Transparency trouble

Study: 13 of 28 cities fail to provide minimal information on their Web sites

ashkelon city view 248.88 (photo credit: )
ashkelon city view 248.88
(photo credit: )
Anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International-Israel revealed on Monday the findings of a new study on municipal compliance with freedom of information legislation. The study, which tested the Web sites of 28 Israeli cities against 33 criteria of public transparency, found that nearly half of them do not comply with the minimum requirements of the law.
According to the study, 13 out of the 28 cities failed to post the city’s annual report on the Web site, as required by the 1999 Freedom of Information Law. Additionally, only 54 percent of the cities examined posted the city’s annual budget, and a similar amount posted the municipal comptroller’s report.
Transparency International calculated the transparency level of each Web site according to 33 criteria, testing transparency and access to information, and gave each a score between 0-100. The criteria range from things like having accurate phone numbers on the Web site to posting the city’s water quality tests. Each city was graded according to the study findings and ranked in order of transparency.
At the top of the list, the cities whose Web sites allowed the most access to information, were Jerusalem, with a grade of 90, Ashdod and Kfar Saba (84) and Beersheba (83). The city with the least transparent Web site was Safed (41.5), which beat Tiberias (42.5) and Rehovot (46.5) for the last spot.
“The findings of the study are very worrying because they present a picture of non-compliance with the law by public authorities,” said Transparency International-Israel director general Galia Sagi. “The actions of local authorities influence all aspects of their residents’ lives and must therefore be completely transparent. Not publishing data on the authority’s activities injures the citizen’s ability to oversee the way his or her taxes are spent and, in effect, is a way for the municipality to avoid accounting for its actions.
Sagi said she hoped the study would lead municipalities to increase their transparency and come to understand that being transparent is in their own interests.
“We operate under the assumption that everything is as it should be, and that the municipalities do not hide the information deliberately. We believe that if the authorities have the data, they should make it public in order to increase trust and communication with their residents.
‘I’m sure that the city and its officials work hard for the benefit of their residents, and the residents should be aware of it,” said Sagi. “If the table is transparent, you cannot pass envelopes under it.”
“One thing we tested for – and found dismal failure – was the publication of conflict of interest forms,” said Sagi. “Reporting on conflict of interests of elected officials is a common practice in most developed countries, but in Israel it is all but unheard of. Not one of the 28 cities we tested posted them.”
This is the second year that Transparency International has conducted the study and Sagi said they planned on expanding it in years to come.
“Last year we tested the 15 major cities, and this year we looked at 28. In the future we will test more widely and more deeply, and perhaps look for correlations between transparency and corruption, something we haven’t done so far,” said Sagi.
In response to a Jerusalem Post inquiry, the spokesman of the city of Safed, whose Web site failed on 10 major counts of transparency, including being the only municipality not to post minutes of its council meetings, said the city was aware of the problem and was working on fixing it.
“The city is currently dealing with a harsh budgetary crisis and does not have the resources to upgrade its Web site,” he said. “The director-general is aware of the problem and is dealing with it personally in hopes of correcting it in the near future. All the information is available at city hall, and any resident who wants can receive it upon request.”
Sagi responded that money is no excuse, and that it costs nearly nothing to post the data on the Web site – provided it exists. “We found no correlation between the size and resources of the city and its level of transparency. Some of the biggest and wealthiest cities lag well behind their smaller counterparts,” she said.
The Ministry of Justice, the authority charged with enforcing the Freedom of Information Law, responded:
“The Justice Ministry places great importance on the application of theFreedom of Information Law. In order to overcome the systematicdifficulties of implementing the law, the Justice Ministry is advancingthe establishment of a special unit to apply it,” read a statement bythe ministry’s spokesman.
“The unit will counsel public authorities, particularly the governmentand its subordinate divisions, about the ways to process requests filedunder the Freedom of Information Law, accumulate knowledge regardingthe law’s implementation, train freedom of information supervisors inthe various public authorities, and approach the authorities to alertthem to any deficiencies in their implementation of the law.”