One of the fundamental principles of modern democratic systems is that nobody, not even government administrators, or any government official, is above the law. All citizens must comply with the laws, rules and regulations applicable in national territory. Among other things, this means that no agent of the government, regardless of rank, can spend public funds arbitrarily and that officials are required at all times to act in accordance with the procedures established by government rules. For this reason, all democratic regimes, at least formally, have established institutions and procedures for oversight of compliance with these rules. The cost for those who violate the state’s fiscal laws is not just political, meaning the loss of power, but can also include criminal proceedings. Improper use of public funds is considered corruption.

The technical and political process that is used to describe the procedures of supervising fiscal conduct by government officials is called oversight. The term (fiscalización, in Spanish) has two common uses, however, one technical and procedural and the other political and rhetorical, which has made it one of the favored words in the political arena in Puerto Rico and has made its use common in the communications media.

In democratic governmental ethics, oversight is an essential practice for avoiding abuse and theft of public funds by persons and political groups that control the state government (politicians and the bureaucracy). It starts from the supposition that government officials, whether politicians or bureaucrats, are exposed to the temptation to form corrupt ties with private individuals and groups to rob the treasury for their own particular benefit and that the only way to prevent this is transparency, severe vigilance, and the threat of imprisonment. All modern democratic states, therefore, set up trained, formal mechanisms to perform oversight (investigation and analysis of actions and transactions) and to question public officials. Under Spanish rule, for example, governors of Puerto Rico (like all officials of the empire in top positions) had to undergo a process called juicio de residencia at the end of their terms. This process consisted of a broad investigation of their administrative actions and any person could provide testimony about the official’s performance. The official’s assets at the beginning and end of his administrative term were also compared.

Oversight in Puerto Rico today consists mainly of technical accounting procedures that incorporate formal evaluations of the criteria for authorizations and ensure the disbursements are done in accordance with applicable regulations. The generally applied administrative norms establish that each expenditure of a public official, whether directly or through a subsidiary organization, is subject to rigorous scrutiny by representatives of the public interest. These agents analyze each transaction based on the authorized purposes, see if it meets with the established requirements and, above all, determine if appropriate procedures were followed. This responsibility is institutionalized in specialized governmental entities, the best known of which is the Office of the Comptroller of Puerto Rico. Additionally, each administrative unit of the government is obligated to maintain internal fiscal evaluation mechanisms.

The term, oversight (fiscalización and the verb fiscalizar) are also often used, unfortunately, for political purposes to praise or denounce in general terms, and sometimes in specific terms, the actions of the government in power by the opposition. This popular use of the term goes beyond its precise meaning of fiscal oversight and creates confusion in the public sphere because it incorporates a subjective and interpretative element into what is, in a strict sense, a technical and objective practice. Oversight is also commonly used when what is really being discussed is a difference inpublic policy visions and not necessarily violations of regulatory procedures. This was seen in the past from former Puerto Rico Comptroller Manuel Díaz Saldaña, who sometimes opted to include personal judgments and ideological-political preferences in the official evaluations of governmental transactions. Many public affairs analysts have correctly noted that the comptroller’s oversight role should be limited exclusively to examining the honesty of the state’s fiscal activity and should not include criticism of public policy, administrative judgments or ideological questioning of character disguised by accounting jargon.

But this ambivalence toward the term also leads to another distortion in the daily discourse of politicians. In Puerto Rico, the generalization is that the main responsibility of the politicians in the opposition party is oversight of the administration in power. This presumes that these leaders will seek information, conscientiously investigate and make known errors and abuses by the people in power. For politicians, however, that is not what oversight means. It is a rhetorical term, basically trivial, that merely means to criticize the adversary, usually through the communications media. In practice, nothing is investigated, but rather rumors, fragmentary information, gossip and issues easily spread in the media are exploited. The practice has become so popular in the partisan subculture that leaders are valued by their followers for their talent at attacking and the ones who get ahead are those who most frequently and forcefully “play dirty” with their adversaries. In the partisan code, therefore, oversight means being tough with an opponent who is an enemy because he is in the other party and therefore “does everything wrong.” This unfortunate use of the term has so penetrated the internal dynamics of the two main political parties (the Popular Democratic Party and the New Progressive Party), that their leaders (and aspiring leaders) never cease to position themselves to their followers as being good at “oversight,” without necessarily contributing, through example and not through rhetoric, to the public good.

Author: Roberto Gándara Sánchez
Published: September 11, 2014.

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