3. Review of election budgetary costings and impact assessment by the Federal Planning Bureau

There is a secular trend across the OECD toward greater fiscal transparency. This is evident in the growing frequency and detail of fiscal disclosures by governments, as well as the increased granularity of recommendations regarding public sector budgeting (see in particular (OECD, 2015[1])). It is equally apparent in the increasing number of IFIs and their expanding role in assessing budgetary information released by the executive branch, in addition to publishing their own analysis.

A nascent frontier for fiscal transparency is the independent costing of political parties’ electoral platforms. This is currently undertaken in some form or another in four OECD countries, specifically the Netherlands (since 1986), Australia (since 2013), Belgium (since 2019) and Canada (since 2019) (OECD, 2021[2]). It is also being contemplated by legislators in several other OECD countries.

Election costings set out the quantitative impacts of political platforms proposed during an election campaign. Rendering political promises into math provides greater transparency to citizens regarding what they are voting for and the likely trade-offs between different voting choices. At a minimum, these costings outline the fiscal implications of election platforms, as well as highlight their wider-ranging social, economic and environmental implications.

While the precise administrative framework differs across countries, there is a common motivation underpinning the exercise: greater transparency engendering public confidence and trust in electoral institutions. The existence of trusted information on the impact of the platforms curbs the potential for disinformation and allows for a richer policy debate during the election campaign. Furthermore, election costings support more informed voting and help promote awareness of the fiscal position ahead of elections. This provides important context for voters of competing options being proposed and their implications. The ability of political parties and candidates to have their platforms costed also ensures a level playing field for political parties, regardless of their alignment. Overall, through rendering elections more informed, open and inclusive, independent costings are one of the instruments that help to shape citizens’ trust in the legitimacy and functioning of the election process, strengthening democracy.

In the case of Belgium, the Belgian Parliament promulgated legislation in May 2014 to vest the FPB with responsibility to provide election platform costing for political parties. This legislation was subsequently amended in July 2018 to further delineate an administrative framework for the costing exercise. This includes the prescription that only political parties with representation in the federal parliament are compelled to use the service.

Another key feature of the assessment framework is that it is not the full election platform of each eligible party that is analysed, but just key policies that it chooses to put forward. Specifically, parties are required to submit between three and five “priorities”. This limit was put in place in recognition of the limited resources available within the FPB for the exercise and reflects a political resistance to increasing these resources. However, each priority could include several measures and, in practice, at the extremes one political party introduced 3 measures and another 47 measures.

The legislation also prescribes the analytical assessment framework for election costing. In addition to the impact of policy proposals on public finances, it sets out that the FPB should consider the impact of policy proposals on a wide range of variables, including: purchasing power and employment of various income groups, social security, the environment and mobility.1 Both the limited scope of the costing exercise and the wide range of impacts captured make the Belgian approach distinctive amongst international peers (see Table ‎3.1).

The FBP undertook its first electoral platform costing exercise for Belgium in concert with the federal and regional elections of May 2019. It assessed over 300 measures and aspects of 13 political platforms at the federal and regional level. The FPB accepted proposals of a regional nature as long as they were consistent with the geographical competence of a party. Flemish parties were authorised only to propose measures applicable to Flanders and Brussels. The same type of rule applied to Francophone parties. While an important step in enhancing fiscal transparency, it was immediately evident that some aspects of the exercise did not fully meet stakeholder expectations.

Legislation requires that the application of the law be evaluated following the 2019 election. In the first instance, the FPB undertook its own internal review of the exercise shortly following the 2019 election. This review generally concluded that the exercise was a success, albeit with some potential areas of improvement. It also concluded that a more comprehensive review was warranted. With this in mind, the FPB sought an external review from the OECD regarding its performance including the technical tools it used. The detailed terms of reference is appended as Annex C.

This chapter provides an in-depth review of the FPB’s first exercise in election costing, as well as recommendations to help strengthen the exercise for the 2024 federal election and beyond. The first section provides background regarding Belgium’s political system and legal framework for election platform costing. This is followed by an assessment of the 2019 initiative, including the identification of key successes and challenges, before providing recommendations for how to improve election costings in 2024 and beyond.

This section provides an overview of the Belgian federal political system, highlighting key factors that influenced the development of the country’s electoral platform costing. It is followed by a short synopsis of the first federal election platform costing exercise in 2014, which was managed independent of the public service. A summary of the current Belgian election platform costing framework concludes the section.

Belgium is a federated parliamentary democracy, with the monarchy as the head of state and a multi-party system. The federal government has executive power and is composed of the Prime Minister and other ministers appointed by the monarch (King), subject to approval by the federal parliament.

In addition to the federal government, the country’s constitution provides for two other co-existing levels of government: the regions and the communities. The three regions are the Flemish Region, Walloon Region, and Brussels-Capital Region. The three (language-based) communities are the Flemish Community (Dutch-speaking), French Community (French-speaking) and the German-speaking Community. Each has their own regional government and legislature. The Flemish Region and Flemish Community have merged theirs into one single institutional body of parliament and government.

Areas of authority are demarcated between the federal parliament, regional legislatures, and communities. The federal government is responsible for defence, aspects of economic policy, parts of the judiciary, parts of energy policy, parts of public transport, public debt financing, social security and foreign affairs. Regions are responsible for aspects of economic policy, employment policy, housing, agriculture, parts of public transport, aspects of environmental policy and elements of energy policy. Communities are principally responsible for education, public health, social assistance and cultural affairs.

Belgium has a complex political landscape with numerous political parties. The primary schism is linguistic; many political parties with similar agendas field candidates in either Flanders or Wallonia. The country has also experienced periods of political instability owing to the number of elected representatives across political and linguistic divides. Recent elections have resulted in a more pronounced bifurcation, with the New Flemish Alliance being the largest party in the Flemish region and the Socialist Party in the French-speaking region.

Overall, Belgian federal politics are characterised by a delicate balance of power among differing linguistic communities and political parties. As such, it has necessitated a need for compromise and co-operation to effectively govern the country.

Belgium is a member of the European Union and profits from its internal market and free trade agreements. The country is also home to several major international organisations, including the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), which contribute to its role as a hub for international business and diplomacy. Additionally, Belgium has a highly skilled workforce arising from its strong education system, which supports its knowledge-based economy.

The need for effective government is underscored by the fiscal challenges facing Belgium. Belgium has an elevated level of government spending compared to its OECD peers, financed through a combination of taxes and borrowing. The country's public debt-to-GDP ratio has grown in recent years, reaching roughly 110% of GDP in 2021.

The elevated levels of public spending are mostly matched by commensurate taxes. In 2020, Belgium’s tax-to-GDP ratio was 42.5%, substantially higher than the OECD average (33.2%) (OECD, n.d.[3]). The country has a progressive income tax system with multiple tax brackets, and individuals are taxed on a range of different income types (for example employment and rental income). In addition, Belgium has a value-added tax (VAT) system that applies to most goods and services, with a standard rate of 21%.

Overall, the political context has both led to, and presents challenges for, resolving Belgium’s economic and fiscal challenges. The fiscal situation of high debt and uncertain fiscal sustainability underscores the importance of evidence-based decision-making. During debates surrounding the electoral platform costing legislation, discussions focussed on the belief that an independent, non-partisan assessment of political platforms would lead to better policy development and social outcomes. Moreover, some commentators also suggested that such an exercise would enhance the importance of perceived “fiscal credibility” (that is, the view that the proposed platform is reasonable and advances common public interests), therefore providing clear incentives for positive fiscal management. As surfaced during OECD consultations with political parties, there is a significant appreciation for the need to provide more transparent fiscal choices to electors.

In the 2014 federal election, a Belgian university (KU Leuven), in collaboration with several media outlets (VRT, De Tijd, De Standaard), conducted an analysis of election costings of the Flemish political parties. The study aimed to evaluate the credibility of the costings provided by the parties and present a transparent and independent assessment of the fiscal impact of their electoral programmes.2 The scope of the costing was primarily driven by the economic models at the disposal of the university.

The study found notable differences between the costings presented by the parties and their actual fiscal impact. The analysis revealed that most parties underestimated the costs of their electoral programmes. The study also found that most parties relied on optimistic growth assumptions and underestimated the impact of demographic and economic changes.

The report recommended that parties should provide more detailed and realistic costings of their programmes, including the corresponding assumptions and risks. It also suggested that independent experts should be involved in the subsequent platform costing exercise to ensure transparency and credibility, as well to enhance perceived non-partisanship.

The study generated significant media attention in Belgium, with many commentators highlighting the importance of fiscal transparency in the electoral process. Opposition parties also used the findings to challenge the credibility of costings presented by the government.

Overall, the KU Leuven study and the reciprocal media coverage helped to raise awareness regarding the importance of credible and transparent political platforms. This contributed to a more informed public debate pertaining to the fiscal policies proposed by political parties. In turn, it also set the table for establishing a legislative framework for the FPB to undertake electoral platform costing.

Inspired by the Netherlands’ electoral platform costing programme, the “Law relating to the costing by the Federal Planning Bureau of electoral programmes presented by political parties during the election for the House of Representatives” (the law) was introduced in spring 2014 and was promulgated with unanimous support in May 2014. It was subsequently amended in July 2018 in advance of Belgium’s first official federal election platform costing exercise in 2019.

The law requires all political parties with members in the House of Representatives to submit between three and five “priorities” from their political platforms the FPB to be costed (). While imposing a new legal obligation on political parties and the FPB, the law is also permissive. It neither defines the concept of “priority”, nor the number of specific measures for each priority. In contrast, the technical costing framework for the FPB is precisely defined and includes the “consequences for public finances, purchasing power and employment for various income groups…as well as the impact on the environment and mobility…”.

Legislation also provides for a precise calendar for the exercise (Figure ‎3.1). The political parties are required to submit their measures to the FPB no later than 115 days prior to the election (31 January 2019 for the 26 May 2019 election). Political parties can receive preliminary results at least 75 days prior to the vote, following which they can provide feedback to the FPB up to 45 days before the election. Ultimately, the FPB is obliged to publish the final results 30 days before the election.

Finally, the law establishes operational “rules of the game” for the exercise. Most notably, the FPB is provided with legal authority to call upon other public bodies to assist in the costing process. All work of the FPB (and other public bodies assisting) is subject to strict confidentiality throughout the exercise. In addition, the application of the law is required to be reviewed following the first election costing process.

This section provides an assessment of the 2019 Belgian electoral platform costing exercise. Specifically, it looks at the actions of three key stakeholders in the process: the FPB, political parties, and the media. It draws on ex ante guidance documents published by the FPB, an ex post review also conducted by the FPB, and stakeholder consultations undertaken by the OECD. A list of interviewees is presented in Annex D and a list of survey questions presented in Annex E.

The FPB’s operational approach toward the 2019 exercise was comprised of two distinct phases: preparatory and active. The preparatory phase occurred during the nine months leading up to the legislative start date and the active phase comprised the 115-day costing period set out in legislation.

Preparatory phase to define the election policy costing framework

(April 2018 – January 2019)

The principal objective of the preparatory phase was to encourage greater awareness and understanding of the platform costing exercise among stakeholders – in particular, political parties. To that end, the FPB made a concerted effort to communicate how the technical work of platform costing would be undertaken. This included four general information sessions organised by the FPB3 and three seminars to provide an overview of its models,4 as well as a suite of technical working papers.5

As presented in Figure ‎3.1, political parties are generally satisfied with the efforts of the FPB during the preparatory phase. Notably, during discussions with the OECD, most lauded the high degree of transparency regarding the publication of technical documentation and the ability of the FPB to clarify analytical questions. At the same time, some political parties flagged their perception that concerns raised pertaining to the scope of modelling capacity and ability to accommodate “novel” measures were not fully addressed. In addition, some expressed the view that, in hindsight, greater clarity could have been provided regarding which types of measures were eligible for the costing exercise.

Active phase as defined by the law (January 2019 –April 2019)

The active phase comprised the 85-day assessment period set out in legislation. It began with the submission of priorities and measures by political parties via predefined templates to the FPB. First, the FPB examined all proposed measures to determine if they were within the scope of the exercise. The parties were asked to provide an estimate of the fiscal impact for each measure, which was then “validated” by the FPB. In practice this validation process implied that the FPB produced its own estimates which may or may not be identical to the one provided by the party. In case the FPB was unable, for technical reasons or due to a lack of data, to produce its own estimate, the estimation provided by the party was taken over by the FPB but labelled as “unvalidated” figures and identified them as such in the ultimate publication (Figure ‎3.2).

Following the costing of the individual measures, the FPB used its models to analyse the impact of each party’s package of initiatives on a series of key indicators including: economic growth, public finances, employment, purchasing power, mobility and the electricity system. Specifically, two scenarios were compared: a reference scenario (that is, which does not include the proposed measures) and an alternative scenario that included these measures.

Ultimately, the results were shared with the respective political parties according to the calendar laid out in Figure ‎3.1, presented by the FPB at a news conference and published online at dc2019.be. Throughout the process, the FPB maintained ongoing communication with political parties via a single-point-of-contact (or SPOC) assigned to each party.

As presented in Figure ‎3.3, political parties were mostly satisfied with the FPB’s work during the Active Phase. However, these satisfaction levels were markedly lower compared to the pre-costing preparations. OECD consultations with political parties suggested that most felt that the FPB performed well on the administrative aspects of the exercise (communication with SPOCs, information collection for measures) and technical work (impact assessment using different models). Political parties were less sanguine regarding the FPB’s decision of which measures were determined to be eligible for the technical evaluation (examination of the measures, justification for not costing measures).

Consistent with their legislative obligations, all political parties submitted between three and five “priorities” to the FPB for assessment (Figure ‎3.4). That said, the levels of underlying engagement varied significantly with some priorities including a larger number of measures than others. The 59 priorities submitted by political parties encompassed 314 distinct measures costed by the FPB. While the average number of measures costed per political party was about 24, this ranged from a low of three (Parti du Travail de Belgique) to a high of 47 (Vlaams Belang). In addition, several stakeholders suggested that some political parties only submitted “token” measures for costing, thus fulfilling the letter of the law rather than the spirit.

Some political parties indicated that lower numbers of assessed measures reflect higher rejection rates on the part of the FPB, rather than a lack of engagement on their part. Consistent with considerations flagged by the FPB at the outset of the exercise, some parties suggested that because more of their proposed measures were novel and represented a “break with the past”, they could not be costed.

For its part, the FPB indicates that a little over 10% (34 measures) were rejected during the costing exercise. About half of these were attributed to the measure not being precisely specified, although some did pertain to novelty and structural reforms. Moreover, the FPB indicated its resources were more than fully subscribed during the costing period, with staff going over and above the call of duty to get through the workload. The FPB was therefore challenged to fully meet the demands of political parties.

The FPB classified all costed measures across eleven distinct “policy themes”. As depicted in Figure ‎3.5, all political parties had proposals costed regarding social protection, virtually all for household income taxes and most for investments and operating costs. Over half of all assessed measures fell within these four categories. As noted earlier, stakeholders suggested that this is primarily a function of a need to respond to issues of common interest for electors. In short, while the measures proposed may differ, there are common policy themes in a campaign. In addition, some political parties expressed the view that it could reflect the ability of the FPB’s models to accommodate some policy themes more easily than others.

Consistent with the preponderance of most measures in certain policy areas, the FPB also used some models more than others. As presented in Figure ‎3.6, all measures were assessed for their medium-term macroeconomic impacts. However, smaller proportions were analysed for their impacts on households’ purchasing power (71, EXPEDITION), long-term macroeconomic impacts (34, QUEST), consumer prices (30, HINT), mobility (20, PLANET) and the electricity system (5, CRYSTAL SUPERGRID).

The FPB’s traditional audience is comprised of economists, politicians, and decision-makers. In contrast, the FPB determined that the costing of electoral platforms required a refined communications approach to accommodate non-experts in the media and broader public. To that end, the FPB launched a new website for the election campaign, populated by new and more accessible information products.6

Feedback provided by journalists during OECD consultations was very positive regarding the work of the FPB and relevance of the platform costing exercise. All journalists indicated that the FPB was perceived to perform a solid job in engaging with the media and citizens. That said, journalists did echo similar concerns regarding the lack of comparability among the aspects of party platforms analysed. They also indicated that some political parties and journalists seemed to misinterpret the technical scope of the FPB’s work.

With respect to the dedicated election website, traffic peaked on the first day of its launch at more than 5 000 visitors. This coincided with the release of the costing results. However, this activity was short-lived, with daily traffic falling to a range of about 200 to 500 daily visitors during the remainder of the election campaign (Figure ‎3.7). This activity was far less than that generally observed on the FPB’s main website, which observed about 600 new visitors each day during the four-month analysis period.

Overall, the exercise enjoyed written media coverage almost 200 times (Figure ‎3.8). This ranged from short articles of several lines to several pages. As with the website, coverage peaked in April, coinciding with the release of platform costing results by the FPB. Linguistically, coverage was slightly higher among Francophone media compared to Flemish media (115 compared to 84).

As presented in Figure ‎3.9, the vast majority of stakeholders (political parties, experts and journalists) are of the view that the FPB communicated clearly regarding election costings (88% strongly agree or agree). This was particularly the case for efforts undertaken prior to the official start of the exercise. Political parties were pleased with the transparent communication pertaining to modelling capacity, assumptions, and early engagement with the FPB. Almost all political parties had a positive view of the FPB’s stakeholder relations, including protocols for request management, confidentiality, and exchange of information. At the same time, many also expressed the view that media and public engagement failed to meet expectations. In short, when the FPB communicated, it performed well; but it did not necessarily communicate enough or with sufficient engagement. This may partly be framed by the large media attention generated by the 2014 election costings exercise, itself sponsored by the media.

Given that ex ante expectations regarding public engagement are subjective, it is impossible to determine whether they were realistic or not. That said, the experiences of other OECD countries with similar election costing exercises (Canada, Australia) suggest that Belgium’s media and public engagement was on-par with that experienced internationally. It should also be noted that media tracking statistics collected by the FPB exclude references to the FPB made in radio and television interviews – including those made during debates. As such, it understates the media impact of the FPB’s election platform costing work. This view was corroborated during consultations with journalists conducted as part of the review. Finally, as will be discussed in the subsequent section, there was re-publication of results as part of an independent on-line interactive tool. This engagement via tertiary sources is also not collected as part of FPB’s media tracking.

Stakeholders widely view the first election costing exercise as having improved transparency around the economic and budgetary consequences of election commitments. The FPB is seen as independent in the way that it carried out the election costing and that it demonstrated sufficient skills and expertise to undertake the work. The vast majority of stakeholders are also of the view that the FPB communicated clearly. Furthermore, stakeholders reported that the exercise had helped them develop more robust policy and given them a greater understanding of how to design policy so that it could deliver greater impact.

Overall, the 2019 exercise met its legislative mandate and intended policy objectives. Importantly, the legislative framework is not deemed to be a significant impediment and its prescribed timelines are believed to be reasonable. There is a general consensus among all political stakeholders that the FPB’s election platform costing exercise should be an enduring feature of the Belgian institutional landscape and can be built upon to further improve its impact (Figure ‎3.10).

Political parties widely view the first election costing exercise as having improved transparency around the economic and budgetary consequences of election commitments (70% agree or strongly agree; Figure ‎3.11). During OECD consultations, many indicated that the most important change for the upcoming 2024 exercise was more support from the FPB. In particular, earlier, and more frequent engagement prior to the official start of the exercise and greater technical capacity to have more proposals included in the process.

During OECD discussions with political parties and media, stakeholders expressed the view that the exercise improved the credibility of measures being proposed in election debates. This arose primarily from a perceived increase in quality and quantity of information available to political parties and the electorate, including the coverage and comprehensiveness of costed policies versus announced policies. In particular, providing information not just on budgetary and economic impact, but also other socioeconomic elements (for example greenhouse gas emissions – a leading practice among IFIs).

Notably, most political parties reported that the exercise helped hone policies and improve their design through iterative consultations with the FPB. Most importantly, virtually all stakeholders expressed the view that the exercise enhanced the political “cost” of making proposals without credible evidence.

Stakeholders also reported that the exercise was helpful after the election during the negotiation of the coalition agreement, with the technical work undertaken by the FPB being viewed as credible and independent by all parties.

The FPB is seen as independent in the way that it carried out its technical analysis (Figure ‎3.12). Stakeholders also expressed the view that the FPB demonstrated that it had the skills and expertise to undertake the work (88% strongly agree or agree). Importantly, during OECD consultations, many political parties reported that the FPB was best placed among other competing entities to manage the exercise. Some political parties that ultimately formed the government indicated that the FPB’s analysis expedited the negotiation process surrounding the government’s agenda, as the numbers were deemed “credible” and therefore not requiring further scrutiny.

While feedback was generally positive, many political parties expressed the view that there were some “surprises” during the process. These principally stemmed from two areas. First, some measures submitted to the FPB were unexpectedly deemed “ineligible” for analysis (for example, abolishing the monarchy some proposals regarding tax fraud reduction). Second, some measures that were “novel” to Belgium (for example a wealth tax, or capital gains tax) could not be validated by the FPB. In some situations, political parties reported that they were advised of these decisions relatively late in the process. For its part, the FPB indicated measures were only rejected when models were deemed inappropriate to evaluate their impact.

There is a general consensus among all stakeholders that more detailed guidance would be helpful in advance of the 2024 exercise. Such guidance material is seen as beneficial in improving transparency and avoiding misunderstandings. In addition, there could be benefits from internal administrative developments to enhance co-ordination among staff (for example, through regular meetings of SPOCs, analysts and the steering committee) thus ensuring greater consistency in communication with political parties.

Virtually all stakeholders expressed the view that the discretion afforded to political parties regarding the choice of “priorities” undermined the exercise. In particular, the lack of comparability amongst measures was perceived to undermine transparency. Some political parties suggested that their competitors “gamed” the system, referring “priorities” and measures to the FPB that would not be subject to independent verification or be rejected outright. Alternatively, some stakeholders suggested that political parties only submitted those “priorities” that would generate the most positive macro-economic and socio-economic outcomes, opting to exclude those with potentially unflattering results. As such, many suggested that the exercise served to exacerbate a “deficit bias”, wherein most political parties selected measures advantageous for households for costing, notwithstanding the overall bias toward deficits and debt.

The comparability challenge in the Belgian election costings exercise is unique internationally. As noted earlier, this is because Belgium is the only country where a limited portion of election platforms is analysed. In all other countries where election costings are undertaken, a more comprehensive approach is adopted, where all measures proposed by political parties can be included in the exercise.

The breadth and depth of platform analysis is primarily mediated by resources. The number of measures costed is far greater in the Netherlands than in any other country. However, as presented in Table ‎3.3, the Netherlands relies on about twice the number of full-time-equivalent staff (FTEs) compared to Belgium and Canada. In addition, they enjoy a longer official “costing window” during which the work can be undertaken compared to Australia and Canada. The Netherlands also benefits from greater experience in managing an election platform costing exercise, as both the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (CPB) Central Planning Bureau and Dutch political parties have relatively greater familiarity with the process compared to Canadian and Australian peers. The Netherlands also tasks a separate federal agency with evaluating environmental impacts of electoral platforms.

Based on the stakeholder survey results and OECD consultations, there is limited appetite for increasing resources for the FPB. Most stakeholders attributed their lack of support to overarching fiscal challenges facing Belgium. In addition, there was no support among stakeholders to amend the legislation to eliminate the obligation for assessing macroeconomic and socioeconomic impacts, but instead require a costing or verification of all platform measures. Some expressed the view that it would undermine the primary objective of the exercise.

In the absence of additional resources for the FPB, there is another option available – drawing on modelling capacity across the federal and regional public administration (for example, the federal Ministry of Finance, the federal Ministry of Social Security and regional planning bureaus). As noted earlier, this is a common feature of the election platform costing processes in other jurisdictions. It also represents a material source of resources in the overall exercise, ranging from about 10% to 30% of FTEs. Canada has memoranda of understanding (MoUs) with key analytical departments allowing its IFI to draw upon their models and FTEs. These MoUs provide administrative frameworks to ensure the confidentiality of any support and are deemed to be a key success factor in their exercise. In the Netherlands, some employees of ministries and the central bank were seconded to CPB. They work under the full responsibility of the CPB. Independence and secrecy are established through a secondment agreement.

Belgium’s legislative costing framework allows the FPB to request assistance from other authorities to support its work. During consultations, a number of stakeholders across federal and regional administrative bodies expressed their openness to collaborating with the FPB in the election platform costing process. Stakeholders recognised that political parties, citizens, and the country would be supported by a broader effort on the part of the public service. Some highlighted political, administrative and resource constraints that could hamper their efforts. For example, there were some reservations regarding the potential politicisation, or the potential heightened risk of breaching confidentiality requirements. Others indicated a willingness to both undertake analytical work on behalf of the FPB and/or provide advice as required. It is noted that collaboration with other agencies is a common feature of other OECD independent fiscal institutions that cost political platforms and explicit protocols are in place to manage these risks.

The scope of measures that the FPB was able to cost and analyse was the second principal issue raised by stakeholders, as well as the breadth of indicators produced through the dynamic scoring exercise.

With respect to the scope of measures assessed, this primarily related to the challenges accommodating measures that are novel to Belgium (for example, a tax on wealth or capital gains). As is common among most independent fiscal institutions, modelling capacity is primarily focused on the existing tax and transfer system, and its relationship to the overall economy. Introducing novel policy measures presents two challenges: the model needs to be extended or modified to accommodate the new measure; and relevant domestic data do not exist to populate the model or underpin assumptions. As such, this contributed to the FPB’s reasonable reticence to prepare, validate, or incorporate cost estimates of these measures in the electoral platform costing exercise.

While political stakeholders were forewarned by the FPB that they could not analyse a number of the novel policy measures proposed, there were also instances where – at the end of the costings process - they were taken by surprise that other measures had not been costed. Stakeholders were not always clear on the reasons for this and would like to see clearer guidance relating to what can and cannot be costed by the FPB as part of this exercise.

Some political parties also flagged concerns regarding the specification of existing FPB models. Specific issues included their ability to capture the full impacts of policies with labour supply or productivity responses, and as well as behavioural responses to certain priorities and measures. While most stakeholders accepted that these impacts may principally occur outside of the medium-term window of analysis, it was noted that this would bias political parties toward proposing measures with short-term gains to the detriment of longer-term social reforms.

Finally, a plurality of stakeholders expressed strong interest in additional indicators being added to the exercise (for example, the impact of policies on poverty), as well as greater granularity in model outputs. Some stakeholders also expressed concerns that environmental impacts were not consistently captured. A key challenge for the FPB in this regard relates to the fact that many environmental impacts occur beyond the time-period covered by the costing (for example, the time-horizon with Crystal Supergrid was to 2030). This “time horizon” issue is common across other jurisdictions costing political party platforms. In the case of Canada and the Netherlands, supplementary information tables are presented where the longer-term impacts can be calculated and are relevant.

The federated nature of Belgium’s political system and cultural duality engenders greater regional diversity among political parties. As such, it is not surprising that a number of political stakeholders expressed strong views that costing results should be disaggregated by region. Compounding this interest was the fact that regional and federal elections were held concurrently in 2019 (as will also be the case in 2024). This was a key issue for policies in areas such as mobility, where competencies for trains, trams, buses are split across different levels of government.

Beyond interest in the regional results of platform policies, there were also measures proposed in the 2019 election campaign to further decentralise the Belgian federation. For example, transferring responsibility for the federal social security programme to regional authorities. By their very nature, these proposals would require a “regional lens” of evaluation to fully appreciate the policy outcomes. Many political parties highlighted their view that electors had limited interest in the national results and instead based their decisions on regional and community impacts.

Political stakeholders reported that their requests for region-specific results were not fulfilled for the 2019 exercise. This may have primarily stemmed from the raison d’être of the FPB: to prepare national analysis of economic and fiscal policies. As such, the FPB was unable to generate substantive region-specific analysis as their models generally lacked regional variables and data was not easily available. As noted in its background guidance document, the FPB’s models are primarily structured to generate results for the federal government, rather than regional governments. As such, even if the FPB wanted to provide greater granularity in their modelling results, the data required to do so often rested with the regional governments that were not compelled to share it. Further, some would argue that full legitimacy to present regional-level impacts would require providing regional planning bureaus with a legal mandate to undertake the analysis.

Apart from the technical challenges of generating regional results, there was a perception on the part of the FPB that the primary objective of the electoral platform costing exercise was to present national analysis. This perspective was well-justified, given the parliamentary debates surrounding the promulgation of the legislative framework. As such, the FPB’s limited technical resources were principally allocated toward assessing the national impact of programmes rather than delving into geographic minutiae (that is, examining the impacts at a national level for both federal and regional measures).

Notwithstanding this, the FPB has recently been investing in its regional modelling capacity (see Box ‎3.1). This puts it in a better position to be able to disaggregate policy impacts by region as part of its analytical work, including forthcoming costings exercises where resources allow.

A key measure of success for the 2019 exercise is its influence on public debate. Specifically, did electors use the work of the FPB to inform their voting choice? There is a clear view by all stakeholders that the FPB’s technical work “mattered” during the campaign. At the same time, many stakeholders expressed the view that there is substantial opportunity for improvement. Most notably, the FPB itself indicated that the 2019 electoral platform costing exercise did not generate the level of public interest anticipated. This may be partly because the FPB did not have a formal communications function at the time of the exercise. However, this is now in place, and puts the FPB in a stronger position going into the 2024 election costing exercise.

Potential changes to enhance the relevance of the exercise fall into three general categories. First, improving the presentation of the FPB’s results. Second, presenting additional supporting details of pertinence to electors. Finally, ensuring that the results of the FPB’s technical work can be situated in the overall Belgian fiscal context.

There is an appetite among stakeholders for clearer presentation of technical results. While the summary of results published by the FPB was determined by some stakeholders to “be a good start”, most believe that more effort is required. More specifically, most expressed the view that citizen engagement could be increased by a more interactive presentation of results. Several cited the online tool published by a media outlet during the campaign as an example.7 The FPB’s internal review of the 2019 exercise reached a similar conclusion.

The publication of additional supporting information pertains to two factors: greater transparency regarding the costings themselves; and a wider range of socioeconomic indicators. With respect to the former, stakeholders suggested publishing greater detail regarding the assumptions underpinning the analysis of specific measures, as well as some assessment regarding the uncertainty of results. Similar disclosures are provided by other OECD countries that undertake electoral costings, such as Canada (see Box ‎3.2). The latter pertains to stakeholder interest discussed earlier, such as a greater breadth of impact analysis on households (for example, incidence of poverty). Other jurisdictions also consider including a longer-term timescale for impacts where pertinent (such as those relating to structural reforms).

Finally, stakeholders expressed concerns that many political parties were putting forward political platforms that were unrealistic given federal budget constraints and the current fiscal context, with no political cost. This is believed to undermine the election costings exercise.

While stakeholders rejected the idea of a common budget constraint for political platforms, there was some appetite for the FPB highlighting where election platforms would not comply with EU rules. More generally, stakeholders were open to the FPB giving greater prominence to the fiscal context in the presentation of the costings results. Given Belgium’s current fiscal and economic challenges, this was viewed as beneficial for determining the feasibility of priorities.

Although it is generally accepted that a comprehensive comparison will not be possible owing to a partial assessment of each platform (that is, selected priorities), most stakeholders thought that a greater communication effort was required to promote greater public awareness of independent election platform costings by the FPB. There was also a suggestion that the FPB could dedicate a section of the election costings website to Belgium’s fiscal context. For example, Canada typically publishes a fiscal sustainability report prior to the official election costing period that identifies how much new (or less) spending room is available. In the Netherlands, the CPB also publishes a fiscal sustainability report prior to the analysis of the election platforms. In its final publication, the CPB indicates how each election platform would change the general government balance (EMU balance) and the structural EMU balance by the end of the next cabinet period. Also, the projected EMU debt in the year 2060 is published, together with the change of the fiscal sustainability gap due to the election platform. FPB has noted that it already has much of the data and analysis available for such a publication.

Based on the foregoing analysis, there are ten recommendations covering five areas of change that could improve the relevance and impact of the election platform costing exercise. The areas relate to: comparability; modelling; guidance; regional impacts; and communications. All can be accommodated within the existing legislative framework. Each is discussed below.

  1. 1. Promote greater public awareness of independent election platform costings by the FPB

To improve public awareness of the independent election platform costings undertaken by the FPB, the Bureau could consider a number of actions, including further developing the online tools it uses to present – and enable comparison of - the results. Several stakeholders cited an online tool published by a media outlet during the campaign as an example. Furthermore, the FPB could consider the publication of additional supporting information regarding the assumptions underpinning the analysis of specific measures, as well as an assessment regarding the uncertainty of results. Where feasible and appropriate the FPB could also expand the breadth of impact analysis to include other socioeconomic indicators which are likely to be of interest to the public (such as impacts on poverty).

To improve the extent to which the public can assess how realistic different election platforms are in the Belgian fiscal context, the FPB could give greater prominence to its analysis on the fiscal context (for example, its medium-term projections) alongside its communications of election costings. An alternative approach could be to invite political parties to present priorities and measures that are broadly fiscally neutral. This could help ensure that the exercise respects an implicit fiscal anchor consistent with Belgium’s current budgetary challenges.

  1. 2. Improving the comparability of political platforms

To address concerns regarding the comparability of costings and potential “gaming” of the system by political parties, the FPB could explore the option to increase the comparability through establishing prescribed “thematic” categories . For instance, based on consultations with political parties, the FPB could establish five broad thematic areas for which political parties are invited to submit corresponding priorities (such as health, justice, taxation, environment, transport). This would ensure that electors would be presented with more of a reasonably comparable basket of competing proposals. Care needs to be taken when selecting the themes to ensure that they cover all potential policy areas, and that the themes chosen do not put any political party at a disadvantage.

This thematic approach may elicit a broader selection of measures being submitted for analysis by political parties. The FPB could strengthen its capacity to cost a larger volume of measures and/or increase the quality of analysis through drawing on modelling expertise across the greater public administration (for example, the federal Ministry of Finance, federal Ministry of Social Security, and regional planning bureaus). Such collaboration could be potentially arranged via memoranda of understanding (as in Canada), secondments (as in the Netherlands) or both. Further details are provided in Box ‎3.3.

  1. 3. Expanding technical capacity to capture the impacts of a broader range of policies

While the OECD’s technical review of the FPB concluded its models are robust, there are opportunities to address stakeholder concerns. Specifically, that the Bureau is still unable to cost the full range of measures proposed, and its models do not always capture the full impacts of structural reforms that bring about supply-side or productivity changes. While there was some degree of understanding around this for the first election costings exercise, stakeholders are hoping that the FPB will be able to capture the impacts of a broader range of policies for the 2024 exercise.

With this in mind, the FPB should seek to further improve their models to better capture the impacts of measures involving structural reforms (see Box ‎3.4 for the example of how Canada improved its models over time to support election costings). It should also stand ready to undertake ad-hoc analysis for policies whose costs cannot be estimated through existing models, but for which external evidence exists (for example, academic literature, estimates from other developed economies).

Having an early indication with regard to the types of policies being proposed in election platforms will help the FPB in ensuring it has the appropriate models. The FPB would likely see benefits from offering political parties opportunities for earlier engagement in relation to the development of complex (or novel) measures. This would provide greater lead time to develop a costing approach. A similar approach is taken in the Netherlands (see Box ‎3.5).

Although the FPB can aim to cost a broader range of policies, there will inevitably be some policies for which it is unable to do this, given limited resources and the short timescales involved. Where this is the case, it would be helpful to have clearer and prominent communications explaining why a costing was not possible, cross-referencing the terms set out in the election costings guidance (see also point 4 below).

  1. 4. Presenting regional impacts of priorities and measures

Since the 2019 election platform costing exercise, the FPB has undertaken efforts to enhance its regional acuity. At the same time, the FPB should further examine options to build greater regional precision into their suite of models. Where possible and relevant, the regional results of technical work should be made available to political parties as requested. For example, the FPB may be able to show the results of a federal policy, such as benefits for the long-term unemployed, disaggregated by region.

The FPB already has good relationships with regional administrations who help support their regional modelling (for example, through analytical collaboration or providing relevant regional data or local knowledge). For the FPB to be in a position where it can respond to the demands from political parties on the regional impacts of priorities and measures set out in their federal political platform, it will need to leverage these strong relationships. Potentially more importantly, these regional organisations would benefit from being provided with a clearer legal mandate to assist the FPB in its election analysis.

  1. 5. Clearer and more comprehensive administrative guidance

To reduce the risk of “surprises” for political parties, the FPB could build on their 2019 guidance document and provide additional details regarding administration of the exercise. Guidance documents from Canada and the Netherlands both provide useful examples that can be drawn upon for this (see Box ‎3.6). Revised guidance could include greater detail on the type of measures that can and cannot be costed alongside a list of examples. This would help support engagement with political parties and manage expectations around the exercise.

Complimenting enhanced external guidance for political parties, the FPB could also consider measures to improve internal co-ordination during the exercise. In particular, implementing more frequent meetings among the SPOCs, as well as between SPOCs, analysts and the steering committee will help ensure consistency in political party communications, and facilitate equitable priority setting. This practice would mirror the Netherlands, where the CPB holds short daily meetings with all project members during the costing exercise, as well as daily meetings with the project leaders and the CPB director. Twice a week, there is also a meeting of the team leads. This allows for the quick communication of updates relevant for multiple teams and supports consistent communications with political stakeholders.

To further enhance engagement with political parties, the FPB could also consider publishing a list of measures analysed in the 2019 exercise. This would mirror the successful practice in the Netherlands. In that jurisdiction, the costing compendium serves to provide political parties with additional examples of the type of measures that are eligible for costing and the magnitude of corresponding fiscal impacts.

The recommendations in this report are expected to enhance Belgium’s electoral platform costing exercise over the short- and long-term. At the same time, they are circumscribed by the imminent election. Specifically, less than a year remains before Belgium’s second electoral platform costing process. As such, there is no reasonable scope to consider amending the legislative framework or introducing other significant structural changes.

Looking beyond the next election, there are other potential changes that could be contemplated by the FPB. These could support election platform costing to achieve its full potential - the same comprehensive exercise that exists in the Netherlands. To achieve this, the FPB would be required to build on its recent and incipient progress and deepen engagement with other analytical staff placed across the public administration.

As discussed earlier, something that the FPB does well, and could do more of, is formal technical collaboration with other organisations. The Bureau currently collaborates with a range of external public sector organisations in building and refining its modelling capacity. This includes federal and regional entities, as well as universities. During OECD consultations, there was a general consensus that a collaborative approach served everyone well in ensuring a transparent, integrated analytical framework. Further developing and deepening linkages with teams across federal and regional administrations could create a stronger “critical mass” of analytical capacity, enabling the exercise to be scaled up over time to encompass entire platforms. This would be a natural extension of the efforts already underway by the FPB, although it would require new legislation to fully implement.

Another natural extension of the exercise would be for the FPB to analyse the coalition agreement reached following each election campaign. To the extent possible, the FPB already does this calculation within its Medium-Term Outlook which incorporates a no-policy change scenario, allowing readers to see the impact of new government measures. However, publishing this analysis as a standalone report in advance of the coalition agreement being voted on in parliament could provide stakeholders (including parliamentarians and citizens) with an independent, non-partisan assessment of the government’s fiscal and economic strategy, and how it aligns with the fiscal context faced in Belgium. Importantly, it could also identify transparency gaps – where measures are not sufficiently detailed to quantitatively assess. This would, however, require the FPB to be given timely and specific information on policies included in the agreement.

In the longer-term, creation of capacity to analyse entire platforms would provide sustained benefits outside of the election costing period. For example, the challenges faced by Canada in its first election proposal costing process necessitated a change in its operating posture (Box ‎3.7). These changes provided ongoing benefits outside of the costing period. A similar improvement could be expected in Belgium.

As noted in the first two chapters, the Bureau’s current operating strategy leaves it well situated to address current and emerging challenges with electoral platform analysis. Together, it is hoped that the proposed improvements will help strengthen the credibility, usefulness and awareness of the election costings exercise by the FPB. In turn, this will support the development of realistic, more transparent election platforms based on evidence. The election costings exercise can help improve the credibility of the information available to voters, offsetting misinformation and augmenting the trust between citizens and political parties. It can also bolster the possibility of aspiring governments to propose more fundamental reforms and helps strengthen voter engagement in the democratic process.

A further evaluation of the 2024 exercise will help identify whether the challenges identified in this report have been alleviated through a refined approach. It will also serve to inform the priority of further changes to ensure the election costings exercise continues to be credible, useful and relevant.


[2] OECD (2021), “OECD IFI Independent Fiscal Institutions Database”, OECD, Paris, https://www.oecd.org/gov/budgeting/ifi-database.htm (accessed on 10 September 2023).

[1] OECD (2015), “Recommendation of the Council on Budgetary Governance”, OECD Legal Instruments, OECD/LEGAL/0410, OECD, Paris, https://www.oecd.org/gov/budgeting/Recommendation-of-the-Council-on-Budgetary-Governance.pdf.

[3] OECD (n.d.), OECD Tax Database, OECD, Paris, https://www.oecd.org/tax/tax-policy/tax-database/ (accessed on 10 September 2023).


← 1. . Belgian Parliament: The Act of 22 May 2014.

← 2. . https://multimedia.tijd.be/rekening14/

← 3. . Four preparatory information sessions were organised: on 26 April, 22 June, 21 September, and 14 December 2018.

← 4. . 15/10/2018 (HERMES & QUEST), 25/10/2018 (PLANET & CRYSTAL SUPER GRID), 8/11/2018 (EXPEDITION/HINT & PROMES).

← 5. . Published first on www.plan.be and later on www.dc2019.be

← 6. . www.dc2019.be

← 7. . See the online application published by https://www.standaard.be/verkiezingen-2019/rekening-berekenzelf.

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