MICHELE FOSSI IN CONVERSATION WITH STAV SHAFFIR
Stav Shaffir is the youngest female Knesset member in Israel’s history, a former journalist and activist-turned-politician. Now in her second term in the parliament, Shaffir has made state budget transparency her crusade, unveiling a vast array of secret money transfers and misuses of taxpayers’ money. Shaffir first came to national prominence as the voice of the 2011 social justice protests, bringing half a million Israelis into the streets to ask the government initiatives to lower the costs of living and to create an agenda more focused on social services. In 2015, she delivered a speech in the Knesset that went viral online, in which she vehemently accused the the Israeli right of having abandoned the Zionist ideals of equality and solidarity, in favour of a corrupt system that prioritises the private interests of economic elites and those of the settler movements. In the following months, she fought for and obtained a reform that, for the first time in 30 years, obliges the Ministry of Finance to publish budgetary transfers online in advance of meetings, so that anyone – parliamentarians and citizens – can track the money. Recently, Shaffir has been named the chair of the newly established Committee of Government Transparency of the OECD, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
DUST met with Stav Shaffir to talk about her sensational fight for transparency in Israel and how it could be an example abroad.
As a Knesset member, you have quickly become the most outspoken voice for demanding more control of the state budget. You have put in place a system to prevent corruption; you have been dubbed “the eye of the public in the Knesset”. Can you describe what you discovered when you arrived to the Knesset? What were the major successes of your initiative so far? What were the surprises so far?
When I arrived in the Knesset, I did not then think my focus was going to be transparency. During the two months I had for preparation, between the primary election and when I entered the parliament, what I wanted to prepare was legislation – on affordable housing, rent, education and things that are part of the issues and causes that took us to the streets in 2011. The first thing I wanted to do, now that I had direct access to the state budget, was to answer one question: was it really because of a lack of budget that all of our demands during the protests were not accepted by the government? At that time, they constantly told us, “We don’t have money”. Was it really the case? All our requests always received this answer.
Finally, that document was in your hands.
Yes, and I was determined to find out where all of our tax money was going. We pay quite a high tax in Israel, and we have 400 billion shekels in the state budget – what’s going on? Where is it all going? Is it possible that there is never a shekel left for a social agenda? Having heard those excuses for years, I wanted to see the numbers. So I got into the finance committee to oversee the budget.
Where you were the youngest member – you were actually the youngest member of the whole parliament.
Yes, I was the youngest member of the Committee, and I was surrounded only by very experienced politicians. For the first few months I decided I was just going to listen to them and see how they were working, and learn from them about how the system worked. But within a few months I realised there was a secret system in place there.
A secret system?
It was a farce. I discovered that members of parliament were sitting on the committee, with the big responsibility of voting on budget transfers of billions of shekels, without having any idea of where the money was going. They were just playing a game. The treasury came with budgetary tables, and orders to transfer money from one place to another, and the members of the committee were just voting on it, without even reading the material. In most cases, the numbers came to the committee on the very same day as the votes. One day, my fears were confirmed. The Knesset was on recess, but I was nevertheless called to the Finance Committee for an urgent session. On the table there was a pile of budget transfers – many, many numbers – and I saw there were a lot of cuts. I asked the head of the Committee, who, at the time, was Nissan Slomiansky of the Jewish Home Party, “What are we going to do with this?” And he said, “It’s just a technical thing, we just review it and go home. Just a procedure”. So I looked at the numbers, which I was then seeing for the first time, and I saw that this alleged ‘technical thing’ was a transfer of 17 billion shekels. There was a cut of 1 and a half billion shekels from social insurance, for example, and another cut of 300 million in education, and there was no explanation as to where the money was going, or why it was being cut. What struck me even more was that no one was asking any questions. I thought this budget transfer should not be voted on, because I wanted to read the material before we voted, which seemed like a logical thing to do. However, the other more experienced members advised me to stop asking questions. They said, “This is how the system had worked for decades, that’s how we did it. There is no chance it was going to change, and it’s not good for you, politically, to do anything about it.”
What did you decide to do?
I thought it was absolutely crazy to just sit there and vote on things I had no idea about, like I was a robot. Meanwhile, nobody knew where the money was going.
I argued and insisted to have five more days to read the numbers before we voted. I took the pile of 17 billion shekel exchanges home, scanned it and put everything on my Facebook page, because I realized that in order to understand what was going on, I needed an army fighting for transparency.
Was it actually legal what you did?
Of course it’s legal, it’s our budget! Is it legal to take my money and not tell me what’s being done with it? I am well aware that what I did may sound illegal to many at first, but I never published anything that was a threat to our security. It’s not that transparency should override something like this, but what the government does with our money is important, and it’s our right to know exactly what it is.
Tell me more about the necessity of creating a ‘transparency army’ online.
We recruited many, many volunteers – hundreds just on the first day of the initiative – and together we started to examine the numbers. Within a year, my team of volunteers and I discovered several corruption stories of billions of shekels, and, for the first time in Israel’s history, we made the budget completely transparent: we developed programs and technologies to help Knesset members to read into the budget, and at the same time, we allowed the public to access the document and go through these figures. Meanwhile, I was at the Committee for hours every day, investigating every tiny number. The people in the treasury had to sit at the table of the Committee for days, and, for the first time, had to give answers. With the answers that they gave, we started putting together the pieces of the puzzle. We saw how many shekels were missing, all the truths and the lies about what happened to the state budget in the past. Day after day, we understood more and more how this corrupt system worked. Parliamentarians used it to transfer public money to their cronies, to organisations that served them politically, and to other ‘interests’ that the Israeli public had no idea were being funded by the government.
Was this money also used to finance the settlements?
Yeah, there was money that went to the settlements. Other times, the money flew to the bank accounts of NGOs that were built to support politicians illegally. Through this system, the government basically changed its defined priorities in favour of a secret agenda, breaking hundreds of times the contract it had with the citizens, since the state budget – let’s not forget – is like a contract between the government and the citizens, regulating what the government is going to do with our tax money. After a few months in the Committee, I realised that without transparency, there will be an endless amount of corruption. Without transparency, there is no way we’ll ever be able to make the government do what it says about its priorities, and comply with the demands of the protest movement. They will always tell us there is no money to achieve the goals we want, and we’d never know if there is or there isn’t. Now we know that there would be enough money to finally implement a social agenda. Unfortunately for many Israelis, this money, as per now, is not being used properly. It’s used for politicians rather than for the public.
And this probably applies to many countries, in which people protesting don’t really know how to answer when the government simply says, “We have no money”. Your story makes us reflect on how important it is for the public to have access to the budget and to check every single number.
We tend to forget that this is supposed be the role of the parliament. When the parliament is not doing its job, then there will be more and more corruption. When politicians think that no one is watching them, nobody will know how much money is spent on this or that, and they will use public money in the worst way possible, because nobody will track it.
One of the most miraculous things you’ve done is get so many young people involved in checking these very boring documents, full of numbers and tables. How did you manage it?
I don’t think it’s boring, I think the budget is the most interesting document! Right after the Bible, it’s the most interesting document [laughs]. The budget is the best document to show us what happens in our country. On the budget you can see how much money our teachers are going to earn, how much money is going to be invested in public transportation, how much money is going to hospitals. Then you can discover why certain things are not working the way they worked before. Or why teachers can’t continue their job and face exhaustion, because they’re not getting enough pay. You discover the truth from looking at the budget. When I started to fight, I heard from politicians and journalists alike that it’s a very boring thing to do. They told me, ‘You’re a new member of parliament, you don’t need to do these things. You should be doing sexier things, so that people will notice you’ [laughs]. I was like, no, I think I need to do the important thing.
Give us more details on your Facebook initiative. You published the whole document, page after page, and people immediately started to scrutinize it, in detail?
From every session or investigation, I took the most interesting figure and explained why this figure was relevant. Believe me, people understand it. When they see that there is a cut of a billion and half shekels in social insurance, and that our national insurance has actually been in deficit, and that, in 20 years time, there won’t be any national insurance anymore – they understand quickly why these numbers are important for all of us. Those numbers not only represent the truth, those numbers are our future. When they understand that, they see how terrible it is to make such a budget cut. People are very logical.
How does developing technology play into the whole process?
After we published the budgets on my Facebook page, I quickly realized we didn’t have even half of the information to complete the picture. We had actual papers with all of the budget tables, yes, but without the history of the actual budget transfers in the past, or any details about where the money will be going in the future, you can’t reconstruct the whole picture. That’s when I started a collaboration with an NGO tech-organisation, and they helped me build a program on the computer to compile all the past budget transfers. This way, we could track where the money was going, if the money was being moved as it was in previous years, and which politicians enjoyed the benefits of the transfers. They built the technology, and I could sit on the Committee with my laptop. Every time the treasury people came to give us new explanations on the budget transfers, I could check and make sure the details they were giving me were actually true. At the same time, I could see what had happened with this money previously. This helped me discover that, in certain examples, there was a secret plan to transfer money that was not written in the state budget. Basically, I discovered that the parliament had voted on a budget that was not… real. It’s a much more complex story that I’m trying to simplify here, but believe me, I’m talking about something huge. This had been going on for decades. The Knesset was given a different book than what was actually being used. As a result, a lot of money had to be transferred, and many of these transfers went towards political interests rather than public interests.
So technology played a crucial role in your fight for transparency. It allowed you as a politician to reach citizens and make them passionate for the cause of transparency in a way that would have not been possible 20 years ago. It also helped you tremendously in the analysis of the data.
Of course. From the very beginning, technology has played a very important role. But not just by providing transparency fighters with unprecedented tools for communication and data analysis. Its most important contribution has been that it has created expectations among young people: our generation has much bigger expectations for what kind of information we need to have access to, and what kind of information we own. For me, it was obvious that the state budget was information that should ultimately be available to the public, because it’s our tax money. It belongs to the public. I assume that 10 or 15 years earlier, this wouldn’t be that obvious. The revolution of the Internet made us believe that we own information, and when we don’t get the information very quickly, we get angry. I think that the gap between citizens and governments has become larger because governments are way behind the public. We’re all opting for more access and more control about how decisions are being made. We should be in charge. Governments and parliaments are still way behind, unable to sufficiently cope with the information revolution. That’s why we see so much lack of trust among the younger generation, because our expectations are higher. We need to make governments follow, and close the gap more quickly.
You were recently meeting in Paris with other representatives of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Within the organisation, you were named the chair of the newly established Committee of Government Transparency. And it seems like it afforded you a very privileged viewpoint on different degrees of governmental transparency around the world.
In Israel, it took us a year to expose the whole state budget and all the budget transfers. When I got reelected, I asked parliament to build a special Committee for Transparency. I realised in places where there was no transparency, there was corruption. If we need to fight corruption, we need transparency. It was necessary for our budget to be spent more efficiently, and if we wanted the public to trust politics more, we needed transparency. Since the creation of this new committee, we’ve already had over a hundred meetings in the Israeli parliament, during which we go to one ministry after another, and check that every ministry is adopting transparency standards. We’ve managed to expose a lot of information that was previously unavailable to the public, and to make government and public sector procedures much more efficient. When I came to the OECD, many members of the institution told me they wanted to learn more about my experience on how to create budget transparency, how to fight lobbyists and people who lobby for foreign interests inside parliament, and how to do a more transparent campaign funding. So we went together to the OECD, and I offered to them to create a Transparency Committee in the OECD as well. In the first meeting, we had 90 members of parliaments from all over the world.
I knew you were a very active member of the Committee of Government Transparency, but I didn’t know that you were behind its foundation.
I think this is one of the major achievements of my team. It came from the members of parliament who asked to see how we might confront these kinds of challenges together at an international level. There is so much that transparency fighters in different countries can learn from each other. We can, and I can, share with them the process that we had here in Israel, and they can share with us their problems and achievements in their countries.
Are there any transparency-related problems that appear to be particularly ubiquitous in the world?
A big issue in many countries is – no surprise – lobbyism. How can we tackle lobbyists who work inside parliaments and inside the public sector, and achieve transparency? These are still open questions. But I guess the most common problem members of the Committee are facing, in each of our countries, is the tremendous loss in public trust for politics, especially as far as the young generations are concerned.
What can be done to reverse the trend? Where do you see hope?
We’re all under the threat of the post-truth age. We see, everyday, how the other side is using the Internet to spread what’s called ‘alternative facts’. I actually don’t like this term – let’s call them by their real name: lies. But look at the positive side of it: we now have the Internet and other powerful instruments to expose the truth, which we didn’t have in the past. We are very, very lucky to have at our disposal all these new technologies today: people like me, and other politicians, who came from protest movements and ‘from reality’, have now much more chances than in the past to put forth their battles and to be heard.
When I say we come ‘from reality’, I mean that we’re not part of politics, but rather, we came into politics because they represent a public. Until not long ago, politics was a closed club, an ivory tower. Today, with the Internet, we have an ability to grow new politicians who come from the public, who come from reality – who are still connected to reality and can make a bridge between politics and what’s going on in people’s day-to-day lives.
I think we are touching here one of the most important points: making people feel their problems are acknowledged by the political class. Over the last years, we have seen in Europe, in the US and in other parts of the world, how people who feel abandoned by politics end up supporting demagogic, xenophobic and intolerant political forces. Transparency in politics can be a valuable ally for restoring the trust between the people and their representatives in the parliament. Yet not all agree on this point. American academic, attorney, and political activist Lawrence Lessig wrote a very interesting essay called “Against Transparency”, in which he says that we should be careful to use transparency too much, because we could end up with the opposite result: that people believe that every politician is a thief and become even more disgusted by politics. Do you agree with him?
I actually love professor Lessig. We talked a lot about these issues, although I don’t know this specific article of his. I don’t think that knowledge could ever make the situation worse. I mean, knowledge is always good. More knowledge will always make us better. Always. Politics is supposed to be the place where you confront challenges with the most pragmatic solutions. In order to find them, you first need to face reality for what it is, without fear. In order to change our reality, we first need to collect as much knowledge about it as we can gain.
So you advocate for full transparency, as far as the governmental use of public money is concerned.
What our government is doing is owned by the public. The people who got elected are a public asset. They work for the public. We should always remember that! This said, we should never expose information that may harm the security of the country. I don’t think we need to expose what our intelligence services are doing, for example. Also, I think we should trace a line where the privacy of the individual begins, too.
What do you mean exactly?
We should reveal only those matters that are strictly related to the decisions that have been made by delegates of the public in the public sector in politics. That’s where I place the line of our action.
What do you think about, for example, Julian Assange’s approach, which is pretty ideological? He says that the consequences of his leaks are “always secondary considerations”. He probably contributed to the victory of Trump more than anybody else. I want to ask you, how do you position yourself in front of such an ideological use of transparency when the consequences get so… I guess you already answered this question.
Yes, it’s exactly what I said earlier. Never risk public security. Never unnecessarily invade people’s privacy. For me, these are the lines not to be trespassed on, compared to information that is actually supposed to be owned by the public.