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IMF Country Report No. 22/219

July 2022

NORTH MACEDONIA

TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE REPORT – PUBLIC EXPENDITURE AND FINANCIAL ACCOUNTABILITY PERFORMANCE ASSESSMENT

This Technical Assistance Paper on North Macedonia was prepared by a staff team of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. It is based on the information available at the time it was completed in December 2021.

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Title page

NORTH MACEDONIA

PUBLIC EXPENDITURE AND FINANCIAL ACCOUNTABILITY (PEFA)

ASSESSMENT REPORT/May 2022

The contents of this document constitute technical advice provided by the staff of the International Monetary Fund to the authorities of Republic of North Macedonia (the "CD recipient") in response to their request for technical assistance. This document (in whole or in part) or summaries thereof may be disclosed by the IMF to the IMF Executive Director for Republic of North Macedonia, to other IMF Executive Directors and members of their staff, as well as to other agencies or instrumentalities of the CD recipient, and upon their request, to World Bank staff, and other technical assistance providers and donors with legitimate interest, unless the CD recipient specifically objects to such disclosure (see Operational Guidance for the Dissemination of Capacity Development Information—https://0-www-imf-org.library.svsu.edu/-/media/Files/Publications/PP/2022/English/PPEA2022018.ashx). Publication or Disclosure of this report (in whole or in part) to parties outside the IMF other than agencies or instrumentalities of the CD recipient, World Bank staff, other technical assistance providers and donors with legitimate interest shall require the explicit consent of the CD recipient and the IMF’s Fiscal Affairs Department.

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Republic of North Macedonia

Public Expenditure and Financial Accountability (PEFA) Performance Assessment Report

The PEFA Secretariat confirms that this report meets the PEFA quality assurance requirements and is hereby awarded the “PEFA CHECK”.

PEFA Secretariat

March 18, 2022

PEFA CHECK, ASSESSMENT MANAGEMENT AND QUALITY ASSURANCE

PEFA assessment management organization

  • Oversight Team: Suzana Peneva, State Advisor, Ministry of Finance (MoF) Ana Nanevska, Head of Unit, MoF; Mediha Agar, Senior Public Sector Specialist World Bank (WB), Yasemin Hürcan, Senior Economist International Monetary Fund (IMF)

  • Assessment Manager: Roby Senderowitsch (Practice Manager, Governance Global Practice, WB), Xavier Rame (Senior Economist, IMF FAD)

  • Assessment Team Leader and Team Members: Aleksandar Crnomarković (Senior Financial Management Specialist, Co-Task Team Leader, WB), Suzanne Flynn (Co-Task Team Leader, Regional Public Financial Management Adviser, IMF), Nino Tchelishvili (Technical Assistance Adviser, IMF); Bojan Pogačar (Regional Public Financial Management Adviser, IMF), Nihad Nakaš (PFM Consultant, WB), David Gentry (PFM Expert, IMF); Zoran Skopljak (Public Sector Specialist, WB), Simona Kovachevska Stefanova (Local Economist, IMF), Zohra Farooq (Senior Financial Management Specialist, WB), Antonia Viyachka (Procurement Specialist, WB).

Review of concept note

  • Date of reviewed draft concept note: 7 April 2021 Invited reviewers: Suzana Peneva, State Advisor, MoF; Ana Nanevska, Head of Unit, MoF; Yasemin Hürcan, Senior Economist, IMF; Patrick Tete, Senior Financial Management Specialist, World Bank (WB); PEFA Secretariat

  • Reviewers who provided comments: Suzana Peneva, State Advisor, MoF Ana Nanevska, Head of Unit, MoF; Yasemin Hürcan, Senior Economist, IMF; Patrick Tete, Senior Financial Management Specialist, World Bank (WB), PEFA Secretariat

  • Date(s) of final concept note: 28 April 2021

Review of the assessment report

  • Date(s) of reviewed draft report(s): 28 November 2021

  • Invited reviewers: Suzana Peneva, State Advisor, MoF; Ana Nanevska, Head of Unit, MoF; Yasemin Hürcan, Senior Economist, IMF; Patrick Tete, Senior Financial Management Specialist, World Bank (WB); Tony Bennett, Consultant, SECO; PEFA Secretariat

  • Reviewers who provided comments: Suzana Peneva, State Advisor, MoF; Ana Nanevska, Head of Unit, MoF; Yasemin Hürcan, Senior Economist, IMF; Patrick Tete, Senior Financial Management Specialist, World Bank (WB); Tony Bennett, Consultant, SECO; PEFA Secretariat

Methodology

The assessment followed full the guidance issued by the PEFA Secretariat (available at www.pefa.org), The assessment team used full suite of methodological guidance and tools developed by the PEFA Secretariat, including the PEFA Handbooks.1

Type of assessment. The assessment is the second successive national PEFA assessment in North Macedonia, funded from the IMF’s “Revenue Administration and Public Financial Management in South East Europe” project2 and the World Bank’s ongoing TA “Support to Public Revenue Office IT System Design”, with in-kind contribution by the Government of North Macedonia. The previous assessment was conducted by an EU-funded technical assistance project using 2011 PEFA Framework. The 2021 assessment was external, conducted by the World Bank and the IMF in line with the 2016 PEFA Framework. The assessment tracked change from the previous assessment conducted in 2015, applying separate guidance on assessing PFM performance changes using different versions of the PEFA framework.

Number of indicators used. All 31 PEFA indicators across seven PFM pillars were applied for the assessment.

Timeline of the assessment: The assessment commenced in April 2021 with training in PEFA methodology delivered by the PEFA Secretariat on April 21. The training was followed by the main data collection mission conducted from April 22 to May 21, 2021. From May to July 2021 the assessment team focused on drafting the PEFA report, accompanied with additional data requests to the government and supplementary meetings to fill information gaps. Based on the first draft, the discussions with the government about the preliminary findings were continued in order to come up with the next iterations of the report. Final assessment findings were coordinated with the OECD SIGMA team which was conducting a concurrent Principles of Public Administration assessment. The report was subsequently subject to the review for PEFA Check endorsement and translation into Macedonian. It was delivered in January 2022, with PEFA Check logo, in English and Macedonian and published on the websites of the PEFA Secretariat, IMF, World Bank and the Ministry of Finance of North Macedonia.

Years covered: The assessment covers 2018, 2019 and 2020 as the last three completed fiscal years. This period applies to all indicators covering “three last completed fiscal years” and 2020 is the “last completed fiscal year” referred to in a number of dimensions.

Cut-off date: The assessment cut-off date was June 30, 2021, in line with the assessment Concept Note. It was used as such for the information collected and assessed, and in consideration of circumstances applying “at the time of the assessment”, relevant to some dimensions.

Coverage: The assessment covers the central government. Section 1 (table 1.1) of the report presents the structure of government units. Other central government entities covered in the assessment included social security funds (3 institutional units, namely Health Security Fund, Employment Agency, Pension and Disability Fund) and other extra-budgetary units (as defined in section 1.1). Except on PI- 6, which is exhaustive, the assessment of the different aspects of EBUs’ performance was based on a representative sample of EBUs on indicators with CG coverage, given their number and variety of legal, organizational and governance arrangements. The assessment covered the sub-national government level and public corporations to the extent required under the PEFA 2016 Framework, i.e. assessing fiscal risks arising from operations of sub-national governments and public enterprises and assessing transfers to the sub-national level.

Sources of information: The primary sources of data for the assessment were (i) interviews with relevant government officials and (ii) review and analysis of relevant documentation, such as government reports, analytical data and any other documents prepared by the government which are relevant to assessing PEFA indicators. The assessment team likewise consulted through meetings and relevant diagnostic and analytical reports produced by non-government stakeholders, including international organizations and donors. The full list of institutions and people met, as well as documents and reports used, is presented in Annex 3 of the report.

Country fiscal year: January 1 to December 31.

Exchange rate: 1 EUR = 61.6940 MKD; 1 USD = 50.2353 MKD

(median exchange rates of the National Bank of the Republic of North Macedonia as of December 31, 2020)

Table of Contents

  • Methodology

  • Abbreviations and Acronyms

  • Executive Summary

  • 1. PFM Context in North Macedonia

  • 2. Detailed analysis of PFM performance

    • PILLAR ONE: Budget reliability

      • PI-1. Aggregate Expenditure Outturn

      • PI-2. Expenditure composition outturn

      • PI-3. Revenue outturn

    • PILLAR TWO: Transparency of public finances

      • PI-4. Budget classification

      • PI-5. Budget documentation

      • PI-6. Central government operations outside financial reports

      • PI-7. Transfers to subnational governments

      • PI-8. Performance information for service delivery

      • PI-9. Public access to fiscal information

    • PILLAR THREE: Management of assets and liabilities

      • PI-10. Fiscal risk reporting

      • PI-11. Public investment management

      • PI-12. Public asset management

      • PI-13. Debt management

    • PILLAR FOUR: Policy-based fiscal strategy and budgeting

      • PI-14. Macroeconomic and fiscal forecasting

      • PI-15. Fiscal strategy

      • PI-16. Medium-term perspective in expenditure budgeting

      • PI-17. Budget preparation process

      • PI-18. Legislative scrutiny of budgets

    • PILLAR FIVE: Predictability and control in budget execution

      • PI-19. Revenue administration

      • PI-20. Accounting for revenue

      • PI-21. Predictability of in-year resource allocation

      • PI-22. Expenditure arrears

      • PI-23. Payroll controls

      • PI-24. Procurement

      • PI-25. Internal controls on non-salary expenditure

      • PI-26. Internal audit

    • PILLAR SIX: ACCOUNTING AND REPORTING

      • PI-27. Financial data integrity

      • PI-28. In-year budget reports

      • PI-29. Annual financial reports

    • PILLAR SEVEN: External scrutiny and audit

      • PI-30. External audit

      • PI-31. Legislative scrutiny of audit reports

  • 3. Overall analysis of PFM systems

    • 3.1 PFM strengths and weaknesses

    • 3.2 Effectiveness of the internal control framework

    • 3.3 Performance changes since the 2015 assessment

  • Annex 1: 2021 Performance indicator summary

  • Annex 2: Summary of observations on the internal control framework

  • Annex 3: Sources of information

    • Annex 3A: Related surveys and analytical work

    • Annex 3C: Sources of information used to extract evidence for scoring each indicator

  • Annex 4: 2021 Performance change summary

  • Annex 5 - Calculations for PI-1, PI-2 and PI-3 (2016 Framework)

    • Annex 5a - Calculations for PI-1, PI-2 and PI-3 (2011 Framework)

Abbreviations and Acronyms

AG

Auditor General

BCG

Budgetary Central Government

BU

Budget User

CA

Customs Authority

CG

Central Government

CHD

Central Harmonization Department

CIT

Corporate Income Tax

COFOG

Classification of Functions of Government

CRMU

Compliance Risk Management Unit

DMIS

Debt Management Information System

DMIS

EC European Commission

EO

Economic Operator

ESPEO

Electronic System for Reporting and Recording of Liabilities

ESPP

Electronic Procurement System

EU

European Union

ERP

Economic Reform Program

FID

Financial Inspection Department

FS

Fiscal Strategy

FY

Fiscal Year

GDP

Gross Domestic Product

GFSM

Government Financial Statistics Manual

GTI

General Tax Inspectorate

GRNM

Government of the Republic of North Macedonia

HIF

Health Insurance Fund

IAU

Internal Audit Unit

IFRDMD

International Relations and Debt Management Department

IFRS

International Financial Reporting Standards

IMF

International Monetary Fund

INTOSAI

International Organization of Supreme Audit Institutions

IPA

Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance

JSC

Joint Stock Company

LGSU

Local Self Government Units

LGU

Local Government Unit

LTO

Large Taxpayer Office

MC

Ministry of Culture

ME

Ministry of Economy

MES

Ministry of Education and Science

MESP

Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning

MKD

Macedonian Denar

MLSG

Ministry of Local Self Government

MoF

Ministry of Finance

MOTC

Ministry of Transport and Communication

NBRNM

National Bank of the Republic of North Macedonia

OBL

Organic Budget Law

PDMS

Public Debt Management Strategy

PE

Public Enterprise

PEFA

Public Expenditure and Financial Accountability

PESR

Public Enterprise for State Roads

PFM

Public Financial Management

PIM

Public Investment Management

PIT

Personal Income Tax

PPB

Public Procurement Bureau

PPL

Public Procurement Law

PPP

Public-Private Partnership

PRO

Public Revenue Office

RNM

Republic of North Macedonia

SAC

State Appeals Commission

SAO

State Audit Office

SPP

Single Project Pipeline

SSC

Social Security Contributions

STA

Single Treasury Account

TrIS

Treasury System

UPEA

Unit for Public Enterprises and Agencies

VAT

Value Added Tax

WB

World Bank

Executive Summary

Purpose and management

This PEFA assessment provides a snapshot of the country’s PFM system performance in order to support the government in defining PFM reform priorities. The previous assessment was conducted in 2015, therefore the current assessment follows after the recommended time period between the two assessments. Furthermore, the scope and objectives of the reforms initiated and implemented in the intervening period makes tracking the change in the PFM system needed and meaningful. The assessment was conducted by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, with the Ministry of Finance and other relevant country institutions being the primary beneficiaries of the assessment.

The assessment informed evaluation of the implementation of the PFM Reform Program 2018-2021, and preparation of a new reform program. The Public Financial Management Reform Program (PFMRP) is the key strategic document in the area of public financial management, which describes the planned reforms and set targets and indicators to measure implementation results. The Government completed the implementation of the PFMRP covering the period 2018-2021 and is in the process of preparation of a new program. A number of reforms have been implemented under the PFMRP 2018-2021, but the assessment identified further remaining areas for improvement. The assessment aims to inform the Government about the performance of its PFM system in line with the PEFA methodology, as well as to track the changes between the 2015 assessment and the current one.

Main strengths and weaknesses of the PFM systems in the Republic of North Macedonia

The assessment has identified the following main strengths of the country’s PFM system:

  • Budget formulation, credibility and transparency. Deviations of the executed versus the original budget are within manageable levels, with the exception on the revenue side in 2020 due to the pandemic. Deviation in the composition of expenditure and revenue is more significant, and it includes reallocations from capital to recurrent budget coupled with the capital budget underspending. Annual budget and budget execution reports are presented in line with all relevant classifications, namely administrative, economic, functional and program classification, while in-year reporting does not provide all classifications and tends to be more aggregated. However, the comprehensiveness of the published budget documentation provided to the legislature could be improved as some key elements are missing, such as current year’s budget, aggregated budget data for revenue and expenditures, macroeconomic assumptions, information on financial assets, budgetary impact of new policy proposals and assessments of fiscal risks and tax expenditures. Fiscal information is transparent and publicly accessible. Transfers to lower levels of government are based on a rule-based, transparent and equitable system. Budget calendar is appropriate and generally adhered to, however the ceilings provided to budget users do not cover the total expenditures for which they are responsible.

  • Budget execution. Predictability of available funds for budget execution during the year is robust and underpinned by suitable cash flow forecasting and monitoring. There are hard controls at the payments stage which ensure that the budget is executed within the approved allocations and against quarterly commitment ceilings. Available records on expenditure arrears report low stock of arrears. Internal controls, including payroll controls, are generally sound. Public procurement is competitive, transparent, with appropriate complaints mechanism in place.

  • External audit and parliamentary scrutiny. The State Audit Office (SAO) is financially and organizationally independent and it conducts audits in line with its annual audit plan and international standards, while the number of audited entities and the audit coverage beyond statutory audits is dictated by the institution’s capacity. Nonetheless, the SAO audits central government’s budget execution report annually and in a timely manner (3-4 months after receiving the financial statements, with the exception in 2020 due to the pandemic) and the resulting audit report is published. There is effective follow-up of audit recommendations by the auditees. Procedures and practices for the parliament’s review of the annual budget are appropriate in terms of scope and timeliness, while the scrutiny of the audit reports is also timely (within three months) and transparent, although public hearings and recommendations based on audit reports are insufficient.

  • Debt management. Recording and reporting of debt and guarantees are overall adequate, and monthly reconciliation with creditors should be within reach considering the overall level of performance. The Ministry of Finance is the single entity in charge of approving government borrowing. There is a three-year debt management strategy whose implementation against the debt management objectives and indicators is monitored and publicly reported.

The following were assessed as areas for continued reforms and further improvements:

  • Medium-term perspective in planning and budgeting. While budget documentation includes expenditure estimates and ceilings for two years following the budget year, analysis of deviations from such estimates and ceilings in the next budget cycle, and related explanations are not provided, reducing the effectiveness of the medium-term targets. A three-year Fiscal Strategy is adopted; however it does not include quantification of the fiscal impact of policy proposals, explanations of proposed changes in revenues and expenditures over the three-year period, nor is implementation progress towards fiscal outcomes reported. The Fiscal Strategy includes macroeconomic and fiscal forecasts, which lack some key elements, such as interest rate projections, and explanations of differences from the previous forecasts.

  • Management of fiscal risks, public investments, and assets. These three areas are either not regulated or provide only simple management mechanisms since they are at an early stage of development. These weaknesses contribute to potential for sub-optimal use and management of funds and their related impact. The institutional set-up for monitoring fiscal risks is dispersed and includes only basic tasks and analysis, particularly for public corporations and local self-government related risk. There is no dedicated regulations, guidelines or standard criteria for identification, appraisal, prioritization and selection of capital investments, except for externally financed projects where procedures are driven by the financier. While records of major categories of financial and non-financial assets exist, they are too decentralized and fragmented to allow meaningful dialogue on performance of both portfolios. Data, in particular, is fragmented for non-financial assets, with concerns about accuracy.

  • Performance information and management. Program budgeting practices are underdeveloped. While information on programs and expected performance is included in the budget, program budgeting has not yet been formally adopted, and remains at an immature level of development. Strategic and annual plans include information on program objectives, costs, expected results and performance indicators. Budget users prepare semi-annual and annual reports on the implementation of programs and progress towards achieving objectives. However, there is no established mechanism for comparing the results with targets, and reliability of available data is uncertain. Nonetheless, the SAO is reviewing government performance with increasing institutional and financial coverage.

  • Accounting and Reporting. Published in-year budget execution reports are comparable to the approved budget only at the administrative and highly aggregated levels of economic classification. While in-year reports are timely and there are no material concerns about their accuracy, they capture the expenditures only at the payments stage with no information on commitments or liabilities. The Open Finance Portal is an improvement in terms of transparency of treasury operations. Annual government financial statements (the final account) include only revenue and expenditures while only individual budget users prepare Balance Sheets and present assets and liabilities, but these are not consolidated. Annual government financial statements are submitted timely for external audit, however the accounting standards used in their preparation are not disclosed.

  • Revenue Administration. Comprehensive and up-to-date information on revenue rights and obligations is available but revenue risk management, audits and investigations and level of tax arrears lag behind and register weak performance. With regard to accounting for revenue, timeliness of information and funds transfer related to revenue collections is adequate, while frequency of reconciling revenue accounts could be improved.

Chart 1.
Chart 1.

Scores for PEFA Performance Indicators 2021

Citation: IMF Staff Country Reports 2022, 219; 10.5089/9798400216329.002.A000

Impact of PFM performance on budgetary and fiscal outcomes

Aggregate fiscal discipline. Aggregate fiscal discipline aims to align the levels of revenue and expenditures without creating significant fiscal deficits which could jeopardize fiscal sustainability and manage spending within the available fiscal space. Regarding expenditure management, budget execution is performing well which contributes to the overall fiscal discipline. Deviations between the budget execution and the approved budget on the expenditure side are low to moderate. While there are hard controls embedded in the budget execution system at the payments stage, which allows spending by budget users only within approved budget allocations, there is no established mechanism which prevents the budget users from entering into contractual commitments which exceed annual and medium-term allocations and estimates. Fiscal information is transparent and publicly accessible and all relevant budget classifications are in place. As discussed above, the Budget documentation does not comprehensively include all the needed elements.

On the revenue side, revenue administration faces challenges with risk management, tax audit and tax arrears. Deviation of executed versus budgeted revenue registered a moderate seven percent in 2018 and 2019, with a more significant deviation of 16 percent in 2020 as a consequence of the pandemic.

Medium-term perspectives in planning and budgeting and program budget are rather formalistic and provisional and could be detrimental to fiscal discipline and present challenges if a fiscal rule is introduced as envisaged in the draft Organic Budget Law. This also applies to the quite basic fiscal risk monitoring.

Strategic allocation of resources. Allocating resources in line with strategic priorities contributes to maximizing the impact of public spending for an efficient public sector and economic growth. Ministries adopt costed medium term plans and a link between those documents and the budget can be established. However, medium-term targets are not binding and deviations from previous estimates and targets are not properly analyzed. Performance management and measurement of results are basic, which hinders budgeting based on performance and maximizing its positive long-term impact. This is largely because program budgeting has not been formally introduced, although some elements of program budgeting are applied in practice. Budget users provide information on programs and expected performance, however there is no established system for measuring results achieved against plans, and the quality of performance information provided is uncertain.

A fairly credible budget and sound budget execution favorably influence the strategic use of funds. Procurement management is scored at the higher end, which supports the execution of strategic allocations.

The weak public investment management system negatively influences the strategic allocation of resources, given that selecting capital projects with strategic significance is crucial. Lack of an effective system for management of fiscal risks can result in unplanned demands on the budget if fiscal risks materialize, which shrinks the fiscal space for strategic allocations.

Efficient service delivery. The reasonably credible budget enables implementation of service delivery expenditures, although a high variance in the composition of expenditures can pose risk of reallocation of service delivery funds to other expenditure categories, in particular from capital investment to less growth-enhancing recurrent spending. While information on revenue collections is timely and accurate, the accumulation of tax arrears can carry a risk of insufficient revenue levels to execute service delivery programs. Transparent fiscal information and reliable budget execution reports facilitate appropriate monitoring of service delivery programs. The sound budget execution system and controls provide a good foundation for executing budget allocations intended for service delivery in an orderly manner. MoF’s information system that supports arrears registration provides some assurance that allocated funds for service delivery will not be subject to reallocations on an ad-hoc basis to settle overdue payments from previous periods.

Weak program budgeting and performance management prevent meaningful analysis of the efficiency of service delivery. Appropriate measurement of achieved results, key performance indicators, outputs and outcomes for each budget program would be highly beneficial for informing funds allocation and more efficient service delivery in the medium to long term. The current lack of effective systems of managing public investments and public assets can also be detrimental to ensuring adequate infrastructure for various service delivery sectors, such as health, education, transport, electricity, and water supply.

The well performing external audit by the SAO and parliamentary oversight provide additional scrutiny over expenditures related to service delivery. Further developing the internal audit function would contribute to improving the systems and governance in service delivery units.

Performance changes from previous assessment

PFM performance registered an overall improvement compared to 2015. Out of 28 performance indicators, 11 indicators maintained equal rating, 11 indicators registered improved scores (most due to improved performance), and only six indicators showed deteriorated scores (two on account of reinterpretation of the evidence against the scoring criteria). Reforms in the period between the two assessments have resulted in a mix of improved upstream and downstream PFM practices, without losing ground on earlier improvements documented in 2015. Major reforms are pending parliamentary approval of the authorizing legislation.

The improvements in scores relate primarily to the areas of budget formulation, budget execution and reporting, and external oversight. The improved performance and scores between the successive PEFA assessments more specifically relate to: monitoring of arrears; assessed aspects of tax administration; public procurement; internal controls; in-year budget reporting; external audit; and legislative scrutiny of the budget proposal and the final account. Scores on indicators on payroll control have improved nominally only, as the underlying practices remained largely unchanged compared to 2015. Of the 11 indicators that retained the same rating as in 2015, three scored A, two scored B/B+, four scored C/C+ and two indicators scored D/D+.

Performance and scores deterioration have been limited and some relate to consequences of the pandemic and reassessment of performance against the PEFA criteria. Score has deteriorated in terms of performance on the extent of the variance in expenditure composition during the last three years as well as on the comprehensiveness of information included in budget documentation (on account of higher portion of directly managed EU funds). Scores have nominally deteriorated on budget classifications and guidance for preparing budget submissions. Scores have also nominally deteriorated on debt management indicator as a result of reassessment of evidence available against PEFA criteria, while the underlying performance has remained stable and even improved in some aspects. On the annual financial statements, the change on timeliness dimension was caused by COVID-related disruptions while the dimension on accounting standards was scored lower due to reinterpretation of available evidence while performance has not changed.

Table 1.

Overview of the scores of the PEFA indicators

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1

Revised Volume 3 (second edition, piloting in 2020) was used for the preparation of the PEFA Report in terms of content and format.

2

With financial support from the EC and SECO.

North Macedonia: Technical Assistance Report - Public Expenditure and Financial Accountability Performance Assessment
Author: International Monetary Fund. Fiscal Affairs Dept.