The right to government efficiency

YOU WOULD HAVE TO BE A MARTIAN to not know that elections are coming. A characteristic of our constitutional system is that the House of Representatives then designates the articles of the Constitution which may be amended in the following legislature. Nothing has changed with regard to our fundamental rights for decades. The amendments to the Constitution have a lot to do with our state structure. The founders of Belgium adhered to the principle that the citizen should be able to survive thanks to the government. That is why, and entirely in line with the zeitgeist, the relationship between the citizen and the government has hardly been discussed. The idea that the citizen and his or her activities should be on a level playing field compared with the government is of course a much more recent development.

IN A MODERN APPROACH, where the government is imposing increasingly more demands and red tape on its subjects, it could be assumed that a commitment to government efficiency would have been enshrined in the Constitution. The basic principle remains that the government must be able to impose measures. No sensible person will dispute that. But at the same time, the government must commit to implement these measures in such a way that they create as little additional hassle as possible for the citizen. This commitment also entails that a government can only take reasonably efficient measures. Burdening society with ineffective measures does not pay off. Yet, in spite of this theoretical reasoning, we could fill our days with anthologies of ineffective measures taken by the government. Measures which were inefficient, which failed to deliver any meaningful results to the government and, in some cases, were never even implemented. The state tax is such an example: even though our banks’ IT services spent a whole year programming it, the measure never came into effect. The speculation tax, which was discarded after only one year because it only had counterproductive consequences, is another example. Both dead in the water from the start, the tragic fate of these reforms could have been predicted had sufficient thought been put into it, and we would have been better off without them.

IT DOES NOT ALWAYS HAVE TO BE so drastic. Take the introduction of the UBO register. Anyone keeping up with the news will have noticed that it has been postponed for the second time. Not to please the citizens, but because the government software is not ready in time. Surely, this is proof of inefficiency? But there is more. Wouldn’t it have been better to link the UBO register obligation with the corporate income tax return? Had this been the case, company managers would have required their accountant’s services only once. Now, they have to do that twice, for each obligation separately.

CITIZENS SHOULD have the right to oppose a government action as soon as that action becomes inefficient. In other words, if the measure can be implemented with the same effect but in a less detrimental manner. You might think that this option already exists, since the Constitutional Court is competent to annul laws. But the basis for this is the constitutional principle of equality. This means that a law may be voided or disapplied if it unduly favours the citizen over others. Or if a government has taken a measure that it was not entitled to take. But the inefficiency of a measure cannot be the motive. However, that would not be such a crazy idea. How else can the need to act efficiently be imposed on the seven-headed beast that our government turns out to be in certain respects? A manager to whom I pitched my ideas said: “That would finally put a new spin on “doing business thanks to the government,” which is rather more like “doing business in spite of the government” at the moment.”

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