The negotiations to establish Israel’s 37th government have reached the home stretch. We can already expect to see 30 chairs around the government table. Needless to say, there is no real justification for so many ministers other than coalition constraints.
In the country’s first decade, when it faced a host of challenges, no government had more than 16 ministers. However, the last two decades have seen a sharp increase in the number, peaking in the second Netanyahu government (30 ministers, in 2009) and then in the Netanyahu-Gantz government (34 ministers, in 2020).
The damage wreaked by such a large number of many ministers goes beyond the waste of taxpayers’ money. It also makes cabinet debates endless jabbering and interferes with the effectiveness of decision-making. But the heaviest price exacted by this inflated number is that it encourages the creation of new ministries; this is primarily because ministers don’t want to be without a portfolio because of the negative connotations of the title and because they want to have some executive powers.
Hence, there is a clear relationship between the increase in the number of ministers and the increase in the number of ministries. In 1961, Israel had 18 ministries; in 2001 the number had grown to 23 and in the Netanyahu-Gantz government, it has ballooned to no fewer than 35 ministries.
Thus were born, among others, the Ministry for Regional Cooperation (1999), the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee (2005), the Ministry for Strategic Affairs (2006), and the Intelligence Ministry (2009). The ephemeral ministries concocted for the Netanyahu-Gantz government are infamous: the Ministry for Community Empowerment and Advancement, the Water Resources Ministry, the Ministry of Higher Education, and the Ministry of Cyber and National Digital Matters. These four were abolished by the outgoing government, but the incoming government is likely to invent new ones to replace them.
The problem is that a new ministry does not exist in a vacuum. It annexes powers and departments of existing ministries and this interferes with the work of the professional echelons. The proliferation of ministries and dissolution of existing ministries into sub-ministries dealing with overlapping fields creates excessive bureaucracy, complicates decision-making processes, and leads to competition for areas of responsibility, which undermines efficient and ongoing attention to important matters.
The 2015 report based on two international indexes found a strong correlation between the number of ministries and the efficiency of the public sector. That is, a smaller number of ministries is likely to increase the efficiency of the government and the public sector. It would reduce internal bureaucracy and enhance our leaders’ capacity to see the full picture when long-term decisions must be made.
What can be done?
What can be done about this? The obvious solution is to limit the number of ministers. But we know that will never happen and that for the foreseeable future we will have to live with elephantine governments. This truth is brought home by the fact that the Basic Law: The Government has been amended twice in order to limit the number of ministers and each time the amendment was soon repealed under the pressure of coalition demands.
On the assumption that minister-inflated governments are a decree of fate, we need to figure out how we can cut our losses and minimize the damage they do to government operations. Here we might take a look at the situation abroad. Many parliamentary democracies have more ministers than ministries. That is, there are ministers who are not in charge of a separate and independent ministry. Instead, one ministry is home to more than one minister.
This system has a twofold advantage: It economizes on resources, reduces bureaucracy and offers the possibility of giving a minister authority and responsibility to promote policy in a specific domain within the two-headed ministry. In other words, these are full-fledged ministers who sit at and can vote at the government table and deal with policy in their specific area but they are not in charge of a separate ministry.
So, for example, instead of reviving the Ministry of Higher Education, a minister could be appointed with the education minister who would be in charge of this specific area. In this way, even if we cannot cut down on the number of ministers, at least we can find a remedy for the even more severe problem of too many ministries.
The writer is a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and senior lecturer at Ashkelon Academic College.