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In Romania, BaniPierduti Brings a "Funky" Approach to Budget Awareness

BY Antonella Napolitano | Monday, March 2 2015

Budget simulator on the Banipierduti.ro website

In every country, fiscal policies are a mystery to the majority of citizens. This often generates the feeling that, somehow, tax money is not well used by the public administration. BaniPierduti is a project that aims to increase Romanian citizens' understanding of local budgets.

Bani pierduti is Romanian for 'lost money,' tax money that citizens pay while not being able to understand how it's used,” Elena Calistru, the Bucharest-based anti-corruption activist who launched the website, tells techPresident.

The BaniPierduti team gathers all the information available about projects financed through public money (budgets, annual reports, etc.) and tries to translate it into language that can be understood by the average Romanian citizen. Their objective is to inform people about public spending so that they can make proposals themselves and keep authorities accountable.

“In Romania there is a provision that states that local budgets have to be public for 15 days so that people and organizations can discuss and add their opinions and proposals,” Calistru tells techPresident.

“Where is my money, man?”

In a short documentary about her organization, Calistru recounts the story of how she got the idea for the website, in 2011. She had been thinking about buying a new pair of shoes when she was notified that she had to pay additional taxes money. When she went to the city office - “which is in the middle of nowhere” she adds – to ask for more information, nobody was able to explain the reason for this request.

Calistru, who used to work for the Romanian chapter of Transparency International, says this made her feel vulnerable. If she felt this way as a transparency activist, Calistru realized a regular citizen would feel even worse.

A small and dark building in the middle of nowhere, where people struggle to find information about paying taxes and where their money goes: the experience for Calistru perfectly encapsulated the situation in her country and gave her the idea for her next quest.

Elena recruited her sister and her best friend, all with backgrounds in law and political science, and started BaniPierduti with the name “Where’s my LEI, man?” (Lei is the Romanian currency.)

A local budget breakdown (Source: banipierduti.ro)

The turning point, however, was when the project entered the Restart Romania 2011 competition, ending up as one of the five winners. Restart Romania is a platform for civil society activism launched by TechSoup Romania, with the support of the US Embassy to Bucharest.

Restart Romania was crucial not only for the money and recognition to the project, says Chris Worman, Senior Director at TechSoup Global:

Restart connected Elena to many of the programmer and designer resources she needed to transform her great ideas into reality. The people she met there have become part of her team and helped build the ideas that grew up around BaniPierduti.

After the Restart competition, the team had the resources and technologies to scale up their work.

“If at the very beginning the project only aimed at using state budget data, it now operates with data comprising the budgets dedicated to social assistance and public health, the budgets at local level for the Romanian counties, projects financed through EU funds, comparisons with the percentage allocated to various sectors in other EU counties, and more,” Calistru later wrote on the OpenSpending website.

A budget simulator was also added, to encourage citizens to experiment on resource allocation, she explained. “Citizens have to produce a balanced budget, so are forced to trade off priorities against one another. The voting system is very simple and allows the user to understand the impacts of their given choice in context.”

This experience also taught Calistru and her colleagues that the mix between contributions from specialists in different areas and new technologies might provide a different approach to address transparency. This became the working method for the NGO she subsequently funded, FunkyCitizens.

The name seems appropriate to Chris Worman: “Their very approach is funky. Different. Engaging citizens when many transparency and accountability folks only focus on policy.”

An example? They brought their project to the city central station in order to explain budget priorities to citizens and listen to their suggestions (see the video below).

Election 2014: a milestone for a generation

Like other former communist countries, Romania is a young democracy. Calistru argues that in the early 90s they didn't have a way to build civil society organizations, so the first Romanian NGOs started by implementing the practices of Western NGOs. Now they are finding their own way.

Nowadays, there is a stronger need to build a new kind of active constituency, she adds, pointing out that “there is a cultural shift in Romania: young professionals are now more involved in the civil society.”

And this new generation recently took up the challenge.

Just four months ago, in November 2014, Romanian citizens were called to vote in a presidential election.

The results were unexpected: in the run-off, Klaus Iohannis staged a surprising comeback to current Prime Minister Victor Ponta, the favorite contender in the race, and won the run-off with 54.5 percent, more than a million votes more than Ponta, who led by 10 percentage points in the first round.

The outcome followed large protests of how Ponta's government organized the elections in the diaspora, not setting up enough polling stations abroad.

As The Guardian reported:

There were protests that they had been unable to vote in the election on November 2 that led to the runoff... Romanians living overseas had to vote at polling stations in their adopted countries, and thousands grew exasperated when they had to stand in line for hours in cities such as Paris, London, and Munich during the first round.

There were also voting issues at home, Calistru recalls: complaints started spreading during the first round of elections, so the FunkyCitizens team set up a GoogleDoc to report irregularities at polling stations. In less than 12 hours it was seen 10,000 times and many issues were reported.

FunkyCitizens set up a hotline providing legal assistance for the electoral process, and it was soon flooded by requests, many from citizens living abroad.

About 400,000 Romanians who live overseas voted in the second round (the turnout of Romanians abroad voting doubled), contributing to a final turnout of 64 percent, the highest since 1996, and 22 points more than the turnout of the 2012 parliamentary election.

Exactly 25 years after the fall of Communism, “this was a milestone for this generation,” Calistru says.

TechSoup's Chris Worman knows Romania well, as he lived in the country for several years.

During our interview, he argued that a new civil society is growing:

Civil society in Romania seems quite energized. [...] The new generation like FunkyCitizens is building a new, mass market, grassroots approach, and rewriting the old paradigm. They will take an increasingly important role going forward as social media continues to increase its influence in politics.

While scaling up on resources is not easy, the Romanian FunkyCitizens are keen on keeping their area of interest focused. Calistru says that they are working on a community organizing project focused on public integrity.

Their plan for 2015 is building up on the feedback of BaniPierduti to work on the neighborhood level. The pilot project will start in Bucharest at the end of 2015.