1. Institutional and operational review of the Federal Planning Bureau

IFIs are publicly funded bodies that provide non-partisan oversight and analysis of fiscal policy. They have become a cornerstone of strong fiscal frameworks, helping highlight issues relating to fiscal sustainability in nearly all OECD countries.

The Federal Planning Bureau (FPB, or Bureau) of Belgium was among the first. It was established in 1959 as the Bureau for Economic Programming to house the economic policy expertise that would be directed toward industrial planning such as managing wages and prices and fostering domestic industries. The Bureau evolved alongside Belgium’s economy and institutional changes to become the FPB. It would continue to provide the type of analysis to government that is normally supplied by public servants within ministries, but at arm’s length with an open publishing model. With the help of the Bureau, Belgium’s policy is formed in a transparent dialogue between stakeholders.

Recent years have seen the FPB receive new mandates and responsibilities, such as estimating election platform costs and analysing the effects of investments and reforms in Belgium’s post-COVID Recovery and Resilience Plan. As its responsibilities have grown, the Bureau’s leadership wanted to undertake an external review to ensure that they continue to serve the needs of their stakeholders effectively.

This review of the FPB is anchored in the OECD Principles for Independent Fiscal Institutions (hereafter "OECD Principles"), which seek to reinforce the core values of IFIs to promote greater fiscal transparency and accountability and to raise the quality of public debate on fiscal policy (OECD, 2014[1]). The review uses an evaluation framework created in consultation with the OECD Working Party of Parliamentary Budget Officials and Independent Fiscal Institutions.

The evaluation framework considers a country’s local needs and institutional environment and recognises that alternative arrangements may serve some countries well. The FPB is one such alternative arrangement, predating the fiscal councils created to fulfil obligations under the euro area’s enhanced budget co-ordination and surveillance framework, which now make up the majority of OECD Working Party members and have come to typify European IFIs.

The FPB was established by royal decree in 1959 as the Bureau de Programmation Économique to create investment plans and define economic policy objectives for employment, prices, and wages. The Bureau has evolved with Belgium’s economic and political system. The most significant recent reforms were implemented in the Law of 21 December 1994 on social and miscellaneous provisions, which categorised the Bureau as an arm’s length “body of public interest” to support federalism by reassuring regions and communities that the federal government was being administered responsibly and by naming it one of the co-ordinators of the inter-federal system of national statistical accounts.

Those who set up the FPB intended for it to supply technical analysis directly to the government. The Bureau became known as the “government’s calculator”, filling an analytical role typically found in government ministries in other countries. For example:

  • Much of the FPB’s research agenda is set in response to demands from government ministries (the Federal Planning Bureau receives direction from the Council of Ministers).

  • Several analyst positions are funded directly via the Ministry of Social Security (FPS Social Security) to deliver assignments related to the pension system.

  • An annual work plan is decided with the Ministry of Transport (FPS Mobility and Transport).

Despite this close relationship with the government, the FPB’s analytical autonomy made it a natural choice to fulfil the requirement under the euro area’s enhanced budget co-ordination and surveillance framework to have an independent body either produce or endorse the macroeconomic forecasts for the budget. Indeed, it was already playing that role well ahead of EU requirements for national budgetary frameworks. Belgium has a long history of independent budget assumptions, closely mirroring the development and role of the CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis. The FPB now fulfils Belgium’s IFI function jointly with the High Council of Finance Public Borrowing Requirement Section, which fulfils the euro area’s requirements for independent monitoring of compliance with fiscal rules (see Box ‎1.1 for more details).

The FPB’s alignment to the OECD Principles must therefore be assessed with special attention to the Belgian institutional context and the Bureau’s role within it. The FPB should be regarded as an analytically independent body that undertakes IFI duties (the provision of macroeconomic forecasts for the budget) but also has the function of supplying non-partisan technical analysis to policymakers in government (a function typically performed by the public service in other countries). In this latter role, the Bureau serves at the direction of government and – while it maintains independence related to its methods and presentation of results – this serves to curb its overall operation independence. However, this institutional design brings a high degree of transparency and accountability to the policy formulation process compared to other OECD countries where the advice guiding policymakers often remains internal to government.

With this context in mind, the following observations are made in evaluating the Bureau’s compliance with the OECD Principles.

On local ownership, IFIs should arise from local needs and should not be imposed or copied from abroad. The Bureau was not established as part of conditions of externally reforms. Rather, in its modern form it was created to be the cornerstone in federal relations, paving the way as an innovator of independent budget assumptions, rather than having them imposed after a crisis or as terms of an international agreement.

The Bureau is seen by stakeholders as a uniquely Belgian institution fitting Belgium’s unique political system and culture. Policymakers are eager to include the FPB in laws that require monitoring or technical support, and the provisions are adopted without question and embraced by government, the legislature, and public alike.

On independence and non-partisanship, stakeholders reported that the Bureau does not present its analysis from a political perspective and serves all parties equally; a sentiment confirmed by the review team.

The legislature does not play a role in approving the commissioner’s appointment – it is formally made by the Council of Ministers after a decision by the Cabinet of the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy. Appointed commissioners have often had party connections and stakeholders recognise that the appointment process as political. That said, stakeholders were unanimous in insisting that political allegiances, if any, were dropped at the door and that they had no concerns of political ties once commissioners were in position. Further, this practice is common across appointed positions in Belgian independent institutions.

Commissioner appointments are for nine years, as is the case for permanently appointed civil servants at the Bureau, known as “members” (a class of permanent scientific staff, specific to the FPB). The nine-year appointments of both Commissioners and these civil servants are renewable. There are no special dismissal criteria defined in legislation; the Commissioner may be fired under the same performance-based protections as any public servant. The Commissioner is full time and remunerated. They have complete control to hire and dismiss FPB staff within budget constraints, while adhering to the labour laws for civil servants.

On mandate, most of the FPB’s activities and responsibilities are defined in legislation, including many of its reports, for example, its input to the annual report of the Study Committee on Ageing and its ex ante and ex post monitoring report for the Interdepartmental Commission for Sustainable Development. Other studies are carried out at the request of the government and social partners, which together with the legislature are authorised in law to do so (although the legislature has rarely exercised this ability).

The FPB has the scope to produce reports and analysis at its own initiative. However, in practice it rarely has the free time and resources to pursue work at its own initiative, as analytical requests from government fill its calendar.

The Bureau’s work has been clearly linked to the budget process, as it provides macroeconomic forecasts for the budget along fixed timelines in the fiscal year, both historically and following Regulation (EU) No 473/2013 of the “Two Pack” of reforms in 2013 under the euro area’s enhanced budget co-ordination and surveillance framework.

On resources, the OECD Principles recommend that an IFI’s resources should be commensurate with their mandate, be provided in the same manner as other independent bodies and be protected by multiannual funding commitments. The FPB is well-resourced compared to many OECD IFIs; however, its responsibilities far exceed typical IFIs, including diverse areas such as statistical compilation and dissemination. In comparison to its peers with broad mandates such as the CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis and the Danish Economic Councils, the situation is less favourable. Additional tasks are frequently assigned without a commensurate or any increase in resources.

The FPB receives its funding directly from the Ministry of Economy, similar to the social partners such as the Central Council on the Economy. However, the Court of Audit receives its funding directly from parliament. The Bureau’s appropriations are published only at a high level. The Bureau does not have a multiannual budget guarantee laid out; it is subject to the same annual linear adjustments as other government bodies. However, its resources have often been protected from nominal cuts in the past. The Bureau is currently facing a situation where it is expected to undergo real cuts along with broader efficiency savings in the public sector.

On its relationship with the legislature, the Bureau almost never appears before the Federal Parliament directly to discuss its governance or performance. Instead, the Court of Audit reviews its finances and performance, and reports on these to the legislature. Some key reports the Bureau supports, such as the annual report of the Study Committee on Ageing and the Sustainable Development Indicators Report, are laid before parliament. It has, on occasion, appeared before committees to discuss its work, but the Bureau has little engagement with the budget committee, and no relationship is specified in legislation. It is clearly established in legislation that parliament can submit requests to the Bureau; however, it rarely does. There is considerable scope for strengthening the Bureau’s relationship with the legislature.

The budgetary calendar provides only a brief window between the time that the FPB receives new information from the government and when it has to produce its economic outlook that underlies the budget. Additionally, parliament only has a matter of weeks to review the budgets and reports submitted to the various committees. Although the timelines are not out of line with peers, they give rise to operational challenges for the Bureau.

On access to information, IFIs should have free access to the data they need guaranteed in legislation, reinforced in memoranda of understanding with ministries, and with any restrictions clearly defined. The FPB is provided with general data access in legislation, for example, Article 128 of the Law of 21 December 1994 requires the National Institute of Statistics to provide the Bureau with all the information necessary for it to be able to fulfil its mandated functions. The Bureau has also developed memoranda of understanding or internal operating procedures with some ministries. However, the FPB generally procures its data through relationships and convention. Analysts report few gaps in practice, and do not anticipate serious issues in the future. That said, the Bureau does not have a grievance mechanism to fall back upon in the event of non-compliance. Restrictions on access to government information are not clearly defined in legislation, leaving the government to decide the limits. The Bureau is also subject to data privacy and security laws, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which is growing more restrictive for microdata. This is a challenge that peer institutions also face.

On transparency, IFIs have a special duty to be fully transparent in their work and operations, especially toward parliament, and should release reports in their own name under formally established release dates. The Bureau publishes almost all its reports with few exceptions. Its reports are rarely laid before parliament, except for the annual report of the Study Committee on Ageing and the annual Sustainable Development Indicators Report, and only rarely are the Bureau’s leaders given the opportunity to testify before parliamentary committees, although this is becoming more common. The general timing of major reports is formally established. Although stakeholders would like to see a more precise calendar with upcoming dates, many are contingent on unpredictable government timelines. The FPB releases analysis in its own name, except for those produced jointly, where its logo and name typically appear alongside other partners. The Bureau published an impressive array of technical working papers as part of its preparatory work for the costing of electoral programmes for the May 2019 elections. In contrast to most of its peer IFIs, the Bureau does not proactively publish its governance documents, such as financial statements and annual activity reports, but complies with its legal requirement to submit them to the Court of Audit.

On communications, IFIs should develop effective channels from the outset. The FPB media presence has historically been driven by the practices of its Commissioner, with few formal procedures and practices, either internally or externally. However, the Bureau has recently hired a communications advisor to improve practices and has developed several working groups and training programmes related to communications practices (simplifying language, visuals, social media). It is also one of a group of IFIs applying for a multi-country EU programme (Technical Support Instrument) to develop practices in data visualisations and communications. There are business risks surrounding its current website, which has been developed by one long-standing employee using an approach that does not rely on a commonly used content management system. The Bureau has a medium-term plan to address this by redeveloping and relaunching the website.

On external evaluations, if IFIs are to retain their autonomy, they should develop other mechanisms to ensure the quality of their work. The FPB enlisted the OECD to perform this external review in 2021, following the delivery of its newly mandated requirement in relation to election costings. The Bureau also works closely with the academic community and other external researchers in developing its models, including in finance ministries in other countries. It undergoes regular review from the Court of Audit, which reviews its operations, analysis, and other activities – for example, the Court reviews the minutes from meetings of the Study Committee on Ageing.

Table ‎1.1 summarises the OECD’s assessment of the Bureau’s adherence to each of the OECD Principles. The remainder of the chapter expands on this assessment and provides recommendations for bringing the Bureau into greater alignment with the OECD Principles and the best practices of peers in three areas:

  • Governance and mandate. The FPB’s responsibilities, organisation, and rights to information.

  • Impact on the public and parliamentary debate. The FPB’s reports and how it communicates them to stakeholders to raise awareness of issues relating to fiscal sustainability, influence fiscal management practices and foster public and parliamentary debate.

  • Financial and human resources. How the FPB has been empowered with the budget and staff to achieve its mandate.

The OECD Principles prescribe that the institutional governance and mandate arrangements for an IFI should be provided for in legislation. Other governance documents may also set out the parameters, guardrails and protections from political influence that let it be effective in its duties.

The Bureau and its stakeholders are confident in the day-to-day workstreams and interactions with the government that run on conventions and relationships without appealing to the law. However, it is nonetheless important to ensure it has a rigorous legal framework to fall back on in the event the government becomes less co-operative. In the experience of other countries, an IFI’s relationships with government can change overnight. Institutions should be designed to be resilient to these changing relationships.

The Law of 21 December 1994 named the bureau as a “Category A” public interest organisation, meaning the Bureau is to have a legal personality distinct from that of the public authority that created it and the appointed executives are to have management autonomy in day-to-day activities. The responsibilities provided for the Bureau in the same law and laws that came after could be seen as acting against that management autonomy. For example,

  • The Law of 21 December 1994 provides that the Bureau “receives directives concerning its activities from the Council of Ministers.”

  • The Bureau has also been named in several additional laws and operating agreements with ministries of the Federal Public Service that compel it to fulfil requests or perform work for branches of government (see Annex B for a full list of the legal responsibilities of the FPB).

Although the Bureau still has independence in its methods and in the presentation of its results, these responsibilities mean that the FPB is subject to the control and direction of government bodies and ministers in the discharge of its duty, spending most of its time responding to the demands of ministries, rather than setting its own workplan. It is somewhat ambiguous whether the Bureau could turn down these demands. For its part, the Bureau feels that it cannot turn down requests, although it can always defer to practical reasons they cannot complete a project, either for lack of data or time.

When compared to its peers in the OECD, the Bureau has considerably less operational independence. Examples of how this plays out in practice:

  • Timetables, topics, and scenarios of reports for the Ministry of Transport must be agreed and signed by the government and the Bureau’s Commissioner. The agreement even covers the specifics of events like report launches. The Ministry of Transport also has a right to see the work before publication and provide comments on drafts.

  • Several staff positions at the Bureau are paid directly by ministries. This arrangement could put financial pressure and obligations to pursue the priorities of the government instead of its own.

That said, even where there is significant involvement by the government, stakeholders are clear that the Bureau’s analytical independence is not questioned. Its analytical independence is reinforced by its history and context – stakeholders such as the Social Partners and other independent bodies the Bureau supports would react if output were not independent. However, this may not be enough to shelter the Bureau from a future government that is not as willing to go along with previous conventions.

The Bureau’s operational independence could be strengthened by changing the Law of 21 December 1994 to classify it as a “Category B” public interest organisation governed by a management board. Management boards are popular in the Belgian institutional framework, and in lieu of creating another independent body, the existing informal management board could serve as the formalised board.

The Commissioner is appointed by the Cabinet of Ministers on the advice of the Cabinet of the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy. The selection process is not provided for in law and varies each time but is usually a form of open competition with a short list steered by the secretariat of the Ministry of Economy (most recently by a panel of academics and public servants) under the supervision of the Minister of Economy. The technical background or experience requirements of the Commissioner are not specified in legislation, as recommended by the OECD Principles. There is also no secondary approval process for leadership appointments, such as by the Federal Parliament.

Stakeholders have often viewed the leadership process as political, and past commissioners have often come from a politically connected background, often having been involved with party politics. However, stakeholders unanimously agree that commissioners have been qualified and that they drop any partisanship they might have had at the door. There are no concerns with politicisation once the position of Commissioner is assumed.

The Commissioner has no legislated term limits. Leaders can be renewed indefinitely following the same nine-year review cycles as all “members” of the Bureau (a class of permanent scientific staff). There are no special dismissal criteria defined in legislation, but the general consensus is that leaders could be removed under the same performance-based criteria as the public service. Commissioners are full time and remunerated. They have complete control to hire and dismiss staff within budget constraints, and while adhering to labour laws concerning civil servants.

The Bureau’s management board, consisting of the Commissioner, Deputy Commissioner, and heads of the two legislated analytical branches is a not formal body but is a long-standing process of the Bureau.

The appointment process could be structured more independently by formalising existing practices in legislation and by changing the law to require parliament to give secondary approval of the appointment. This would help align it with OECD best practice, given that the legislature plays a role in the hiring and dismissal of the head of institution in 66% of national OECD IFIs (OECD, 2021[2]).

The Bureau is required under Law of 21 December 1994 to establish at “least two and no more than three divisions”. This requirement could be met any way, but management has long practiced that the main divisions for purposes of the law are the ADDG (Algemene Directie / Direction Générale, or General Division) and the SDDS (Sectorale Directie / Direction sectorielle, or Sectoral Division).

On paper, the ADDG fulfils responsibilities related to economic and fiscal forecasting and analyses and the SDDS deals with sectoral research on environmental, energy, transport, sustainable development, and structural reforms. However, the two divisions overlap and contribute to each other’s work, and there is little distinction. In fact, there is a general sense of confusion among internal and external stakeholders over the definitions of the two – it is simply structured this way to comply with the law. Under internal protocols the Bureau created for itself, the appointment of heads of divisions must be signed off by the management board and submitted for approval to the Minister of Economy.

The two divisions are supported by the ADSG (Algemene diensten / Services généraux, or General Services division), which provides support on human resources, the FPB’s budget, information technology, legal issues, and communication, among others.

The institution’s mandate in its modern form was provided in 1994 during the fourth Belgian state reform which transitioned Belgium to a federal state. The Bureau’s overarching motivation continues to be to support federal reforms by supporting political decision-making process, specifically stemming from Law of 21 December 1994, Art. 127. §1.

The Federal Planning Bureau is responsible for analysing and forecasting socio-economic development, the factors which determine this development and for evaluating the consequences of economic and social policy choices with a view to improving their rationality, efficiency, and transparency.

The 1994 law and its subsequence amendment in 2014 prescribed other regional and statistical dissemination responsibilities, including.

§2 The Federal Planning Bureau is responsible for exchanging forecast data, in their regional, federal, and international aspects. This mission extends to the economic, social, and environmental fields.

§3. In addition, the Federal Planning Bureau assists the National Accounts Institute in accordance with the provisions of Chapter I of this title.

Importantly, the Law also provides for the Bureau to fulfil requests for non-government stakeholders, including the Federal Parliament:

“At the request of the Legislative Chambers, the Central Economic Council or the National Labour Council, it can carry out any other form of evaluation of the economic, social and ecological policies adopted by the federal authority.”

The Bureau has a long list of other responsibilities that have been laid down in subsequent laws, memorandums, or conventions. A comprehensive detailing of its patchwork of responsibilities is difficult to collate in one place, but Table ‎1.2 attempts to list the Bureau’s main tasks.

Table ‎1.2 shows the one of the greatest challenges faced by the FPB: the breadth of its mandate. It receives new missions regularly, and occasionally internal and stakeholders are not sure about the justification, as some areas are less directly related to the Bureau’s core line of business. For example, the Bureau is required to send a representative to the pharmaceutical industry board (Platforme Biopharma) and has been asked to undertake studies on chemical products.

The Bureau supports a long list of clients and sits on many independent councils and committees, often serving as the secretariat. For example, the FPB has also been asked to send two appointees to the National Productivity Board and sits as its vice president.

Time spent serving on boards or providing them with research is time away from the Bureau’s core mandate to analyse the nation’s economy and public finances. It also means the Bureau’s plans to develop capacity for emerging issues such as climate change modelling have been neglected and could be beyond their scope and resources to do properly. Furthermore, the growing responsibilities limit the Bureau’s ability to undertake work at its own initiative, limiting its independence.

While some stakeholders, especially those in ministers’ offices, expressed concerns that the Bureau’s broad and expanding role in policy formation has hollowed out some of the analytical capacity of the public service internally to support ministries, they were quick to point out that the benefits of having the Bureau’s expertise under one roof and having its reports published transparently continue to outweigh the costs.

IFIs influence fiscal policy through persuasion rather than legal tools or formal levers. To be persuasive, they must produce high-quality reports and establish strong communication channels. Ensuring that their reports are easily accessible and receive widespread media coverage can help foster an informed public that can exert pressure on the government to manage fiscal matters responsibly and transparently.

The Federal Planning Bureau, like many of its peers, is now realising the importance of developing formal communications procedures and strategies. It has typically relied on its direct line to the government’s ear to achieve an influence. However, as its mandate has expanded, particularly into costings policies during elections, it has recognised the importance of thinking deliberately in its communications and having expertise and protocols on hand to safeguard it from risks and to increase its reach to stakeholders.

The FPB is required by the Law of 21 December 1994 to produce two macroeconomic forecasts a year, one for the preparation of the budget in September and one for the budget review in February. The Bureau is also required to produce a national medium-term economic outlook, which it delivers in June with a preliminary version released in February. On its own initiative, it produces in July a regional economic outlook together with the three regional sister institutions. Furthermore, the Law of 14 March 2014 amended the Bureau’s 1994 legislation and gives it responsibility for publishing annual Sustainable Development Indicators reports.

The FPB has been assigned or has entered agreements to supply several other reports throughout the year. For example:

  • An annual report of the Study Committee on Ageing containing the Bureau’s projections for the costs that the government will face from population ageing, such as in health care and pensions. The report is usually published in July and receives considerable media coverage owing to its political implications.

  • A triennual publication on the anticipated demand for transport of persons and goods for the Ministry of Transport.

  • Bi- to tri-annual Federal Sustainable Development Reports (as required through the Law of 5 May 1997 relating to the co-ordination of the federal sustainable development policy).

A rough timeline of the Bureau’s main recurring reports is given in Figure ‎1.1, although the schedule depends partly on the government’s actions and direction and can change year to year.

Overall, the number and coverage of core reports and their timelines satisfies the FPB’s mandate and its supplementary agreements with stakeholders. However, the Bureau falls short in the area of undertaking work at its own initiative. This is an important tool for an IFI to call attention of important issues to the legislature and the public. If the Bureau’s responsibilities toward stakeholders do not leave it with time to pursue its own work, it may fail to spot crucial issues of the government’s fiscal management. Further, if a government has the authority to submit limitless mandatory requests to an IFI, the government could prevent it from undertaking unfavourable analysis simply by exhausting its resources. It is therefore important that IFIs are either protected from having their workplan overwhelmed by requests, or that they be given sufficient resources to pursue their own analysis on top of requests.

One way in which the Bureau could develop more space for work at its own initiative is through streamlining its existing workload. The regular workstream reviews by management, proposed in Chapter 2, will help with this. One change that could create space for more self-initiated work could be reducing the regularity of the Annual report of the Study Committee on Ageing. The conclusions of this report do not change significantly on an annual basis, and many peer institutions have moved similar reports from annual to biennial or triennial publications.

If the Bureau had time to pursue more of its own analysis, it could take the initiative to fill several gaps that stakeholders identified in Belgium’s fiscal analysis landscape. For example, there can be a gap of four to five months following the budget where there is no independent economic or fiscal outlook updated with the government’s announcements; stakeholders must rely on the government’s numbers. The Bureau could provide a rapid post-budget update of macroeconomic projections including their independent fiscal outlook and impartial cost estimates of new measures in the weeks following the budget. This would also help support the legislature in its scrutiny of the budget. Stakeholders would also like to see more work by the Bureau in improving Belgium’s fiscal management by increasing the depth of its regional analytical work and improving its dissemination.

The Bureau publishes almost all its research to its website. In rare cases it may publish on a delay, when specific scenarios have been provided to the government before decisions have been announced publicly. In limited circumstances the Bureau has provided confidential analysis to government, but in general it puts its role as a public interest body ahead of any demands for confidentiality.

Stakeholders spoke of the ease through which they could access the data underlying its reports and forecasts. The FPB usually publishes data in spreadsheets alongside its key outlooks and reports. However, some stakeholders reported that in areas such as the annual report of the Study Committee on Ageing, historical projections from previous reports are no longer made available and would appreciate if previous vintages were easily accessible.

The FPB’s key annual financials and activities are not published to the public. Instead, they are presented to the Court of Audit, the Bureau’s key accountability mechanism. Although complying with the letter of the law, this falls short of the practice in many IFIs in the OECD Network, over 70% of which publish annual reports with their activities and financials on their website for public consumption. The FPB should raise its operational transparency to the standard of its analytical transparency by publishing an annual report of activities along with its financial statements. An annual report would have the added benefit of raising the Bureau’s visibility by highlighting its accomplishments and contributions to the public debate throughout the year.

The Bureau is committed to a high quality of analysis. The bar it sets sometimes comes at the expense of timeliness. For example, stakeholders reported that occasionally when they approach the Bureau for a piece of analysis, it asks for several months or years to build the capacity to respond. IFIs and teams such as parliamentary research services in other countries that fulfil requests are often expected to have more rapid turnaround times. The Bureau prides itself in the quality of its analysis and feels that more timely analysis that compromises on quality does not fit its reputation of providing rigorous strategic technical support that can withstand the highest academic scrutiny. However, there could be an opportunity to improve turnaround times without compromising quality, through revisiting the simplicity of the models used by the Bureau.

The length of the FPB’s reports is appropriate, with few stakeholders reporting this as a concern. Further, the word count compares favourably in brevity with the main reports of other IFIs with similar resources and mandates (Figure ‎1.2). The Bureau’s main economic and fiscal outlook publication, <Perspectives économiques>, averages under 30 000 words, with no clear increasing trend over time. That said, many OECD IFIs are moving toward shorter reports – or publishing summary reports alongside regular reports - that more people will read. In line with peers, a working group at the Bureau is currently seeking to simplify publications and reduce their page-length.

On readability, the OECD team performed a text analysis of the Bureau’s Perspectives économiques sampled over the last three years, compared with similar publications from institutions with comparable mandates and resources. The team used the Automated Readability Index, which considers words with more characters and longer sentences as harder to read with the functional form [4.71 × (characters/words) + 0.5×(words/sentences) - 21.43]. A higher score indicates report summaries that are more difficult to understand. The characters and words were standardised across languages using an average of EU-translated legal documents. The results are provided in Figure ‎1.3 below. They indicate that the Bureau’s readability is at the college student level and somewhat more technical than those of its peers, except for the United Kingdom Office for Budget Responsibility. The methodology suffers from comparability issues surrounding the number of tables and figures in the reports but suggests that while the Bureau is not totally out of line with its peers it has room to simplify its language.

The OECD Principles suggest that IFIs should develop effective communication channels from the outset, especially with the media, civil society, and other stakeholders. The Bureau was late to develop these channels. In the past it relied primarily on its commissioners to engage with the media and civil society as to their personal styles and mother tongue or let the reports speak for themselves. Social media content and press releases were written by analysts. Although the Bureau hosted press conferences, whether journalists had access to reports and covered the Bureau’s work largely came down to personal relationships. There was also little systematic monitoring of media coverage to determine what worked best to disseminate the Bureau’s messages to the public. The result is that media engagement and take-up varied year-to-year and from commissioner-to-commissioner, with some highly proactively engaged and eager to become the face of the office, and some more reserved.

The management board foresaw that these practices would be untenable under its new election costing mandate, where political risks were elevated, and the Bureau could face higher levels of criticisms from parties. It supported a staff initiative to create a working group on communications. This eventually led to the decision to seek out and hire a communications advisor to create a communications division consisting of ten staff members of the Bureau from different disciplines, procedures, and strategies. Once in post, the communications advisor did a consultation tour with other IFIs and some of the Bureau’s stakeholder’s and has implemented a change programme that is making strides.

For example, the Bureau now offers its staff media training. Guidelines have been provided to improve writing skills and external experts will be brought in to teach writing skills. Press releases aim to fit information on a single page rather than be verbatim transcriptions of lengthy executive summaries. The Bureau has also developed a formal communications procedure for how to handle issues like requests from journalists. Stakeholders have praised the new approach.

The Bureau has also formed working groups to improve the data visualisations and simplify language to increase accessibility for non-specialists. It is also participating in a Technical Support Instrument (TSI) programme from the European Union with peer IFIs to develop the communications practices of analysts with similar outputs.

The FPB has its own website is in its own name and its own network administration. The website has been built and maintained by a sole webmaster and is not based on a common content management system, which creates a business continuity risk. The webmaster is retiring in 5 years and the Bureau needs to plan for another web platform. The FPB has created a working group to address the issue and relaunch the website. The FPB opted for the use of a separate website for its costing results that will be reviewed in Phase 2 of this project.

The Bureau has only tracked a brief history of website traffic. It averages about 20 000 hits by new users each month and traffic roughly flows with the fiscal year, with the most interest coming at the start of the calendar, and then again picking up in September ahead of the budget (Figure ‎1.4). Users download an average of 2 400 reports a month. Interest flows with the budget cycle but more granular monitoring data should be collected to understand drivers in greater detail.

The Federal Planning Bureau also has two Twitter accounts (one in French and one in Dutch) and a one LinkedIn account, where its communications advisor tweets and posts on fiscal policy. The accounts highlight the Bureau’s reports when relevant. In Belgium there are about 1.3 million Twitter users, and the Bureau’s accounts combined have about 1 700 followers. The two accounts combined saw an average of 30 new followers a month in 2021.

Stakeholders were clear that the FPB has improved their understanding of fiscal issues through its reports. They reported that its influence is direct, rather than through the media. This stands in contrast to peer IFIs the OECD has reviewed, who overwhelmingly achieve their influence through their presence in the media.

The FPB is a mature organisation, however it did not until recently systematically track mentions of its work with the legislature and in the media. The recent costing exercise prompted the Bureau to start monitoring its reach. The lack of long-term historical data makes it difficult to evaluate drivers and trends. Tracking is also complicated by the generic name of the Bureau and its similarity in Dutch to the CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (Federaal Planbureau versus Centraal Planbureau). Belgium’s multiple languages and the Bureau’s publications in French, Dutch and English also complicate the picture. However, some key observations from the Bureau’s recent tracking efforts are presented below.

The FPB is unique in its direct role in policy development, rather than simply a role in scrutiny. Its primary stakeholder first and foremost is government. It is an arm’s length “Category A” body that serves as technical support to government ministries, ministers, committees, and decision-making bodies.1 In doing so, stakeholders had a long list of examples where the Bureau exerts concrete influence. For example:

  • The economic statement published in the government’s budget is paraphrased or transcribed directly from the Bureau’s economic outlook.

  • The government’s budget includes a chapter on the cost of ageing each year which is essentially paraphrased or inserted directly from the Bureau’s work in the annual report of the Study Committee on Ageing.

  • The Bureau has been helpful in improving the government’s VAT forecasts, particularly in understanding the macroeconomic basis underlying it, but also in the fiscal sensitivities.

  • The Bureau’s analysis features in weekly briefings to the Prime Minister. Its inflation forecasts have been of particular interest recently, as they arrive before information from the National Bank of Belgium.

  • The FPB’s analysis of pension reforms has been critical in informing policy and has had a role in changing, or reversing, specific announcements. Political decisionmakers at the highest level of government now wait to see the FPB’s analysis before proceeding.

  • Stakeholders noted several specific areas where the Bureau has strengthened analysis of fiscal policy issues through its work.

  • The Bureau had anticipated the shift to teleworking well ahead of the pandemic and was prepared with analysis when the pandemic hit on how it could impact transportation needs.

  • The Bureau’s research on taxes and incentives related to company cars have influenced policies for greening company fleets.

  • The Bureau’s analysis of job numbers surrounding the Recovery and Resilience Plans has caused the government to consider designing potentially more effective measures.

It is commendable to hear so many examples where the government has embraced the IFI’s analysis and adjusted policy in response.

Often the most important channel through which an IFI can strengthen fiscal outcomes is by directly supporting the legislature’s ability to hold the government to account – that is, by empowering the representatives of the public who have been elected to scrutinise the executive with quality information to do so. This can be accomplished by submitting reports to the legislature, participating in committee hearings, and providing background briefings to parliamentarians and their staff.

The Bureau appears before committee hearings of the Chamber of Representatives only once or twice a year and does not appear before the senate. The Bureau is mentioned in oral and written questions rarely, ranging from as few as 6 to as high as 30 in recent years, which is low relative to peers where mentions can range in the high hundreds.

At least once a year, the Bureau’s update of sustainability indicators is submitted to parliament and the Bureau presents to the Commission for Economic Affairs. The Commission for Social Affairs, Employment and Pensions invited the President of the Ageing Committee and the Bureau to present the Ageing Report for the first time last year. The FPB does not regularly provide briefings to individual parliamentarians.

Ahead of the introduction of its new costing mandate in 2018, the FPB organised several meetings with the contact persons of the thirteen political parties represented in the Chamber. The meetings resulted in concrete agreements on the procedure to be followed and on the actual content of costings. Three workshops were held in autumn 2018 with representatives of the political parties concerned, where the FPB presented the models used for costing and explained how they work.

Under the Law of 21 December 1994, the Federal Parliament can submit requests of the FPB to carry out any “evaluation of the economic, social and ecological policies adopted by the federal authority.” However, they do so only rarely. There is a general acceptance that written questions must be submitted through the Council of Ministers. This does not seem to be grounded in the Law, and the Bureau could strengthen its relations with parliament and promote greater awareness among parliamentarians that they can approach the Bureau directly with requests. Although there is a risk that too many requests would over-burden the Bureau’s already limited resources, stronger relations with the parliament will foster cross-party understanding of the Bureau’s work and help protect it as an institution in the longer-term.

The Bureau should also seek further strategies to expand its engagement with parliament, such as forming agreements with committees to appear each year to discuss the conclusions of its regular reports.

The FPB’s outreach to the media is largely through press releases to a mailing list on the day of the publication of a report. In the past, reports have been released to journalists early under embargo on a case-by-case basis, often with no general announcement. This could result in the unintentional exclusion of some media outlets. However, the communications advisor hopes to improve upon this process and make it more equitable, impartial and proactive.

The Bureau holds around two press conferences each year and its office has new facilities to do so. They are usually attended by around 20 people, which is relatively high interest compared to peers. The Commissioner and other senior leaders have appeared on radio or television between 20 and 30 times a year. If the subject is technical, analysts may occasionally give interviews themselves.

Journalists used to contact the Bureau’s leadership and analysts directly about their work. However, since the advent of the communications advisor, they have been strongly encouraged to go through him. During the election costing period this is tightened to only go through the official communications channels.

Journalists prefer embargoes (where they receive publications in advance) to lockups (where they must attend in person to review reports before release). However, some appreciate the approach of the National Bank of Belgium, that holds press conferences two days before publication for journalists to attend, ask questions, take notes, and write their articles in advance of the release two days later. Given that the Bureau provides the government with reports four days in advance of publication to write its communications releases, they could do similarly to journalists.

The Bureau only recently began systematically tracking media mentions. It averaged about 61 articles a month, with 788 in 2021 and 682 in 2020, up 15.5% (Figure ‎1.5). Continued media monitoring will enable the Bureau to obtain insights into aspects such as its most impactful publications and the topics of greatest interest to the public, which can help it hone its work programme.

Another way in which the Bureau could expand its influence is through increasing the visibility of its work among peers, the media and the public. For example, the Bureau could promote its open-source initiatives and build upon the awareness of its work by having regular conferences or workshops organised (or sponsored) by the Bureau and providing a platform for economists from different institutions to share and discuss their work.

The OECD Principles state that an IFI must have sufficient financial resources to fulfil its mandate and successfully perform its tasks and that its staff must be independently selected based on merit and must be independent in their operations.

The FPB is provided with a distinct envelope of resources in the national budget with the approval of the Minister of Economy. It has full operational independence in how it uses its funds, except for large procurement purchases, which must be authorised by an assigned Inspector for Finance, in-line with the practices of other similar bodies.

The Bureau has a budget control meeting in February to confirm that it has sufficient funds for the rest of the year. Its end of year statements and performance are audited by the Court of Audit.

The Bureau’s budget has remained relatively stable over time (Figure ‎1.6), although there have been some instances where it has received additional funding. Specifically, the Bureau received additional funding of EUR 660 000 in 2017 to fulfil its new task in relation to election costing. In addition, in 2022 the Bureau received additional funding to account for high wage inflation. The Bureau does not formally calculate the share of its budget allocated to fulfilling IFI tasks. However, it could be estimated that around half of the budget is used to deliver its IFI tasks in a narrow sense (those required as part of the EU governance framework). If a broader view is taken on IFI tasks (i.e., including broader economic and fiscal analysis) then these account for around 80% of the Bureau’s budget.

When the Bureau receives specific demands for new workstreams, in general it tries to meet them with external funding on top of the main envelope. For example, it financed a climate project through the national science foundation under a four-year contract with a university team studying the topic. The Bureau also has half a dozen positions funded by specific ministries such as the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Social Services to provide ongoing analytical services. Additionally, two positions for compiling and disseminating national statistics are funded through external financing from Eurostat and the regions.

This close financial tie to government could risk the Bureau’s analytical independence; however, stakeholders are unanimous in reporting that it does not influence their autonomy in speaking truth to power. The relationships do, however, incumber the Bureau’s operational independence in situations where new tasks are imposed that exceed the marginal increase in resources. This impacts the depth of its analysis in relation to existing tasks (with potential impacts on quality and reliability) and takes flexibility away from the Bureau in developing work at its own initiative.

The budget of the Bureau has often been sheltered from cross-government cuts in nominal terms; however, there has been some pressure over time in real terms. The Bureau does not have clearly defined medium-term funding commitments, as recommended by the OECD Principles, and has been warned to expect cutbacks in the coming years as all of Belgium’s Federal Public Services enter a period of consolidation. Medium-term funding commitments would protect the institution from political influence.

The FPB has around 85 staff overall in full-time equivalent, but after accounting for its team devoted to preparing national statistics and staff providing corporate services, a group of around 50 are devoted to economic and fiscal analysis (this goes beyond the duties strictly related to the IFI tasks of the Bureau).

When compared to European IFIs broadly, the Bureau may appear well-resourced, with more than three times the average number of analytical staff (Figure ‎1.7). However, its role in the budget process far exceeds most IFIs (some of whom only convene a few times a year to produce two monitoring reports or endorsement statements with the support of two or three permanent secretariat members) and then the FPB has significant other mandated responsibilities (e.g. transportation, sustainable development, specialised statistics, etc.). Compared to its European peers with similar scope of mandate – a role in the budget process and services for economic research, regional analysis, environmental and climate change research, among others – it falls far below the CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis but is just above Spain’s Independent Authority for Fiscal Responsibility and double the size of Denmark’s Economic Councils.

Although not IFIs, peer institutions in France that the Bureau can potentially be benchmarked against are France Stratégie, a public think tank tracing a similar history as the FPB, and the Conseil d’analyse économique, which provides economic analysis and policy advice to an independent Council of academics. France Stratégie has been provided with around 40 permanent experts and 15 scientific advisors, and the Conseil d’analyse économique has 4 full-time analytical staff. Together, with 59 technical staff, these institutions have a similar number of analytical staff relative to the Bureau (France Stratégie, 2022[3]) (Conseil d’analyse économique, 2023[4]).

The Bureau has monitored gender equality at different levels in the organisation over recent years. The proportion of women employed as analysts2 has decreased, from 39% in 2010 to 33% in 2020. The Bureau is investigating the decline and developing a plan to address the trend.

The OECD Principles state that the leadership of the IFI should have full freedom to hire and dismiss staff in accordance with applicable labour laws. The Commissioner of the FPB is generally able to do so, within the confines of the public service management law. In practice this freedom also hinges on the ability of an IFI to offer competitive rates, and whether there is a good supply of skilled analysts and expertise (if there is not, it may need to look at hiring abroad or improving competitiveness).

In terms of hiring, there was mixed feedback from stakeholders on whether the Bureau offers competitive compensation. In general, staff compensation is considered similar or better than the civil service (although they are subject to the same framework as the civil service, the Bureau can hire staff at higher grades and steps). The Bureau’s main competition for talent in the public sector is with EU institutions and the National Bank of Belgium, where compensation is higher. The Bureau also faces competition from the private sector (e.g. for IT staff), where compensation is also higher.

Belgium has a relatively good supply of analysts compared to some IFIs in smaller European countries. However, the Bureau’s management has noticed a shift in the graduate education and experience of candidates in the job market toward data science using big data, and away from backgrounds in macroeconomic and econometric modelling, which is beginning to manifest in recruitment challenges. Another recent challenge is the recruitment of Dutch-speaking staff, which reflects the very tight labour market in Flanders.

In terms of retention, staff turnover is on par with the public service. However, the staff profile is relatively older. The Bureau has created a working group on diversity to try and attract younger staff. Issues reported among younger staff or prospective staff include the lack of a feedback culture and professional development opportunities within the Bureau. The FPB could also improve its attractiveness to younger professionals seeking a dynamic and modern employer by continuing its move to open-source software for which skills are in high demand by the industry. Further, moving to open-source software can tap into a global community of development support, which – in addition to saving on license fees – could help release analytical resources.


[4] Conseil d’analyse économique (2023), Personal communication.

[3] France Stratégie (2022), À propos de France Stratégie, https://www.strategie.gouv.fr/propos-de-france-strategie.

[2] OECD (2021), Independent Fiscal Institutions Database (Version 2.0), http://www.oecd.org/gov/budgeting/OECD-Independent-Fiscal-Institutions-Database.xlsx.

[1] OECD (2014), Recommendation of the Council on Principles for Independent Fiscal Institutions, OECD, Paris, https://www.oecd.org/gov/budgeting/recommendation-on-principles-for-independent-fiscal-institutions.htm.


← 1. “Category A” bodies are the least autonomous of the public interest bodies. While they have a legal personality distinct from that of the public authority that created them and the appointed executives are to have management autonomy in day-to-day activities, they remain “under ministerial management”.

← 2. This records staff at “niveau A”, where the majority are analysts.

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