Legislators typically focus on whether money is spent as appropriated.

b. Problems with Cash Accounting and Current Financial-Management Practices
Cash accounting satisfies the annual compliance interest of legislators, but unfortunately has a number of serious drawbacks, including:

  • Failure to accurately represent the amount of resource usage. For instance, a large capital acquisition will distort expenditure upward in the first year but the usage of that asset will not be recognized in following years.
  • Failure to take account of future commitments, guarantees, or other contingent liabilities. A liability will not be recognized until the cash is paid to settle the debt.
  • Concentration on cash payments alone, sometimes resulting in an unnoticed deterioration in fixed assets.
  • Control of the inputs purchased rather than the outputs produced.
  • Distortion of incentives by encouraging managers to underestimate the costs of programs and to spend their full annual appropriations.

c. World-Wide Market Competition
In the past two decades the forces of interstate and international competition have mounted, as have unsustainable fiscal commitments by governments. In response, many governments are attempting to reform and “reinvent” government activities in an effort to reduce government size and improve efficiency. New Zealand was subject to these pressures earlier than many governments, and answered in part with accounting reforms. It is likely that the same global market forces will make the adoption of accrual accounting by other governments inevitable in the next two decades.

d. Owner-Purchaser Distinction
The government has two relationships with its departments: 1) as their “owner”, and 2) as the “purchaser” of the goods and services they produce. The task of specifying performance expectations becomes clearer and easier once these two relationships are distinguished. Thinking of the government as a purchaser of the departments’ services, distinct from its role as owner of departments, is intuitively appealing and supported by the theories of property rights, principle/agent interactions, and governance.

As the owner of a department, the government is interested in how effectively resources are being maintained and used. For instance, how quickly does the Audit Department collect outstanding debts? How much property does the Ministry of Defense own? (Is this level suitable?) Cash accounts, which exclude most assets and liabilities, are inadequate for answering these questions. Only accrual-based financial statements provide the necessary information in a systematic manner.

As “purchaser” of services from departments, the government is looking for quality of goods and services at the best competitive price. While nonfinancial measures are generally necessary to measure quality, accrual accounting provides the information, in association with the output quality and other nonfinancials, on which to compare price. Once again cash accounting is inadequate because some elements of resource usage (e.g., depreciation) are not fully allocated to outputs.

f. Intergenerational Equity
Intergenerational fairness is important in fiscal policy. It reflects the degree to which the government today is paying the costs of services today, as opposed to shifting costs to other periods. Accrual accounting provides a longer-term perspective for judging the impact of policies. For example, without accrual accounting, decisions on pensions that create pension liabilities may not fully consider the impact of the liabilities on future budgets.

4. Results of New Zealand’s Accrual Accounting Reforms

The adoption of accrual accounting is an unqualified success in New Zealand’s reform process. A survey of government managers revealed that of the many public-sector management reforms that have occurred in New Zealand, the accrual reforms received the highest grade. The survey author notes that “accrual accounting is being adopted increasingly by a number of nations, developed and developing, and [the New Zealand reforms] appear to have improved the ability to identify inefficiencies in the costing and provision of public services and enhanced accountability.”

Another study found that the financial-management reforms helped New Zealand improve its compliance with measurements of aggregate fiscal discipline from 26 percent in 1984 to 94 percent in 1994. According to the authors, “prior to the reforms, most public financial statements and budgetary documents were not available to the general public for scrutiny and, even if they were made available, they could not be easily understood even by accountants and financial experts in the private sector. Consequently, government performance was largely nontransparent. The adoption of accrual accounting changed this dramatically.”

5. Lessons for U.S. Governments

a. Change Can be Accomplished Relatively Quickly
One lesson from New Zealand is that change can be accomplished quickly. Legislation requiring departments to develop accrual accounting systems was passed in early July 1989. It gave departments two years to move from their existing situation to the new full accrual basis: all but three of approximately 45 departments effected the change successfully within one year.

The entire government moved its financial reporting to an accrual basis in December 1991, as required by the Public Finance Act, but it was not until 1994 that the budget was on this basis. Since 1994, the government’s entire financial-management system has been on a full accrual basis. While the whole process, from initial policy development to implementation, took seven years, one major change, moving departments onto an accrual basis, effectively took less than two years.

b. Comprehensiveness
The major difference between the New Zealand accrual reforms and what is currently favored by GASB in the United States is that New Zealand moved its entire financial reporting, accounting, and budgeting system to an accrual basis. GASB, on the other hand, is currently moving towards recommending an incremental approach to financial reporting—budgeting and accounting reforms have to be implemented by state and local policymakers. At least for the time being, governments would report government-wide financial statements on an accrual basis, while individual governmental funds continue to report according to the current modified- accrual method. The rationale for keeping funds on their current basis while moving government-wide statements to full accrual is that different users of the financial reports have different needs; those who are more interested in short-term finances may find the fund perspective most useful, while those wanting a longer-term perspective are likely to find the government-wide accrual statements the most relevant.

Part of the rationale for GASB’s limited approach is that financial reporting standards should be “evolutionary, rather than revolutionary” and that “established practices that provide useful information should be retained.”

Despite the long-enunciated and supported tradition of evolutionary progress, the partial inclusion of accrual in the dual-perspective approach has elicited some controversy among GASB’s user audience. For example, the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) objects to the new standards, saying that: 1) the reforms will be costly, 2) government accountants will have a very hard time implementing the changes, and 3) there simply must be an easier way to improve financial management. GFOA claims that the information provided by accrual accounting is “of no demonstrable value to decision makers.” Many elected officials would not agree with that statement.

c. Policy Recommendations
How far should U.S. state and local governments go in shifting to an accrual system for the financial statements, and, for that matter, using accrual accounting across the financial system? How far should GASB go in proposing more comprehensive reforms?

U.S. governments typically link budgeting, appropriations, accounting, reporting, and even auditing systems, but do not integrate them into a single financial-management system. Parts of the financial-management system can be on cash, others, modified accrual, and still others, accrual.

A major obstacle to eliminating or dramatically changing the cash-oriented funds or moving budgets to an accrual format is that legislatures budget largely on a cash basis and funds are designed to reflect and check for compliance with cash-oriented legislative budgets. In America’s federal system, GASB cannot mandate legislative bodies to budget on an accrual basis.

In the U.S. environment of states’ rights, checks and balances, strong interest groups, and independent accounting standard setting, comprehensive solutions to the range of financial-management issues are more difficult to implement than in parliamentary systems like New Zealand. A realistic accrual-reform agenda for the United States would create a system of financial reports based on accrual accounting and:

  • Place the main reporting emphasis on the accrual-based, government-wide financial statements. This will focus users on how the government as a whole is doing financially. GASB is already moving in this direction.

  • Add a statement of cash flows to the government-wide perspective. A statement of cash flow provides the picture of where money is raised and where it was spent for the year. In other words, a statement of cash flow gives the shorter-term perspective. Private nonprofit organizations in the United States, which share some characteristics of government, have dropped funds, moved to entity-wide reporting, use a statement of cash flow, and rely on accrual.
  • Require that governments, as a part of GAAP, change the legislative budget (or budgets and authorizations) to an accrual basis. Funds or departments would then use accrual accounting and be easily comparable to the accrual-based budgets. The administrative translation of nonaccrual legislative budgets to accrual budgets could begin as pilot projects.
  • Use full accrual for funds or departments, treat departments like subsidiaries, and use commercial methods to consolidate the accrual-based funds to the government-wide approach. Consider placing the funds in the notes or in Required Supplemental Information (RSI).
  • Meet legal compliance with the legislative budget with one report, in the notes or RSI, that compares the legislatively adopted budget (or budgets) with the actual, using whatever method the legislature employs.

All of these changes should be directed to a goal of putting financial-management systems on an outcome basis, moving away from today’s input-oriented systems.

This approach would allow state and local governments to move toward a comprehensive accrual approach to financial management, yet provide a budgetary compliance report to address legal demands of the legislative body. These ideas are somewhat controversial, but with fast-paced, world wide financial changes taking place, GASB may need to adopt a more revolutionary, rather than evolutionary posture. Right now, as it struggles with basic accrual issues that have already been accepted by other governments, GASB is facing pressure to be even more aggressive with accrual.

Issues of deferred compensation for executives, market-to-market for securities and other assets and liabilities, and aggressive reporting of contingencies are all serious accounting issues in U.S. political and financial circles—and GASB’s recommendations go a long ways toward addressing them. The idea that governments are so different from market operations that they must rely largely on cash-based compliance reporting is outdated. Governments are involved in markets in so many ways that accounting issues relevant to markets are relevant to governments.

Whether legislatures would tolerate seeing their nonaccrual budgets being converted to an accrual basis is open to question. Legislative tendencies to promise now and pay later would be challenged. One good way to move towards an accrual-driven financial system would be to establish an administrative pilot converting the legislative budget to an accrual budget and making the central financial report accrual oriented. The pilot can generate valuable lessons on using performance information and moving to outputs.

It will not be easy for GASB and state and local governments to make a comprehensive accrual-based financial system part of their agendas. But a solid commitment to accrual for the financial statements would likely have a spillover effect on other aspects of financial management. The visibility of liabilities and activities in the balance sheet would make evident the value of the change.

B. The Capital Charge and Decentralized Authority to Buy and Sell Assets

Key Benefits of the Capital Charge
Provides an incentive to reduce levels of investment and restructure the asset holdings of the department so more efficient structures can be found.

Makes explicit to the government the cost of maintaining its capital investment in departments.

Allows management of resources to be made at the departmental level, instead of having to continually be referred to higher levels.

Ensures that prices for goods and services produced by departments reflect full production costs. (This allows the department’s output production costs to be compared with those of other producers).

Forces managers to include the cost of capital when comparing the cost of services produced by government entities with the cost of private-sector provision.

1. The Concept of the Capital Charge

Prior to the 1990s, New Zealand departments were not renowned for their stewardship of assets. As Alan Gibbs, a private businessman who headed up several government corporation boards of directors, relates:

The Government was extremely extravagant with capital. One of the first things we did was collect up all the excess bulldozers, bits of machinery and gear and toys that the Forest Service had accumulated with the extra money it was getting, and we put it in a big yard. . . there was acres and acres of it—and we had a huge auction. This was equipment that would make your eyes fall out, it was beautiful new plant and it was totally unnecessary.

In keeping with the overriding framework of the reforms, managers are given more freedom to manage but are also held more accountable for results. On one hand, chief executives are given the authority to buy and sell assets without a specific appropriation from Parliament, enabling them to choose the right mix of capital. On the other hand, they are subject to a capital charge that forces them to prioritize asset purchases and gives them an incentive to sell surplus assets. The capital charge essentially applies an interest rate to all capital, creating an actual cost for using capital. The charge creates an incentive to balance a capital expenditure against its usefulness in achieving the agency’s goals.

In the private sector, investors and lenders supply capital to private-sector organizations in return for dividend and interest payments (the “cost of capital”). Paying for capital makes firms weigh the merits of alternative investments and choose the ones that provide the most benefits.

In New Zealand, the capital charge serves as a proxy in the public sector for the cost of providing capital to departments. When the government spends money on a capital project, it has less to spend on other priorities. The capital charge, combined with outcome goals, forces government managers to make more efficient and effective capital investments and frees up tax dollars for other uses.

The calculation of the capital charge is performed semi-annually and is based on the department’s net worth (equity). On net, however, the capital charge does not cost the central government anything.

2. Results of Reform

a. Better Asset Management
The capital charge is designed to encourage better asset management from New Zealand public managers by providing incentives for departments to: 1) extract the greatest value from the use of their assets, and 2) periodically review whether assets are necessary to the department’s mission. For example, tracts of vacant land serving no open-space objectives or underutilized buildings will cost the department money. The capital charge provides a powerful incentive to sell or lease these assets.

Studies of the capital charge show that most chief financial officers of departments say it has led them to pay greater attention to asset utilization. They also say it provides an incentive to return unneeded or inefficient capital to the government.

In 1993, Pricewaterhouse was commissioned by the Treasury to survey the effects of the capital charge. In its report, Pricewaterhouse stated that “[our] overall conclusion is that the capital charge regime has been very successful in making explicit to chief executives the costs of owning assets.” This has been of particular relevance where third-party charging is concerned. Says the study: “There are sufficient examples of the way in which the charge has influenced behavior to state unequivocally that the concept has been successful and that it is important to continue the regime and where possible improve upon it.”

Among the examples provided in the Pricewaterhouse report were:

  • The case of the Ministry of Transport, where, “the realisation that it was unlikely that capital costs on a number of airports could be recovered in landing charges led to active steps being taken to dispose of such assets.”
  • The reduction of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries’ (MAF) working capital through prepayment of accounts receivable. MAF charges fees for providing meat inspection services to slaughterhouses. The industry agreed to pay MAF’s inspection fees in advance, which reduced MAF’s capital charge. In return, MAF agreed to reduce the level of its fees.

Another study, in 1995, found that thanks to the cash-management and capital-charge reforms, better use of supplier credit and improved utilization of cash saves the government around NZ$31 million per year in interest costs.

b. Rationalization of Capital
The capital charge encouraged managers to take a hard look at the benefits of assets relative to their cost. For example, it had a significant impact on the Foreign Affairs Ministry. When capital was considered a free good, the ministry had accumulated over $400 million worth of assets overseas. Once the capital charge was put in place and ambassadors were forced to pay interest on this capital, they quickly realized that they had a substantial amount of money tied up in very expensive property and began to look for ways to economize.

In some nations, for purposes of diplomacy, it made little difference how luxurious the embassy and its surroundings were. For example, in Singapore with land values rising quickly, the foreign ministry sold the old colonial building which had housed the embassy offices for a tidy sum and moved to a high-rise office building.

In another case, when the New Zealand ambassador to the United States arrived at the embassy in Washington, D.C., he noticed that the artwork there was extremely valuable. He decided that he didn’t want to pay the capital charge on the artwork out of his budget, so he sent much of it back to New Zealand and asked for less-valuable art.

c. Decline in Requests for Capital
Another effect of the capital charge is that requests for additional capital have dropped off. Because department heads know they will have to pay the additional charge, they have a disincentive to seek a capital injection unless the department is confident it can pay the additional capital charge. New capital must pay for itself by increasing productivity.

3. Lessons for U.S. Policymakers

Unlike the New Zealand government or the private sector, state and local governments in the United States do not have to show the full cost of acquiring, constructing, or leasing capital assets. Only annual cash outlays are reported in government accounting and budgets—liabilities, accrued interest, and depreciation is not recorded. As a result, many U.S. governments have too much or the wrong kind of capital assets.

GASB’s proposed reforms suggest a new treatment of capital assets for government financial reporting, both at the time of acquisition or construction, and during the useable life. As a result, U.S. state and local governments will have a better (but not true market) picture of all the costs of capital.

Under the GASB proposals, at the government-wide reporting level, any debt related to the acquisition of capital assets would be a long-term liability, and any accrued interest would be an expense. For capital assets constructed by the government, an estimated interest rate would have to be calculated and included as a cost. Capital leases would also result in long-term liabilities and interest charges.

Once the liabilities and interest charges are incorporated into the financial statements, an accrual system will allocate the cost of the capital asset (usually, minus salvage value) to the time period when it is used. GASB is currently leaning towards giving governments an option of two different approaches. They may either: 1) report the capital asset at historical cost and have an annual use charge (depreciation) applied against current-year operations; or 2) adopt a preservation maintenance approach whereby only governments that can demonstrate they are maintaining infrastructure can charge maintenance-preservation costs as expenses rather than depreciation. These governments would be required to disclose information about the condition of those assets for a period spanning several years.

By showing debt as a long-term liability, accrued interest as an expense, and periodic use as an expense or liability, GASB is building in a cost of borrowing. As a result, governments will have to reveal if they are covering all liabilities; otherwise their net worth will be negative. Governments will also have to generate sufficient revenues to cover the annual interest and period charges. At that point, they are essentially paying for the cost of borrowing.

C. Output-based Management

New Zealand’s experience has proved that a system of output appropriation provides a workable alternative to the traditional input-based system and can yield substantial advantages for both departmental management and government decision makers.
—Graham Scott, Former Secretary of the New Zealand Treasury

Key Benefits of Output-based Management

  • Gives added incentive to charge for services that give certain parties unusual or specific benefits.
  • Allows more discretion and innovation in choosing how much and which kinds of inputs to use to provide services.
  • Increases focus on achieving policy goals (outputs and outcomes).
  • Reduces ability of legislators to engage in pork-barrel spending.

2. Outputs Versus Outcomes

The New Zealand management system has been subjected to criticism over its focus on outputs rather than outcomesæ after all, governments are interested in outcomes, not outputs. In reality, ministers purchase outputs that they hope will bring about desired outcomes, and department managers use inputs to create the outputs. Outputs are easier to measure than outcomes, so it is easier to hold chief executives accountable to deliver agreed services (outputs). Using outcomes directly to measure performance is problematic for several reasons:

  • Causality is difficult to determine with any certainty. It is often very hard to show a causal relationship between an outcome and the activities of a particular government department. As Table 3 illustrates, the government purchases outputs (policing services: traffic offenses) in an attempt to achieve outcomes (reduction of road deaths). But road deaths increased against the trend in 1995. The increase was partially due to a combination of bad weather and a large jump (6 percent) in vehicle registrations (due to a buoyant economy and a reduction in tariffs on vehicle imports). Should the chief executive of the police department be held responsible for the rise?
  • Measurement can be very difficult. For example, how should we measure the success of a suicide-prevention campaign?
  • Time-frames for outcome achievement can often be very long. It can take many years, possibly decades, before the impact of education or health initiatives can be assessed.
  • Allocating input costs to outputs already strains the limits of accounting technology. Taking the next step and allocating output costs to outcomes would in most cases be impossible.

These problems mean that outcomes have limited value as the basis for effective accountability relationships in most cases. This is not to say that departments should not be concerned about outcomes in planning the services they provideæ they should. In fact, for many services it is possible for governments to contract with a public or private provider for outcomes. One example is welfare-to-work services: a number of governments have entered into outcome-based contracts with private providers in which the providers are only paid for each client that they help to find and to keep a job.

Nonetheless, as the basis for organizing a budgeting system, outputs are a more appropriate and practical measurement tool than outcomes.

3. Results of Reform and Lessons for U.S. Policymakers

a. More Information Upon Which to Make Informed Choices
Ruth Richardson, a former finance minister of New Zealand, credits the new system with enabling her to win approval for, and implement, a series of significant fiscal decisions in her first (1991) budget. She says, “The new focus on outputs meant ministers had genuinely meaningful information about the services produced by their departments and were in a position to make informed trade-offs between competing priorities.”

b. The End of Pork Barrel Spending
Budgeting based on outputs and outcomes, coupled with purchase agreements that specify the quality, quantity, price, and timeliness of each output the chief executive is to supply the government, have largely eliminated pork-barrel spending in New Zealand. Because each agency chief executive has complete control over the mix of inputs they use to produce outputs, from road construction to science spending, the mix of projects funded is determined principally on a cost-benefit analysis by the relevant agencies. “With our system, there is no political interference on where the money goes for roads,” says Stuart Milne, Chief Executive of the Ministry of Transport.

Simon Upton, a Member of Parliament, agrees: “I couldn’t imagine having people coming through this office all day lobbying for special favors,” says Upton. “Our new system is a good security against corruption in politics.”

Sunnyvale California’s Output-Based Budgeting System

With detailed information at their fingertips on the quantity, quality, and cost of each service they deliver, the Sunnyvale city council doesn’t even bother voting on line items. The council tells each department what results it wants and the department returns to the council with detailed figures on the cost of achieving this output or outcome. The council then, in essence, “buys” the level and quantity of service desired.

Sunnyvale’s success with output-based budgeting has been so dramatic that its budgeting system was highlighted in an August 1993 visit by President Clinton. Between 1985 and 1990 the average cost of delivering services dropped 20 percent; one year the city even rebated $1 million in property taxes. In a 1990 comparison with other cities of its size, Sunnyvale found that it accomplished most functions with 35 to 45 percent fewer employees and that Sunnyvale employees tended to be better paid. On a per-capita basis, Sunnyvale’s taxes were lower than any city in the survey.

D. Devolution of Financial Management and Increased Accountability for Results

1. Devolved Decision Making

Integral to other reforms, New Zealand has extensively delegated authority to departmental heads (called “chief executives” in New Zealand). Chief executives are now the employing authority for departmental staff, with the power to determine (in negotiation with employees or their bargaining agents) the conditions of employment and salaries of their employees. There are no government-wide salary scales or conditions of employment.

In addition to authority over personnel, chief executives are also given authority to purchase services (inputs) from wherever they decide is most efficient and appropriate. They are not required to use central services for public works construction, office accommodation, purchasing, printing, legal counsel, and the like. They can purchase them from another department or a private firm. And departments charge one another prices for their services equivalent to their full cost of production.

Departments now have full control over the mix, quantity, price, and source of the inputs they employ to do their job and produce their outputs. The main constraint they face is keeping the cost of producing their outputs competitive so that the central government, or other agencies, continue to purchase them.

Chief executives also have fully delegated authority in the design and acquisition of their financial system, both hardware and software. The only requirement is that they be able to provide to the Treasury the information it requires to prepare the government’s budget and financial statements. Chief executives also have authority to determine their own internal-control systems, but would normally do this in conjunction with their auditor.

Key Benefits of Devolution and Increased Accountability

  • Managers are freed to manage, with greater flexibility and autonomy.
  • Quicker organizational response to changing developments.
  • Enhanced accountability.

3. Lessons for U.S. Policymakers

New Zealand’s reformers realized that process reforms in financial management would be difficult to implement if managers at all levels did not have both the power to make change and incentives to do so. In a sense, devolving financial-management responsibility and devising new and powerful accountability mechanisms was a prerequisite to reforming the process of financial management.

a. Incentives for Reform.
A common problem with government-reform efforts in the United States is creating incentives for managers to follow through on reform. Many are protected by civil service, and others view reforms as a “flavor of the week” that will soon pass. Devolving decision making, coupled with accountability for outputs, would give agency managers an incentive not only to enact reforms proposed by higher levels, such as from the National Performance Review, but to be entrepreneurial in exploring new ways to do things.

b. Performance Agreements Work
New Zealand’s reforms show that performance agreements rewarding exemplary performance and punishing failure are effective tools for establishing incentives for managers. Managers will gladly accept greater accountability if they are given more autonomy to achieve what is required of them. Maurice McTigue, a former minister in the New Zealand government, says that very few public employees would support going back to the old system—performance agreements make it very clear what is expected of them and of their peers and give them the ability to achieve their objectives. There is very little squabbling over who is responsible for what, and no one has to carry the burden for a shirking colleague.

Part 3

How Have The Reforms Worked Overall?

There should be no going back to the not-so-good old days when managerial initiative was stifled by input controls and compliance with the rules was regarded as more important than accountability for results. New Zealand departments (and other public entities) are much better managed than they were a decade before the reforms were initiated. They are more productive and innovative, more nimble in adapting to changing conditions, and more cognizant of how well they are performing.
– Allen Schick, Professor of Public Policy, University of Maryland

Reactions to the New Zealand reforms as a whole have been almost universally positive. Where deficiencies have been identified, it has been in a positive manner. As Allan Schick notes: “being first means that certain deficiencies will emerge as reform takes hold. One should think of [these] problems as akin to the ‘bugs’ found in state-of-the-art technologies after they have been introduced. There is a need to ‘debug’ some of the reforms, but that is a far different matter than getting rid of them altogether. In fact the bugs have emerged only because of the extraordinary leaps forward in transforming the New Zealand State Sector.”

What Made it Work: Strategic Lessons for U.S. Policymakers

The key lesson from New Zealand is that reforming the way governments operate can improve the financial performance, management culture, and quality of services from public-service organizations. (See Appendix 2) Governments in the United States already have demonstrated this themselves, though perhaps in a less comprehensive and radical fashion than occurred in New Zealand.

The New Zealand reforms offer several political and implementation lessons for governments in the United States and around the world.

A. Creating the Right Incentives

Building the system around an incentive structure that rewards desirable behavior by managers, and delegates authority according to performance expectations, is critical. The New Zealand system was also designed to create mutually reinforcing incentives. For example, the capital charge encourages the efficient and effective use of assets and is reinforced by an appropriation process that includes the cost of capital.

B. Delegation

By placing decision-making authority closer to the source of information, decisions are implemented more rapidly. This was most evident in the departmental transition to accrual accounting. The rapid transition could only occur in circumstances where departmental chief executives have complete authority to hire staff, employ consultants, and design and select systems, without having to go through a protracted process of central approval (see Appendix 1).

C. Adoption of Generally Accepted Accounting Practices (GAAP)

The efficiencies arising from the adoption of private-sector GAAP were not confined to improved policy making. Outside New Zealand, changing accounting practice has taken many years, particularly for the public sector. In New Zealand things moved much quicker because the adoption of GAAP facilitates the flow of staff and expertise between the public and private sectors. Public-sector finance staff can be hired from the private sector with little need to learn a “government-only” accounting system, and the public sector can draw on systems and development skills already existing in the private sector. Without question, this contributed to the speed with which accrual accounting was implemented.

D. Comprehensiveness

Reforms must be comprehensive. Don’t leave out significant areas or there will be powerful incentives for organizations to seek to locate themselves outside the scope of the reforms.

Part 5


In the past ten years, the New Zealand government’s financial-management systems have been completely reengineered. Cash accounting has been jettisoned in favor of accrual accounting. Output-based budgeting has replaced outdated program-based budgeting. Public-sector managers now have significantly greater discretion than elsewhere—matched by increased accountability and robust performance-appraisal systems. The New Zealand public sector is widely recognized as more efficient and effective than it was a decade ago.

The New Zealand reforms were rapid and dramatic, and they have survived a change of government. Accrual accounting and appropriations, along with output-oriented accrual budgets, are particularly seen as successful changes.

The reforms are in part responsible for the turnaround in New Zealand’s formerly weak fiscal position. And government agencies have increased efficiency and their standards of client service. Assets are now better managed than they were a decade ago.

New Zealand is a microcosm of the reorganization of the public sector that is taking place globally. To varying degrees, governments in the United States and in other nations such as South Africa, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Iceland, are implementing aspects of the reforms pioneered in New Zealand.

In none of these governments are reforms modeled exactly on New Zealand, nor would one expect that. However, they all increasingly recognize the desirability of accrual accounting, of devolving responsibility and accountability, and of basing budgets and departmental success on price-oriented outputs.

Some governments in America have already begun to fundamentally overhaul their financial-management systems. Many will tie these reforms to far-reaching budget and management changes. Cities and states that have not begun to change will soon be required to do so in order to remain in compliance with the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB). They will be confronted with the difficult task of calculating and clearly reporting the future costs of decisions made today. Adding to the possible complexity, state and local governments will still have to issue a few of the financial statements on the older basis and more on the new basis, almost like keeping two sets of books.

However, viewed in a positive light, the proposed GASB reporting model includes much of what private businesses report. Businesses must collect enough revenue to meet the costs of today’s decisions, shouldn’t government? Don’t reinvent the wheel. One way to ease the burden is to use most of the standards business has developed, as other governments have.

New Zealand offers powerful lessons for how to create a 21st century financial-management system. There is no doubt that the ideas behind its reforms could help address the performance problems existing in many U.S. governments.

About The Authors

  • Ian Ball and Tony Dale are Principals at Public Sector Performance (NZ), Ltd. They were previously Central Financial Controller and Budget Director, respectively, at the New Zealand Treasury.
  • Dr. John Sacco is an Associate Professor in the Department of Public Affairs at George Mason University in Virginia. He is the author of Financial Reporting in Government, 1996 ( govt490).
  • William D. Eggers is Special Assistant to the Texas State Comptroller, and co-author of Revolution at the Roots: Making Our Government Smaller, Better and Closer to Home.

Appendix 1

Implementing the Financial-Management Reforms

New Zealand’s financial-management reforms were implemented over a relatively short period of time. A number of features of the reform design simplified implementation. These features included:

  • Fully integrating financial management into the overall management system. For instance, tying accrual accounting into the appropriations process was key to the new accounting standard’s quick acceptance and effectiveness.
  • Delegating decisionmaking. Chief executives had the power to determine how their departments would implement the reforms and use resources to implement the process.
  • Creating the incentive structures implicit in the new system. Chief executive performance rewards were linked in part to the successful implementation of the reforms.
  • Together these features meant that the chief executives of departments were motivated to implement the reforms and had the authority to carry them out. This enabled the Treasury, the central agency driving the reforms, to focus its efforts on developing policy rather than implementing it.

    Policy Study No. 258

    Reason Public Policy Institute

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