Details of ministry spending cause uproar

Ministry reports detail spending on holiday gifts, unusual supplies, employee perks; advocates hail increased transparency.

Shekel money bills (photo credit: REUTERS)
Shekel money bills
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A series of reports detailing ministries’ spending caused an uproar Sunday, as line-items for purchases such as car refrigerators for ministers, employee bonding trips, and outsourcing hit the headlines.
The reports, which the Movement for Freedom of Information procured from several government ministries, exposed some unusual spending in the 2013 fiscal year.
Several ministers, for example, had refrigerators installed in their cars. The deputy finance minister’s cost taxpayers NIS 3,534.
The Finance Ministry spent NIS 147,000 on white thread, apparently for special use in creating passports. It also spent NIS 128,000 to accommodate employees for the Mechoziada sporting event in Eilat.
The Finance Ministry spent NIS 1.64 million on bonding activities for its roughly 1,000 employees, as well as NIS 300,000 on Hanukka gifts, NIS 120,000 on Purim gifts, and NIS 48,000 on Rosh Hashana gifts. The Energy and Water Ministry spent NIS 26,000 on dried fruits for Tu Bishvat.
The report from the Education Ministry showed that the vast majority of its NIS 42 billion budget went to teacher and employee salaries.
Of the NIS 3b. that remained, however, a large part was devoted to hiring outside contractors. Ten such companies took in NIS 1.8b. from the ministry, for running programs such as trips to Poland for high-school students and providing contract-worker teachers.
Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s trip to US in October 2013 cost NIS 54,000, including transportation and security.
“The figures released this morning present the public a grim reality that results from the lack of transparency in various ministry budgets,” said Knesset Finance Committee member MK Gila Gamliel (Likud), adding that she would demand explanations in a Knesset plenum forum this week.
Media outlets derided the government offices for their spending habit.
“Wasn’t it possible to put on the Hanukka party for the Finance Ministry workers’ children for less than NIS 443,000?” TheMarker asked in an article, calling the outlays a “spending party.”
The numbers may have caused particular pique because the 2013 state budget included harsh spending and welfare cuts, as well as income and VAT tax increases, aimed at reducing the deficit.
Several macroeconomic and budget experts declined to comment on the issue, saying that the overall budgetary effects of such spending were inconsequential in the scheme of things, and constituted more of a moral issue than an economic one.
In a year where spending amounted to NIS 395b., even dozens of millions shekels amount to just a fraction of a percentage point.
“Like every large employer, government ministries also deal in a variety of fields and invest resources in employee conditions,” the Finance Ministry said in a statement to Army Radio.
“The Finance Ministry leads in transparency and is proud to be part of the effort to increase transparency in other government offices.”
Not every ministry turned over the details of their requests, however.
The Prime Minister’s Office, Transport Ministry, Economy Ministry and Welfare Ministry declined, with the latter arguing that compiling the information would take too many resources.
“The transparency is welcome, and this is already an important step in the right direction,” said accountant Iris Stark.
“We need to find a mechanism that will both give us a way to know what money is being spent on, and why they are spending on things like hiring lawyers or advisers,” she said, adding that reforms to the government’s own accounting and critiquing process were necessary.
She noted that transparency from some ministries was a welcome first step, but added that fuller transparency should be mandatory.
While greater light needs to be shed to do away with unnecessary spending, Stark continued, the government also had to spend money to stay competitive with the private sector and ensure that its employees didn’t jump ship.
“We need a public sector with an excellent work force, and we have to invest in it,” she said.