Warning cries from Herzliya

The mishandling of the Iran danger is perhaps the worst example of our lack of governability.

February 22, 2009 21:29
4 minute read.
Warning cries from Herzliya

uranium 298.88. (photo credit: )

Prof. Uzi Arad, founder of the Herzliya Conference and the tough former head of Mossad research, is not usually given to soul searching. The audience of VIPs that listened to his farewell speech on leaving Herzliya for a top security job therefore reacted to his public expression of anxiety with stunned silence. "I lie awake at night," Arad confided, "fretting over Israel's mishandling of the present danger from Iran. We have wasted precious years doing little about this danger; many in our political elites are ignorant, are in denial and cynical. They are deluded by a false messianic fervor, an irrational pursuit of peace. This prevents them from tackling the real dangers facing us." Unfortunately the media did not even bother to report Arad's dramatic warning and his assertion that the right steps may still save the day. His assessment that decision makers are paralyzed was given added credence by an earlier Herzliya conference panel devoted to governability. DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER Haim Ramon, who knows this great behemoth, the government, inside out, opened the session by warning prospective prime ministers that even if they succeeded in climbing the slippery pole of coalition making they "...could not accomplish a thing... the ability to govern of any prime minister is close to zero, and his chances of surviving long in his job is small." Ramon regaled his audience with hair-raising stories on the impotence of governments here. He explained why more than 75 percent of government decisions never get implemented (some would probably add thank heaven, since with the 25% of decisions that are implemented, the government manages to do enough harm). What Ramon did not explain is why in the many top political positions he has held, he did not tackle governability; why as deputy prime minister he speaks as if he were an outsider critic, when he surely must have had the chance to at least agitate for reform from a position of strength. A MORE "common sense analysis" of the difficulties of governing was offered by Dror Strum, head of the Israel Institute for Economic Planning. Governability can be first assessed by a formal yardstick, the percentage of government decisions that are implemented, and then by how full and timely the limited implementation is. The government's ability to govern is strongly limited by external constraints imposed by our political structure, such as the width of coalitions, their cohesion and the accountability of Knesset members. However, these are problems that can only be resolved by electoral reform, Strum noted. But there are also internal constraints that can be removed. Strum emphasized the overwhelming role of bureaucratic barriers and bottlenecks created by the Treasury and the Justice Ministry, aggravated by the growing tendency to "legalize" every problem. Coordination between the legislative and the executive branches, and establishing greater accountability by mid-level management, could solve some of these problems. Strum also analyzed some of the conflicting values and principles that bedevil government. Governability - the right of our elected representatives to implement policies - is at the heart of our democracy. Yet it is constrained by conflicts between good principles of management and a restrictive administrative law. Managers cannot set priorities, enforce discipline or reward those who excel. They have no flexibility in using resources and manpower. Critical decisions depend on hard-to-achieve agreement among several bodies, such as the Treasury, the Justice Ministry and various agencies. There is a separation between management and budgetary control and little ability to measure outputs. Administrative law also empowers bureaucrats to decide "the reasonable way" to implement policy, enabling them to finesse ministerial decisions. The result was no less than administrative paralysis and government impotence. Strum proposed to legally sanction orders of priority and accountability so that bureaucrats could be replaced if they failed to implement policy; to establish a regulatory roundtable entrusted with national decision-making; to require the prime minister to decide in cases of disagreement between ministries; to increase the budgetary flexibility of various ministries. All these measures would certainly strengthen the government's ability to govern. However, it is questionable whether such reforms have even the slightest chance of being legislated or implemented. The very barriers and inabilities Strum described could stop such reforms. THE CRUX of the problem, not even mentioned by the panel, is the government's huge size and imperial ambitions. No entity in the world - even if it had dream management and bureaucrats faithfully implementing its wise directives - could succeed in the mission impossible called governing here. There is no way any organization can implement the hundreds of objectives, many of them contradictory, that the government, a body usually paralyzed by fierce political infighting, undertakes. Even the minimal, legitimate role of government - protecting us from internal and external violence and enforcing contracts - is immensely complicated and difficult. So how can we expect that government, disorganized by nature, could succeed in its many undertakings, that it can provide us with security, a good living, excellent education, health services and even manna from heaven. In fact, as long as we saddle government with such impossible tasks, it will not be able to discharge its legitimate duties. Until we liberate governments from their excessive burdens and allow them to do the minimum required, all of us, not only Uzi Arad, better not sleep peacefully at night.

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