The role of the state comptroller

The state comptroller’s job is far-reaching and his audit ultimately covers more than 1,400 organizations.

By
June 4, 2019 13:36
3 minute read.
Newly-elected State Comptroller Matanyahu Engelman

Newly-elected State Comptroller Matanyahu Engelman. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

In a secret ballot of 67 votes in favor and 48 against, the Knesset on Monday elected accountant Matanyahu Englman, director-general of the Council for Higher Education and former director-general of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, to be the country’s ninth state comptroller and ombudsman for the next seven years, replacing Joseph Shapira who retires from the position next month.

It is noteworthy that neither Englman, the coalition’s candidate, nor Giora Romm, nominated by the opposition, is a judge. Although this is not technically a requirement for the important job, since 1987 all state comptrollers in Israel have previously served in the judiciary.

The fact that no judges were proposed for the prestigious position – and that none seem to have been interested in it – is indicative of current political trends. Monday’s vote came amid a very obvious struggle between the prime minister and coalition partners, and the judiciary, over the role of judicial review.

As Prof. Suzie Navot, from the college of management academic studies and an expert in constitutional law, told Reshet Bet in a radio interview before the vote, although there is no reason for the job to go to a former justice, the fact that none were even considered could be a sign of the wave of anti-judicial sentiment. This is not a healthy phenomenon.

The state comptroller’s job is far-reaching and his audit ultimately covers more than 1,400 organizations. The comptroller carries out external audits on a range of activities undertaken by ministries, local government and various public organizations, to ensure that they comply with the principles of good governance, integrity, legality, regularity, efficiency, effectiveness and the protection of individual rights. In addition, under section 4 of the Basic Law: The State Comptroller, he or she also serves as the country’s ombudsman, whose job includes investigating complaints from members of the public who feel they have personally been detrimentally affected by the actions of national and public authorities.

As the state comptroller’s own official website states: “The ambit of the State Audit and the investigation of public complaints are so extensive that virtually all public bodies in the State of Israel come under the scrutiny of the State Comptroller and Ombudsman.”
Thus, it is important that the state comptroller be characterized by integrity; the ability to see the broader picture while being meticulous about details; and by a willingness to stand up to pressure. This is the gatekeeper whose job is to keep at bay the infamous “yihiyeh beseder” – “it will be OK” – mentality.

When former state comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss approached the end of his term in 2012, Israel Democracy Institute’s former president Dr. Arye Carmon took issue with him for overstepping the bounds of his authority and for his excessive media presence. In an op-ed originally published in Yediot Aharonot, Carmon singled out Lindenstrauss’s statements that the State Comptroller’s Office is the “fourth branch of government” and that “everything is auditable,” an obvious echo of former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak’s famous principle that “everything is justiciable.”

Perhaps against the expectations of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Shapira’s term could be seen as a continuation of Lindenstrauss’s approach with the publication of special reports that included the expenses and running of the Prime Minister’s Residence and a report on the 2014 war in Gaza.

The state comptroller need not be a justice – because his role is not to be a judge but rather an auditor. It requires a difficult balancing act: On the one hand, there is the need for a media presence to help publish serious faults and help push for reform and justice; on the other, the state comptroller should ensure that the office is carrying out its functions without the risk of creating kangaroo courts of public opinion. It is important that the state comptroller faithfully carry out the job and allow the attorney-general and courts to carry out theirs. He should not forget the distinction between the two functions. And he needs to avoid politicization.
Particularly in a time of political turmoil with growing societal rifts, Englman as the new state comptroller has the chance to act in order to improve public administration and help the well-being of Israeli society. We wish him great success.


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