Seeking improvement

The State Comptroller's biannual report mirrors the Winograd report with its findings on governmental problems and irregularities.

lindenstrauss 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
lindenstrauss 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
As a media furor understandably swirls around the just-released testimonies of Ehud Olmert, Amir Peretz, and Dan Halutz to the Winograd Committee, another study is battling for attention: State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss's biannual report on numerous governmental problems and irregularities. The entrenched neglect of the latter revelations is surely related to the mess found at the top of our political and military echelons. This time, the comptroller found nothing that would warrant referral to the attorney-general for possible criminal prosecution. At least that. But this is how it should be: the standard for governmental functioning should never be simply the lack of criminality. In the past, the sections of comptroller's reports that did include criminal referrals tended to distract from the many important discoveries of flawed functioning at a no less significant level. The current report, for example, explores an important adjunct to the six years of cumulative neglect on the northern border described in the Winograd Report - namely, years of failure in the IDF to adequately address the threat from tunnels used to smuggle weapons and terrorists from Egypt to Gaza or from Gaza into Israel. The comptroller found that the IDF only began formulating a systematic response to the tunnel threat in December 2004, after a number of deadly tunnel-related attacks. But in the following months, the IDF did not establish a cross-service "Tunnel Administration," as recommended by an officer tasked with reporting on the problem. Further, then chief of General Staff Moshe Ya'alon did not implement his own decision to combine engineering and air force units that were dealing with related aspects of the threat. In yesterday's Jerusalem Post, we published separate articles outlining the comptroller's criticisms of the National Religious Services Administration for nepotism, the Foreign Ministry's London embassy for improper hirings, of the Bank of Israel for excessive benefits packages, the Tax Authority for mismanaging the levying of fines, the Finance Ministry for bungling budget distributions and management of surpluses, and the Knesset for wasting large sums on consulting firms and designing an auditing system that was never implemented. The list goes on. What is most disturbing about all this, however, is that we have little reason for confidence that many of these problems, having been painstakingly discovered, investigated, and reported on, will be fixed. It is true that the comptroller is not all-seeing, that some of his criticisms must be unwarranted or exaggerated, and that some of the recommendations made are quickly carried out - in some cases before the report has even been made public. All comptrollers also have an institutional bias of focusing on process, rather than the quality of decision making. There are certainly plenty of government decisions that dutifully follow proper procedures and yet produce negative results. It may even be true that the comptroller, as Olmert alleges, has an institutional axe to grind, and has set an objective of toppling the prime minister. It is also true, however, that it is unacceptable for any target of the comptroller's investigations, from the prime minister on down, to respond mainly or solely by attacking the comptroller himself. Further, despite all real and potential shortcomings, the comptroller's office should be regarded as a national treasure that offers the rare opportunity for government to do better. This hope and potential, however, will not be realized without paying as much attention to attending to problems as to their discovery. There need to be better mechanisms of oversight, both within the Knesset and outside of it, to ensure that the comptroller's recommendations are not forgotten and left to gather dust. Perhaps the comptroller should issue a report ranking each ministry on its implementation of previous reports. This would steer attention toward the most chronically mismanaged ministries, as measured both by the quality and quantity of their irregularities, and their relative ability to correct flaws. Such a report could also single out for praise ministers and ministries that engage in practices that should be emulated, or have responded to criticisms most constructively. The objective of this entire exercise, after all, should be to generate improvement, not just an endless litany of scandals to deplore.