Governance and democracy

A 2005 study by Doron Navot and Eli Reches found that in Israel, 70% of government decisions are left unimplemented.

July 25, 2017 19:52
3 minute read.
A general view shows the plenum during the swearing-in ceremony of the 20th Knesset, the new Israeli

A general view shows the plenum during the swearing-in ceremony of the 20th Knesset, the new Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem March 31, 2015.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The idea that the lone citizen’s choice at the ballot box makes a difference stands at the heart of democracy. A politician receives the backing of a group of like-minded constituents to implement a given policy. The politician is voted into office and proceeds to pass laws that advance a specific agenda. The laws are then implemented and have a direct impact on our lives. There is, in this democratic process, a direct link between the people and the government.

Unfortunately, it does not always work this way. In Israel, and in other democracies, governance is weak, which is another way of saying that laws passed in the Knesset or decisions made by the cabinet do not always get implemented. As a result, our politicians do not solve long-standing market failures, such as Israel’s housing shortage and related exorbitant housing prices; and preparedness for catastrophes remains unsatisfactory, as witnessed during the 2010 Mount Carmel forest fire.

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A 2005 study by Doron Navot and Eli Reches found that in Israel, 70% of government decisions – ranging from public housing to privatization of the sea ports, from reforms in the Israel Electric Corporation to the construction of a light rail in Tel Aviv – are left unimplemented. There are no signs that the situation has improved in the past decade.

The result of this disconnect is not only a failure on the part of consecutive governments to govern. The impact is much more pernicious and debilitating to the democratic process.

Unimplemented legislation and cabinet decisions tend to undermine the public’s faith in democracy. Many citizens will ask themselves: If politicians and ministers do not follow through with the decisions they make, why bother to vote?

In an attempt to restore faith in the democratic process, the Knesset this week decided to form a new professional department to combat the phenomenon by which ministers do not implement laws passed by the legislature. Assuming the Knesset actually follows through on this initiative, it could improve Israeli governance.

The new body would focus on ensuring that ministers do not “bury” laws passed by the Knesset by failing to prepare the necessary “secondary legislation” needed for working out the technical details to implement the laws. There are 51 laws awaiting such “secondary legislation,” according to the Knesset research department.

These include a law regulating the way rabbinical courts work, which was supposed to be addressed by the Justice Ministry by 2004; and a law requiring the Defense Ministry to arrange for the operation of the Fund to Clear Mines by July 2011 – neither of which has been implemented.

But creating a regulatory body might not be enough. Many ministers resist implementation of laws passed by previous governments either because they opposed these laws on ideological grounds or because they do not want to allocate part of their limited budget for it, or a combination of both.

Also, ministers are replaced at a dizzying speed. Even if they want to implement legislation they are unable to, because they do not stay in office long enough. Since the present government was created a year and a half ago, five ministers left and seven have been appointed. Ten portfolios – including defense and interior – have switched hands. The Economy portfolio has been held by four ministers.

Our short-lived governments are another factor that hurts governance. Since 1996, a finance minister or an interior minister has served on average 18 months. Eli Cohen is the 14th economy minister during this period; Yoav Gallant is the 13th construction minister.

Under these circumstances, it is unrealistic to expect a coherent policy as articulated in legislation to be implemented, no matter how many regulatory bodies are created by the Knesset.

The real solution to the problem of governance is taking steps to ensure that governments last longer and that ministers remain in their positions for an entire term, perhaps through electoral reform.

The lifeblood of democracy is the citizens’ conviction that they can bring about change with a vote. Without effective governance, democracy is seriously compromised.

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