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The info is there, but who can figure it out?
By LAHAV HARKOV
04/20/2014
Third in a series on transparency: Sites process information on the Knesset website so the public can more easily understand it.
 
Election fever is in the air as politicians threaten to pull out of the government over peace talks. Plus, MKs will soon vote for a new president, and some of the candidates have a long political career and many Knesset votes in their pasts.

Concerned citizens who want to look up the voting record of a potential president or candidate for reelection to the next Knesset may be disappointed when they try to find it on the Knesset website.

Those citizens would have to look up each individual bill to find out whether the MK in question voted yea, nay, or abstained.

That’s not the only information that’s difficult to find on the Knesset website. While most of the Knesset’s activities are transparent by law, much of it is not searchable and recorded in ways that are not easily accessible to those who aren’t legislative wonks.

Plus, some of the databases are only accessible on old browsers.

Several websites and NGOs were founded in recent years to remedy the situation, each with its own focus, solutions and suggestions for the Knesset to improve.

Ofri Raviv was inspired to found the Open Knesset website, which presents data on the legislature in an easy-to-understand format, ahead of the 2009 election when he debated which party to vote for.

“I looked for numbers, which I found on the Knesset website, but they were presented in a way that’s very uncomfortable to read,” Raviv explained. “Even basic things, like which MKs are more or less active in general, or in specific areas, like if I was looking to vote for someone active in environmental issues, are hard to figure out.”

Raviv developed a program that uses the data on the Knesset website in a way that allows the public to cross-section the information in different ways, such as by topic, by MK or by faction. Open Knesset is automatically updated when data is entered in the Knesset website.

Raviv co-founded the Public Knowledge Workshop, an NGO to fund Open Knesset, which now tracks other publicly accessible data as well, such as budgets, municipal construction plans and cabinet decisions with the help of over 100 volunteers.

“What the Knesset needs to do is present data in the simplest way possible, something as accessible as a [Microsoft] Excel chart. The minute data is easy to process, there’s no limit to what can be done,” Raviv said.

“My vision is for the Knesset to adopt the Open Knesset site. It doesn’t make sense that just a bunch of volunteers are making this effort. The Knesset can have a great website that people will want to use and can answer their questions,” he added.

Jeremy Saltan, Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett’s English social media manager, had similar complaints about the accessibility of information on the legislative process as an intern and then aide to then-National Union leader Ya’acov Katz in the previous Knesset, and founded the “Knesset Jeremy” blog.

“I looked for a place where I could find every MK’s speech on each item of the agenda in summary, along with the voting [information]. It was important for me to know why the MKs were voting as they did and their speeches were key. I couldn’t find anything, so I decided to do it myself,” he recounted, pointing out that Open Knesset only has voting data, not speeches.

Saltan asked other aides to send him notes and corrections about what their MK bosses were saying, and posted regular accounts of what happened in the plenum.

After the last election, when his position changed, he was no longer able to write about every meeting, but he still posts about the major ones.

“The Knesset needs to invest in updating their English website so it can be a resource for Jews around the world and the international community, who have an interest in what is discussed here,” Saltan suggested.

Adi Stein, director of Jewish Pluralism Watch, an institute founded by the Masorti (Conservative) Movement to track issues of religion and state, pointed to technical issues on the Knesset’s website, like enabling it to be viewed on newer browsers, calling it “old fashioned.”

“If you’re not a wonk and don’t understand how the Knesset website works, you won’t find the information you’re looking for,” Stein said.

“Plus, there are a lot of lacunas, information that isn’t made public.”

Jewish Pluralism Watch attempts to make information more accessible on its website and with a regular report ranking MKs by how they voted on issues of religion and state. The Social Guard puts out a regular “Social Index,” which does the same for votes on socioeconomic matters.

One other area that is difficult to track on the Knesset website is parliamentary questions. The questions and ministers’ answers to them can be found in protocols of plenum meetings, but they are not searchable. In other words, if you know the date on which a question was asked, you may have to read through 50 pages of protocols before finding it. If you don’t know the date, you have to read through all the protocols of every plenum meeting.

Saltan used to quote them on his site, but quickly focused on legislation, which he called “the meat of the Knesset.”

Transparency International- Israel, whose chairman is former state comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, petitioned the Knesset via the Freedom of Information Law to make a separate database of all parliamentary questions.

“The Knesset is mostly transparent and most meetings are broadcast live, but there are places that still need to be more open to the public,” Transparency International- Israel director-general Galia Sagi said. “Even though parliamentary questions are in the full protocols, the public doesn’t have true access to the information and we call on the Knesset to create a separate place for questions that are raised and the answers given by ministers.”

Knesset spokesman Yotam Yakir responded to the claims against the Knesset as follows: “We are continuing to develop the Knesset’s website energetically under instructions from Knesset director- general Ronen Plott, and we expect to finish this year.

There are several other projects underway to develop each committee’s portal so they are user-friendly and have modern design.”
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