Inefficient government, efficient mayors

Inefficient government,

A deep malaise has engulfed our political system. There is a general feeling that the body politic is governed by small swing parties; that members of the Knesset are lured into the governing Likud by job offers which border on bribery; that the government does not represent the wishes of the majority; that excessive power is exercised by an omnipotent bureaucracy; that there is no true executive branch; that there is no accountability of public officials or elected representatives. Are all these allegations true? In my opinion, they are true with regard to the central government, but not with regard to local government. To verify this point, I compared the two systems. I chose the 15 local authorities which are financially independent - i.e., do not receive ex gratia subventions from the government to supplement their income and in which about half of Israeli Jews live - and compared their records in the same year - 2007 - with that of the government. FIRST I examined the satisfaction of the voters. The difference is immense: Only 18 percent were satisfied with the performance of the government, as opposed to 62% who were happy with the municipalities (the mayors got 63%, as opposed to the prime minister's 17%). Then I examined their respective effectiveness through their capacity to utilize their budgets according to their specific allocations. Here I compared two municipalities - Tel Aviv and Herzliya - with the government during 2005-2007. In the municipalities, effective use of the budget was 80% of total allocations, versus the government's 33.7% (and anyone who knows the dominance of legal advisers, accountants and other nay-sayers in the civil service will marvel that even this figure has been achieved). Even more stunning is the third comparison, examining the political support given to the two authorities. The 15 mayors were supported by more than 61% - i.e. much more than the 40% needed by law to be elected. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was elected by a quarter of the popular vote, and even after he took office, his rate of support does not approach the support given to the mayors. The support given to the mayors by council members elected under the proportional system is even more surprising. Here I took Tel Aviv and Ra'anana as my sample. In these two authorities the mayors succeeded in passing all their initiatives. The typical government notoriously fails to muster a majority in the Knesset even on important initiatives, and every year the budget debate is an occasion for minority swing parties to extract more money for their increasingly exorbitant demands. THE RESULT is visible to all: In the last municipal elections, 80% of incumbent mayors were reelected, while in three authorities, longtime incumbents were replaced by younger faces - a sure sign of democracy in action. The government's duration is a different story: In the past 13 years, six different governments held office and five Knesset elections took place. Since its independence, Israel has seen 18 Knessets and 32 governments. The short duration of ministers' tenure burdened the weak executive branch even further. While in the government, the first cracks in the coalition begin a short time after its establishment, in the municipalities from 2003 to 2008, coalitions were stable and only in one authority did the mayor have to face an opposing majority in the council. Beyond these statistics there is also an element that cannot be quantified. New, young faces began to run for mayor and, when elected, they effected a dramatic reform in many aspects of municipal life. In the government, lack of new political blood is noticeable to all observers. True, allegations of corruption - not always substantiated - abound with regard to local authorities. But suffice it to say that such allegations are also directed - sometimes with greater force - against the central government. THE MAIN lesson to be learned from the chasm between the two systems is that it is not only political culture which determines the nature of a political system and its efficacy. Structure also matters. The very same Israelis who, under a purely proportional system, give birth to a political monstrosity can give rise to a stable, efficient and democratic system when they personally choose their mayors. Indeed, before 1975, when the personal vote for mayors replaced the old system of mayors being chosen by council members, local government was synonymous with rotten ineffectiveness. The reform changed all that. The personal votes for the mayors granted them a degree of legitimacy undreamed of by prime ministers. Democracy is a constant compromise between representation and effectiveness. In 1975 the municipal reform which gave priority to effectiveness succeeded, and no one wants to go back to the old system of election by council members. The system under which the Knesset is elected gives total precedence to representation at the cost of effectiveness. The result is nothing short of catastrophic. It's time to establish a compromise in the Knesset, too. The writer is a professor of law at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a former minister of education and Knesset member and the recipient of the 2006 Israel Prize in Law.