With a budget that’s hundreds of pages and thousands of articles long, it’s easy for an MK, who must vote on it, to get lost, and even harder for concerned citizens to really understand how much money goes to social services, defense, infrastructure or anything else that may interest them.
Even more confusing, is that soon after every budget is passed the Finance Ministry begins asking the Knesset Finance Committee to allow changes – transferring money from one item to another – leaving the map of government spending very different from the one on which MKs voted in the plenum. In 2014, the Finance Ministry made NIS 55 billion in funding transfers via the committee, which amounted to about 20 percent of the budget.
When the Knesset returns on October 12 and prepares the 2015-2016 budget that is scheduled to go to a final reading six weeks later, many MKs may rely on BudgetKey (www.obudget.
org) to help them compare and contrast the latest draft to government expenditures – in the written budget and out of it – in previous years.
BudgetKey is a website started by the transparency NGO Public Knowledge Workshop to present the budget in a user-friendly, easier-to-understand format. The site is full of infographics – like bubbles representing different topics and, when you run your mouse over them, showing the amount the government spent on each one; and graphs – such as line graphs showing how government spending on a certain item has changed over time – and is fully searchable.
Adam Kariv, whose day job is software architect at a start-up, co-founded the Public Knowledge Workshop and helped come up with the idea for BudgetKey in 2010 after the Mount Carmel Fire disaster.
“We tried to think of how we, as citizens, can contribute,” Kariv recounted at the NGO’s headquarters in Tel Aviv last week. “I took it upon myself to review the firefighting budget.
First, I looked for the state budget but found that it wasn’t online. There were a few Excel spreadsheets posted from some years, and if you wanted to compare years it was very time consuming and almost impossible.
We decided to take all the information from all of the charts and put it in one budget so we can do basic searches of one year after another.”
Kariv and other volunteers worked on an open-source website, with the support of then-government services minister Michael Eitan, and launched the 2011-2012 budget key.
It was then that the Public Knowledge Workshop was formed to expand the idea of making public information more accessible to other areas of life, which it currently does, whether it’s legislation or city-planning schemes.
The response was overwhelming, especially from programmers and tech designers: “I didn’t realize how many people were searching for a place to volunteer their technological abilities,” Kariv said.
Today, the NGO has 250 volunteers on 15 projects and holds weekly meetings and regular “hackathons” at the Google Campus in Tel Aviv – where 70 to 80 programmers work every Monday for several hours – as well as in Jerusalem.
Public Knowledge Workshop director-general Shevi Korzen explained that the NGO “wants to educate and get the government accustomed to opening up as much information [as possible]. More transparency means more accountability.”
The BudgetKey website, in various versions, has been functioning since 2011, and includes budgets from before the site was founded.
Last year, the Finance Ministry began posting information on budgetary transfers a week before the vote, instead of simply bringing requests to the committee and having MKs vote on them on the spot.
BudgetKey includes explanations of the transfers the ministry seeks and compares them to past spending on the same matter, as well as what was planned in the budget.
One interesting way to use BudgetKey is to analyze how politics affect spending, both within the planned budget and throughout the year, in the Finance Committee.
So, for example, the graphs over the years show that in 2006, the amount of money the government spent on haredi kollels (institutes of full-time Torah learning for men) ended up being nearly double what was planned in the budget.
In 2007, the budget for kollels was reduced, but the government spent more than double what was planned on them that year. The trend continued over the years, and then, under former finance minister Yair Lapid who sought to encourage employment over full-time Torah study for haredim, the spending plummeted by approximately 30 percent in 2013.
“An involved citizen should be able to compare the 2014 budget to the 2015-2016 budget and understand what changed.
It’s important, because then you can understand the government’s real priorities, as expressed through where it spends money. You can see what was in the last budget and what is in this one and think why,” Public Knowledge Workshop spokesman Nir Hirshman explained.
Kariv said he seeks to make the budget more accessible for all Israelis and helps journalists and researchers in academia and think tanks – “from Mattot Arim [on the Right] to Molad [on the Left]” – analyze it.
“We help MKs, too, because some of them don’t understand the budget, and that’s a bigger problem than the average citizen not understanding,” he said.
Korzen chimed in that government ministries use their site, as well, because, if they’re not in the Finance Ministry’s budget department, they have trouble understanding what’s happening.
“We got a thank you note from the Foreign Ministry,” she said.