Forest fire outrage ignites campaign to make hidden budgets visible

The fact that a deadly forest fire that engulfed Mount Carmel in Israel could rage for four days before finally being brought under control baffled local residents. The fire services claimed that their capacity to respond effectively had been impaired by chronic underfunding. Even more baffling was the fact that, despite the disaster, funding for the fire service was not increased in the following year’s budget. The government denied this claim, but the budget data were not available and it was difficult for the public to know what to believe.

Amid claim and counterclaim, a web developer, Adam Kariv, set out to find the truth, along with other members of Hasadna, the Public Knowledge Workshop, a non-profit organisation that works to make Israeli government data more accessible to the public. They found that government budget data were published on the Ministry of Finance (MoF)’s website, but the information was in a chaotic collection of data formats and file types, which could not be interpreted without expert help. For the proposed budget for 2011–12, the group could not find any data – leaving questions about the fire service budget unanswered.

Hasadna cleaned the data that were available and created a website allowing citizens to search past budget data and to visualise trends and the structure of these budgets. Initially, with government permission, this information appeared on an official government website, though it was later taken out of the .gov.il domain and presented on a separate site.

Meanwhile, to obtain the proposed 2011–12 budget, Hasadna approached Michael Eitan, a minister responsible for the new government data office. Eitan was supportive and, by making an official request, was able to get the proposed budget from the MoF. It was therefore possible to present usable visualisations of both forthcoming and past budget data.

During the course of any year, the MoF proposes numerous amendments to the ongoing budget, effectively transferring money from one area to another. It was found that these amendments have changed allocations within the budget by as much as 13%. Such transfers are presented to the Finance Committee, consisting of 25 members of the Knesset, in reams of complex documents and tables, with little notice given before a decision is made.

When this problem came to light, Hasadna set out to discover how much the budget had changed over the 2010–11 budget year. The MoF claimed, strangely, not to have the data in spreadsheets. Instead it produced the paperwork from all the Finance Committee meetings that had taken place over the year. This could not be used without a huge amount of work to digitise and combine all the data.

Hasadna created a crowdsourcing platform that enabled volunteers from the Israeli public to work on the digitisation task together. Meanwhile, the coders added features to the budget site to show how the transfers had changed the budget during the year. On the day the new version was due to launch, the MoF, fearing negative publicity from the affair, finally ‘found’ the electronic version of the transfer data and agreed to provide this for past years as well.

After Michael Eitan lost his Knesset seat in 2013, Hasadna worked with Stav Shaffir, an opposition member, who at 27 was the youngest ever Member of the Knesset.

Shaffir fought for publication of the transfers, even asking for Committee votes on the transfers to be suspended until they could be published. After a month of wrangling, the MoF agreed to publish them, but once again it provided only scanned documents. She filed a case in the Supreme Court, claiming that the transfers broke the Ministry’s rules and amounted to misconduct.

In March 2014, the newly appointed head of the MoF’s Budget Division announced that the budget transactions would be published in advance on the Ministry’s website, starting from the next sitting of parliament. Hasadna has developed a visualisation tool which the public, the media, civil society, members of the Finance Committee and MoF staff themselves are able to use for scrutinising and planning.

Key lessons

  • It is not enough to make budget information available. It must be available in a useable, transferrable format such as spreadsheets or databases.
  • Citizen demand for data to be open and useable can lead to changes in government policy.
  • Data should not only be historical. Budget decisions for the forthcoming year will have more impact on citizens than data from previous years, and therefore they must also be published before decisions are finalised, to allow for democratic debate.
  • Having a political champion to identify opportunities to improve data transparency, and who can raise concerns within government, is a catalyst for change.

Source: Open Data Handbook

Website: http://www.obudget.org