Budget Trailblazers: Elena Calistru
May 27, 2021
In this section, we shine a spotlight on partners who are using budget advocacy to bring transformational change to their communities. This month, we talk with Elena Calistru, chair and founder of Funky Citizens, a Romanian-based NGO that builds research-based, data-driven advocacy tools. Funky Citizens was one of our research partners on the COVID-19 assessment.
Q: What inspired you to start working with budgets?
A: It was 2011 and I got a letter from the tax authorities demanding I pay extra money. And despite being a highly educated person who works in civil society, monitoring issues related to transparency, I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t find any publicly available information to help me understand why I owed this money. I ended up paying the tax without knowing why and promised myself that it would never happen to me again.
Together with people from various sectors, we started looking into government budgets. We went through thousands of tables, hundreds of PDFs, and made hundreds of public officials hate us with all the FOIA requests. But we managed to visualize data related to public budgets, sometimes did cooking shows just to explain budgets for the average citizens and worked with journalists to investigate government expenditures. Essentially, I took my vulnerability in the face of authority and decided to empower myself and others to understand where our tax money goes.
Q: What is Funky Citizens’ primary goals and mission?
A: Founded in 2012, Funky Citizens promotes active citizenship and encourages citizens to get involved in initiatives meant to make the state institutions more responsible. We often collaborate with investigative journalists, given our expertise on topics such as the judiciary, public administration and, of course, public budgets. We are well-versed in data-based advocacy, communication and civic education.
Q: What was the process you used for conducting research for the Open Budget Survey COVID study?
A: We had been following COVID-19 allocations even before we started working with IBP on the COVID module of the Open Budget Survey. IBP’s call for transparency in the COVID-19 response and relief expenditures hit close home for us and prompted us to look early on at what was happening on the legislative front. This made it relatively easy to have a good understanding of the larger context, but also to choose the package that was most relevant as a case study for how the Romanian authorities responded to the pandemic.
In the end, even though there are numerous measures that could have been analyzed, we decided on the package that was passed relatively early (a budget revision with numerous measures ranging from fiscal stimulus to unemployment benefits or social assistance to rapid funds allocation for hospitals to the wider healthcare response). Starting from that package, we investigated follow-up to these measures, complementary resources and any changes to the initial package.
Q: What challenges did you face in the research process?
A: As in most countries that were assessed in the study, Romania suffered from a lack of transparency in the emergency response. For example, as part of the state of emergency regulations, FOIA response times were doubled, and given the fact that the Romanian authorities did not provide any regular updates on COVID-19-related spending, these restrictions made data collection difficult.
Q: Why should the average citizen care about budgets?
A: In an ideal world, the average citizen shouldn’t care about budgets. They would get good public services, decent infrastructure and a great quality of life from their tax money. But I think it is obvious for everyone that we live in a far from ideal world so monitoring what is happening with the budgets is necessary in the face of misspending and sometimes rampant corruption, even during times of crisis. But what we should have is an awareness that the transparency of the budgets is essential. Citizens should be sensitive to any attempt to hide any information related to public expenditures, even if that means that the data released about such expenditures will only be “consumed” by some activist data geeks or investigative reporters. Citizens should be the allies of people engaged in this work that can “translate” for the wider public, so they understand what is happening with the taxes that they are paying.