'Civic cabinet' experts aim to widen government coronavirus debate

Led by Dr. Gal Alon, the non-partisan 'civic cabinet' includes prominent experts from sectors including public health, applied mathematics, public policy, welfare, crisis management and more.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem January 26, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/DEDI HAYUN)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem January 26, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/DEDI HAYUN)
Faced with an invisible but potentially destructive enemy, every government decision in the battle against the coronavirus outbreak could have a reverberating impact on healthcare, the economy, social welfare and more.
Concerned about the decision-making process within the corridors of Jerusalem’s government ministries, including a lack of high-level experience in managing similar crises and the heavy cost of past and future errors, a group of leading civil society experts decided to join together and advance additional voices and insights at the government discussion table.
Led by Dr. Gal Alon, a former adviser for strategic development at the Prime Minister’s Office, the non-partisan “civic cabinet” includes prominent experts from sectors including public health, applied mathematics, public policy, welfare, crisis management and Israel’s different population groups.
Dr. Gal Alon (Credit: Yossi Aloni)Dr. Gal Alon (Credit: Yossi Aloni)
In addition to bringing together renowned experts, the cabinet also incorporates a group of outstanding students and focuses on outreach for public input.
“Israel needs a more sophisticated policy discussion around key issues in order to confront the hegemony that you find these days in government,” Alon told The Jerusalem Post.
“Our three streams basically generate different types of policy-oriented publications. We are not trying to replicate the existing hegemony. The civic cabinet is a bit different to the other think-tanks that are out there.”
Alon lamented the decline in the use of roundtables, established by the Prime Minister’s Office after the Second Lebanon War, to ensure discussion between government, civil society and the business sector. Rather than sharing information between ministries, he said, the Health Ministry has made decisions without input from elsewhere.
Recent publications have focused on home-front preparations for a virus outbreak, digital education, and supply of food, medication and support to at-risk groups forced to stay at home.
Earlier this week, a joint team from the civic cabinet and researchers at Haifa’s Technion–Israel Institute of Technology – led by Prof. Nir Gavish and Prof. Omri Barak – announced that they were working on a simulator to assess the ramifications of the government’s various policy decisions on the spread of the coronavirus in Israel.
Aiming to assist policymakers, the development team has completed the process of modeling demographic and personal isolation policies, and is now working to add data about the impact of opening businesses and schools.
Once complete, the simulator will enable users to evaluate the impact of different policies and a large range of variables, including a comprehensive lockdown; isolating certain age groups; complete or partial reopening of schools; requiring protective gear; and the resumption of air travel.
“If you follow the last few weeks in Israel and abroad, decisions about whether to close the country down or whether to open it up were made through political negotiations. This is inconceivable,” Alon said.
“We reached out to the Technion. With a lot of data, why don’t we build software to compare different alternatives and model decisions in a more professional way. We contributed the policy and epidemiological knowledge. They brought up the mathematical and development knowledge. Together, we built a model of how you can take dramatic decisions in a more professional way.”
As long as the publications are policy-oriented and bring new insights into the discussion, Alon says, then public servants and politicians are ready to challenge their own perceptions.
“Every policy publication is sent to decision-makers in government and people are very receptive,” said Alon. “Some of the issues were mentioned in the Knesset’s coronavirus committee. We had one senior director-general calling the team and receiving advice to solve a problem.”