This paper explores the features of public budgeting that make it resistant to efforts to balance central oversight and situational flexibility. Its aim is to help explain why systemic efforts at budget modernisation in the name of ‘devolution’ may have failed to deliver expanded budget flexibility. After defining flexibility, and briefly surveying how it can be inhibited by budget practices using the example of collaboration, the paper applies a taxonomy of general ‘budget rules’ to illustrate the trade-offs between control and flexibility. It uses an analysis of budget reform in the Australian federal government over the last 30 years to identify a key set of ‘legacy reforms’ – all intended primarily to enable budget flexibility – to show how their design and redesign were purposed as modification to the general rules, and how, ultimately, they were constrained by them.
Research funded by the Australia and New Zealand School of Government