Digging for Data the Israeli Politicians Would Rather Keep Covered Up

How much time does Netanyahu spend at the Knesset? Data analysts in Tel Aviv have analysed the allocation of government funds to outside groups, voting trends and other information, and are presenting it to the public in a language they can understand.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reads a copy of TheMarker, Haaretz's economic sister publication, in the Knesset. 2010.
Tomer Appelbaum

Here’s a surprising fact: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made very few visits to the Knesset over the past year, even though he is a Knesset member.

Put more precisely, the prime minister, who is also foreign minister, communications minister, economy and industry minister and regional cooperation minister, has spent on average just 5.8 hours a week at the in parliament since the current Knesset was installed on March 31 of last year. Data also show that Netanyahu has cast 893 votes and attended an average of 3.92 sessions a month there.

Clearly the prime minister has a lot of other things on his plate, but by contrast, when it comes to time spent at the Knesset, the top honors go to United Torah Judaism’s Uri Maklev, the MK who chairs the Knesset Science and Technology Committee, and who over the past year has spent an average of 25.2 hours a week in the building. Second place goes to Kulanu party Knesset faction chairman Roy Folkman with 24.4 hours and then Shuli Moalem-Refali of Habayit Hayehudi with an average of 23.2 hours a week.

The least active Knesset committee members
Tomer Appelbaum, Dan Keinan, Ilan Assayag, Tali Meir & Gil Eliyahu

These figures come courtesy of he Public Knowledge Workshop, the organization also known in Hebrew as Hasadna. It has collected data over the past year on the activities of Knesset members, allocations of government funds to outside groups, voting trends and other information, some of which public officials might prefer the public not know about.

“Our vision is very simple, yet ambitious,” says Hasadna CEO Shevy Korzen. “Public information belongs to the public and needs to be open and accessible. We harness technological know-how to make the public information accessible to citizens, who don’t always receive it in full and also have trouble digesting it due to information overload.”

The data from the Hasadna researchers provide an interesting perspective on the country’s Knesset members.

Public Knowledge Workshop staff
Gil Cohen-Magen

Likeable leader

For example, despite the prime minister’s sparse attendance record and criticism of his performance by some media outlets, he is actually a favorite on social media. Hasadna found that Netanyahu is in the lead when it comes to Facebook, with 1.7 million followers. And over the past year, he has garnered an average of 11,200 Facebook “likes” to his posts, well ahead of Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid’s average of 7,000 and Zionist Union Knesset member Shelly Yacimovich’s roughly 6,500. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the head of the Habayit Hayehudi party, has an average of just 4,780 “likes” per post while Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev of Likud has an average 3,990 a month.

Of the top 10 most popular Facebook posts by Knesset members over the past year, nine were posted by Netanyahu and one by Yacimovich. In the No. 1 post, Netanyahu eschewed politics to wishing his wife, Sara, a happy birthday. It attracted 145,485 likes, 14,397 comments and 8,092 shares.

MK Shelly Yacimovich.
Olivier Fitoussi

On the other hand, Yacimovich’s top post was about May Fatal, a female soldier who accused her battalion commander of sexual harassment. That post attracted 96,024 likes, 3,891 comments and 15,398 shares. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s victory post after winning last year’s Knesset election drew 91,209 likes, 7,347 comments and 7,751 shares.

Hasadna uses volunteer computer programmers, designers and content providers who donate their time to increase public involvement in politics by collecting information about government operations and making it accessible to whoever wants it. Hasadna is funded by contributions from organizations like the New Israel Fund and the Schocken family, the largest shareholders in Haaretz. It has about 250 volunteers, about 50 of whom show up on a weekly basis at Google’s Tel Aviv offices to collect information.

“The problem is that the public authorities don’t publicize information and also don’t interpret information, so it’s also difficult to understand what has been released,” Hasadna’s Korzen says. “We process the information, link various databases and carry out integration that, for example, makes it possible to see where the money is going.”

“Through our Budget Key project, we look to see where the government’s money is going,” says Saar Alon-Barkat, a Hasadna researcher.

Among his projects was an analysis of changes made to the budget after it was approved by the Knesset Finance Committee. “We have daily updates on what is happening and that enables us to examine how much money any [government supported] organization is receiving,” he says.

Among other things, Budget Key investigators discovered that Aleh Negev, which runs a rehabilitation center in the Negev, saw its allocations from the government nearly double in 2015. The organization is headed by Avi Wurtzman of the Habayit Hayehudi party, who had been due to become a Knesset member with the resignation of Yinon Magal late last year. Sources in the party said Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett, who resigned from the Knesset while retaining the post of education minister to enable Shuli Moalem-Refaeli to become a Knesset member, was not enamored with the prospect of Wurtzman being a Knesset member.

In the course of all of last year, however, Aleh Negev received 1.2 million shekels ($317,000) in government funding, compared with 693,000 shekels the year before. Of the 1.2 million, 939,000 shekels came from Bennett’s Education Ministry with the rest coming from other ministries, including the Negev and Galilee Development Ministry.

Test vaults

Hasadna also found that the government’s procurement authority allowed a closed bidding process for hiring a media consultant for the government’s natural gas policy with a budget of 1 million shekels. It revealed that the Education Ministry spent 4 million shekels for vaults where matriculation exams could be locked up and another 320,000 to actress Rotem Abuhab for a public relations campaign she did.

It turns out that ministries contract for many services without a bidding process and without the public’s knowledge — for example, an Interior Ministry contract with outside auditors being extended from January 2016 to the end of 2017. In explaining the extension without a bidding process, the ministry said it would “reduce pressure at the end of the budget year.”

Hasadna volunteers also discovered that the research authority at the Agriculture Ministry contracted in June of last year with a company called Star Biotech for the sale of know-how related to medical cannabis. The amount the ministry received remained confidential, prompting questions as to whether there should be some oversight of economic cooperation between government agencies and the private sector and whether transparency should be required.

In other “small change” discovered by the researchers, the Finance Ministry is subsidizing memberships for about 200 ministry staff at the Ramat Gan Safari Park. Of the 35,000 shekel annual cost, the ministry is subsidizing the memberships to the tune of 8,975 shekels plus value-added tax in effect a 30% discount on the regular cost of a membership.

Hasadna was set up in 2010 in the wake of the disastrous Carmel Forest fire in which 44 people were killed and the government was accused of severe mismanagement. The group was established at the initiative of three people: Adam Kariv, Ofri Raviv and Benny Daon.

“At the beginning, we tried to understand what had happened to the fire fighting authority budget,” Kariv explains. “Then we were drawn to analyze the entire government budget, and we launched the Budget Key website. We gather sources regarding budget data from the Budget Division at the Finance Ministry, the Accountant General’s office, the Registrar of Non-Profits, the Company Registrar and elsewhere and try to analyze the data,” he says.

Hasadna spokesman Nir Hirschman said anyone trying to figure out the government website with the data on where government support is going would experience despair, while the Budget Key project makes the information more accessible. With the click of a button, the Budget Key site will show how much a given nonprofit organization has received in government funding or in the payment of fees for services provided by the government.

“You can see, for example, how much the Ayalim organization has received in government support. From 100,000 shekels received in 2010, that grew to support and bid-exempt contract payments of 92 million shekels in 2014,” he states.

Hirschman says sometimes the officials in charge of freedom of information at government ministries are evasive, asking for extensions of time to provide answers or responding in a limited manner. “The prime minister and his office usually don’t answer requests for information and they need to be nagged. The Knesset and government authorities respond, but repeated requests are necessary,” he adds.