The National Insurance Institute will undergo a major overhaul of its existing services in 2008, including an increase in manpower and a general change of attitude towards the public, Minister of Welfare and Social Services Isaac Herzog told The Jerusalem Post in an exclusive interview Monday. "The NII will undergo major improvements in 2008, that is one of my main agendas," promised Herzog, who is also responsible for the government institution that distributes more than NIS 45 billion a year in state benefits to the elderly, disabled and other needy segments of the population. The minister, who this week pushed through additional supplements to the state pension, outlined to the Post some of the core issues facing the often heavily criticized body, including the treatment of its customers, troublesome labor relations between the institute's two unions, its management and the Treasury, as well as its staff's low-grade work conditions and physical office space. He also said he had given immediate priority to solving the problems created by the recently privatized telephone hotline (*6050). "This is a major problem and creates havoc in the services that people receive," admitted Herzog. "I have instructed the management of NII to deal with the problem immediately." Advocacy group Ken Lazaken, which lobbies on behalf of the elderly, submitted a legal petition in recent weeks claiming that the new hotline, which is manned by telephone operators not familiar with the intricacies of the social welfare system, has created huge obstacles for many elderly and disabled people who can no longer communicate by telephone with a professional. Next week, MK Sofa Landver (Israel Beiteinu), head of the Public Petitions Committee, will hold a follow-up meeting to discuss the problem. "[The NII] has 10 million interactions with the public each year but only 5,000 employees," pointed out Herzog. "This package needs to be updated and, of course, more manpower added." Herzog also underscored the appointment earlier this month of Ester Dominissini as the new director-general of the institute, replacing Dr. Yigal Ben-Shalom, who has served for the past four years. A former director of the Ministry of Labor, Trade and Industry's employment service, Dominissini is expected to take over on February 1. She told the Post it was still too early for her to comment on the inner workings and problems facing the NII, but did say that improving the overall service of the social welfare institute would be among her priorities. "We must always strive for improvements," Dominissini said. "There is no doubt that Israel has some of the best social welfare programs in the world, but the question is how our clients, which are a large portion of the country's citizens, receive those programs. The system must be sympathetic to them and more user-friendly." Dominissini added that today's modern technology should in reality make it much easier for the institute to carry out its duties with the minimum amount of face-to-face contact. Following his interview with the Post, Herzog convened a session of his Ministerial Committee on Social Affairs to discuss ways to ensure that the NII's income and budget would always remain independent of the Treasury. "The NII is the main pillar providing the country with a socioeconomic basis for the strong social welfare system," said Herzog, adding that he planned to appoint a committee of experts to develop a plan for keeping the NII independent from the Treasury.