Government tells Israelis: ‘Behave – or else’

My complaint is against unnecessary and expensive government advertising campaigns that try to teach us citizens to behave ourselves.

Money cash Shekels currency 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Money cash Shekels currency 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
Now that the elections are over and the new Knesset members sworn in, is it okay to complain? I don’t want to complain about the results of the elections or the process of coalition-forming, nor do I want to complain about what some politician’s wife wore to the Knesset’s opening ceremony.
My complaint is against unnecessary and expensive government advertising campaigns that try to teach us citizens to behave ourselves.
The “complaining police” campaign calling citizens to vote on pain of losing their “right to complain” was certainly amusing. The problems lies not in the talent of the advertisers at the Government Advertising Bureau (GAB), but in the fact that the government grants them NIS 400 million of our money annually, most of which goes to campaigns that try to teach us to behave ourselves.
Only recently the government launched several campaigns targeted at convincing us to behave the way it wants: to vote, to purchase goods made in Israel, to report our income, to use contraceptive methods, and to recycle.
Governments throughout the world have successfully implemented measures to increase voter turnout: allowing university students to vote on campus rather than at stations near their permanent address, allowing citizens who are abroad on Election Day to vote at embassies, and allowing voting by mail, to name a few. Instead of making life easier for voting citizens, our government has chosen to spend millions trying to convince us to vote in spite of the inconveniences.
Similarly, there are many ways to increase employment: cutting bureaucracy and red tape, simplifying the tax code, reforming labor laws to allow more flexibility, implementing a responsible fiscal policy, and investing in education and infrastructure.
Instead of rising to the task of fighting pressure groups and implementing such measures, our government spends millions trying to convince us to buy goods made in Israel even if they are more expensive and of poorer quality than goods made elsewhere.
The government’s need for additional revenue is the reason for the campaign calling on us to report our income and even to report the income of others. But why does the government suddenly need more revenue? Because it performed poorly in 2012 and spent NIS 40 billion it did not have. Now, the government does not wish to take the difficult yet necessary route of tackling pressure groups, cutting subsidies, reducing overgenerous pay at government-owned corporations, and making the government more efficient.
Instead, we are called on, once again, to behave ourselves and pay.
In short, the government has chosen advertising campaigns over policy.
TRUE, NOT all of the GAB’s budget goes to “educational” campaigns. A large portion is spent on the publication of technical announcements and bids which fill pages upon pages of newspapers, even though only few of the readers find the information relevant. These readers could easily find the information on a government website dedicated to that purpose. In practice, the ads are a taxpayer- funded subsidy to a few large newspapers.
The government also spends money on foreign media trying to convince tourists to visit Israel. The Israeli economy undoubtedly benefits from tourists visiting the country, but it benefits also from exports in any other sector, from innovation, and from other sources of economic growth. Not every exporter, and certainly not every company, receives free advertising for its products from the government.
This is another hidden taxpayer- funded subsidy, this time to the tourism industry.
After having spent all that money, we should be grateful to the GAB for finding a few shekels left over with which to publicize useful information about government services.
That, we must not forget, is the reason the GAB exists in the first place.
In a recent interview, the GAB’s director general, Gadi Margalit, recognized that his job entails preventing the use of GAB funding for political purposes but said that was “in a conflict of interests with what I have to do – to increase the GAB’s budget.”
This shows that the chief government advertiser is no different from many public sector bureaucrats who are convinced that their job consists of increasing their bureau’s budget, rather than improving service to the public and minimizing the use of the public’s resources. It seems Israeli bureaucrats obey the late economist Milton Friedman’s “law” that people are less thrifty when spending other people’s money.
In the “complaining police” ad, a policeman interrupts a taxi driver who tells him that “a policeman ought to view himself as the people’s servant and not their master.”
That saying is true not only of policemen but of every public servant, and it ought to be posted at the entrance of every government bureau.
Then we might find public servants who will stop educating us and start serving us.
The writer is a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies (JIMS).