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October 19, 2020

Performance Budgeting and the Myth of Sisyphus

The myth
Posted by Paulo Bijos[1]

At least two changes should result from a performance budgeting approach. First, the adoption of more results-oriented language in the discussion of policy issues and, second, the use of performance information as an input to the process of allocating resources through the budget. The first objective is more feasible, since a reform of the budget framework can be required by regulation and implemented at a technical level. The second objective, however, may resemble utopia, since substantial modifications in policy-making patterns cannot be provided solely by formal statute.

In fact, there is still a lack of evidence that performance information is a significant consideration when governments make budget decisions. The question then arises, what value is there in investing huge effort in the construction of indicators, data collection, IT systems, and so on if the information gathered ultimately serves little purpose but to ornament the budgetary process? This question may sound exaggerated, since performance budgeting can be analyzed from many different angles. It could be argued, for instance, that positive experiences can be observed in the development of spending review processes as a performance budgeting tool.

This article proposes to address this issue from a philosophical perspective, more precisely through the analysis of the myth of Sisyphus according to the interpretation of Albert Camus.

The Myth of Sisyphus in Albert Camus

Greek mythology tells of Sisyphus, the astute king of Corinth who was condemned by the gods to repeatedly roll a rock up a mountain for all eternity. Every time it neared the top, the rock rolled back down, thereby reinforcing the cycle which would render his existence meaningless. As can be seen, it is quite a didactive metaphor for a pessimistic view of human condition. What is the use of trying to understand the meaning of life, if in the end no meaning is found?

In his celebrated essay about the myth of Sisyphus, French-Algerian Albert Camus analyzes this question by acknowledging the human burden of living in an indecipherable universe, which nourishes the sense of existential absurdity, as in the case of Sisyphus’ absurd punishment. This is, however, just the starting point of the author’s analysis, who is not a pessimist. In fact, for Camus neither life nor the universe is absurd. Concluding otherwise would be but a consequence of human consciousness. In other words, the sense of the absurd would be an outcome of the collision between the actor (the man) and his setting (the universe).

On the one hand, there is human nature with its appetite for clarity, trying to explain all things. On the other hand, there is universe itself, insensitive to human effort to understand it. On that account, men can feel like strangers in their own world, growing weary of their routines to the point of feeling just like Sisyphus in his absurd journey. For Camus, however, the moment when the rock rolls back down to the foot of the mountain is the one which interests him the most. Camus reaches the climax of his philosophical approach by concluding that to push the rock up a mountain is to face life as it is, with all its paradoxes, extracting from it its best meaning. To put it in another way, if the universe does not offer answers, man is then free to conceive his own meaning of life.

The Myth of Sisyphus and Performance Budgeting

The budget cycle has elements which could make it resemble Sisyphus’ journey. Indeed, one might question the virtue of endlessly repeating, year after year, the cycle of preparing, executing and evaluating the budget if this leads to no significant improvement in a country’s economic and social development. This view, however, is disproportionate, as the public budget has intrinsic value despite all its paradoxes and fragilities. It is the only available means through which minimum conditions are created for transparency and accountability in the allocation of public resources. After all, account must be taken of the fact that the public budget stems from the process of advancing civilization, and there is no indication that it will be abandoned by contemporary democracies.

Nonetheless, it is not sufficient to be limited by those values. In line with Albert Camus’ interpretation of the myth of Sisyphus, the best meaning of public budget should be sought and built by theorists and practitioners. Why not, then, “push the rock uphill” aiming at promoting the highest levels of allocative efficiency and performance accountability? To do so, in other words, is nothing more than embracing the performance budgeting perspective. From this reasoning, we might conclude that performance budgeting deserves to live, notwithstanding its limitations and the setbacks experienced along the way.


[1] Budget Advisor of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies.

Note: The posts on the IMF PFM Blog should not be reported as representing the views of the IMF. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the IMF or IMF policy.


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