(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The era of the fax machine, the ubiquity of which has been among the long-standing ironies for hi-tech Israel, may finally be coming to an end.
On Sunday, the cabinet approved a proposal spearheaded by Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel that would require government offices to accept documents by email, putting an end to the tyranny of the fax machine that has ruled Israel’s bureaucracy for decades.
Though people will still be able to submit documents through faxing, mailing or in person, a simple e-mail will suffice.
Following the cabinet’s approval, ministries will be instructed to make necessary changes within 90 days.
“Sending emails for government requests will make services for citizens more efficient, will cut work hours and the cumbersome bureaucratic burden and reduce social gaps in society,” said Gamliel.
Despite regular promises from politicians to make government services more efficient, the public sector has had persistent problems cutting through its red tape.
The most recent World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report found that the most problematic factor for doing business in Israel was the inefficient government bureaucracy; it was ranked 98th of 140 countries in terms of the burden of government regulation. In the past three years alone, Israel has dropped 20 spots to 53rd in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the proposal “will make it much easier for Israeli citizens because, from this decision on, citizens will be able to contact government ministries by email and not by fax. The time has come; this is clear.”
A pilot of the new policy carried out at the Justice Ministry’s corporate authority, in which the ministry’s website replaced the fax number with an email address (with the fax number accessible by request), saw a major change. Faxed forms dropped from 80 percent to 20% of all submissions, while email submissions rose from 20% to 80% of the total.
The Chief Scientist’s Office in the Economy Ministry on Sunday put forth a plan to ensure that the fax fix isn’t the end of the story.
“Israel has a large community of developers and entrepreneurs working in fields that could be of significant benefit to the public sector and have the potential to improve the service it offers the public,” said chief scientist Avi Hasson. “The purpose of the program is to leverage Israel’s technological entrepreneurship for the benefit of the challenges facing the public sector.”
The plan, called “Digital Israel,” will provide R&D grants to private companies developing digital solutions specifically for the public sector.
Projects that find ways to make information more accessible, increase turnover and reduce obstacles will be eligible for grants of as much as NIS 4 million to cover a maximum of 50% of their R&D expenditure over two years. A second kind of grant, focusing on the implementation of existing technology, will provide NIS 300,000 to cover as much as 90% of a project.
The main areas of focus include digital health, ease of access, connecting and analyzing different kinds of data, digital education and information sharing between public bodies.
“The public sector must close the significant gaps in the services it provides the public relative to the private sector,” said Economy Ministry director-general Amit Lang. “The new program is expected to lead the public sector several steps forward into the current era and allow the public to enjoy the services and tools in an easy, accessible manner,” he continued.
MK Stav Shaffir, who proposed a bill in the previous Knesset to require government services to be provided via email and not just fax, praised the cabinet decision.
“In Israel’s advanced Start-Up Nation, the public sector often prefers to act like it’s never heard of the Internet,” she said.
Shaffir added, however, that the problem is not just in government offices, and that many private companies also require clients to use fax machines.
“I hope that in the coming months, Israel will enter the new millennium and make it easier for its citizens to receive services in both the private and the public sectors,” she said.