(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Israel’s policy-makers are not acting within a strategic framework, said a group of experts at a Taub Center for Social Policy Studies conference in Jerusalem on Monday.
“There is a quiet crisis of government institutions in Israel,” said Steven Popper, a public policy expert at the RAND research corporation.
The government, he said, has not updated its systems to align with the needs of a modern, complex economy and society.
“Israel is no longer a country of halutzim [pioneers] and small businessmen. It’s increasingly becoming an important node in the knowledge society,” he said.
Without a strategic plan, policies are created and put in place willy- nilly, without coordination, long-term funding, and assessment of their long-term consequences, the experts at the conference said.
“One of the primary problems in Israel is a lack of knowing where we want to go, a lack of knowing what the problem is,” said Dan Ben-David, the Taub Center’s executive director.
Several of the reasons for lack of institutional strategic thinking – a problem that plagues many modern democracies – are structural.
The instability of the government means that ministers aren’t in their jobs for very long, and are often there for the wrong reasons. While the government’s professional staff may remain stable for years, their bosses come and go based on electoral performance and coalition politics, the experts noted.
Another factor is that there is no mechanism to coordinate professional and political staffs from the various ministries and connect them to a long-term plan, they added.
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai compared long-term project planning to a pipe with 18 valves, each controlled by a different politician, bureaucrat or institution that needs to be wooed to open it up. The best way to get the government on board on a project, he half-joked, was to foment a crisis it could not ignore.
But at least part of the problem, according to Ben-David, is personal.
“In all honesty, it’s a leadership issue. Even if you have a minister who’s not an expert in the area of health or economics, he should know what it is that he wants,” he said.
Even with well-intentioned leaders, the lack of information, formal study, coordination or policy review can prove fatal to good planning.
Often, leaders do not even insist on a variety of policy options for dealing with a particular issue, the experts said.
The lack of strategic thinking and long-term planning helps account for the government’s inability to deal with some of Israel’s more worrying trends, despite agreement that they should be fixed.
“It’s like amateur hour, and this country does not have the degrees of freedom other countries have. You can’t get it wrong so many times,” Ben-David said.
For example, Israel’s showing on international education tests has been reliably mediocre. Education is worst among the fastest growing sectors of the population, while worker productivity has fallen to among the lowest levels of the OECD.
Crowding on the roads has increased, even as the proportion of drivers has fallen, and the cost of housing has continued to soar. Inequality in Israel is surpassed only by the United States among rich countries.
A strategic plan could coordinate policy in a way that would fix several problems at once. For example, by improving public transport and schools in areas outside big cities, the government could help people move away from the crowded centers and lower the costs of housing there, the experts suggested.
Given his long tenure, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a unique opportunity to fix the system, Ben-David said.
“For someone like Netanyahu, this could be a [former prime minister David] Ben-Gurion moment. Do you want to be continuously elected or do you want to change the country?” he remarked.