Politics and civil service

Democracy is a difficult game to play.

The Knesset building (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Knesset building
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Improving the ability of the government to follow through on its decisions – also known as governance – is a challenge faced by Israel. Failed or faulty governance threatens the foundations of our democracy by making the entire democratic process appear pointless.
Democratic elections are supposed to work like this: Politicians campaign on policies they believe are popular and worthy of implementation; citizens go to the ballots to vote; they elect the politicians who espouse political positions they see as good; politicians enter office and proceed to keep their campaign promises.
But what if politicians are unable, for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with their own integrity, to follow through on their promises to their voting constituents? The voting public will become disenchanted with the entire democratic process and see no point in exercising their right to vote.
Therefore, attempts by the government to improve governance, like the one passed Sunday by the cabinet, should be commended. The measure put forward by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin gives the directors of ministries with more than 150 employees – 21 ministries at present – the right to appoint a deputy.
Known as “the job law,” the reform is based on the idea that implementation of government decisions often needs to be actively pursued and pushed by politicians and their appointees. It recognizes that career civil servants often tend to resist change and lack any incentive to be proactive.
Opposition MKs, such as Zionist Union Chairman Avi Gabbay, Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, and Meretz’s Michal Rozin, claim that Shaked and Levin are attempting to “politicize” the ministries by circumventing the professional cadre with political cronies. Zionist Union’s Tzipi Livni called it “political corruption masquerading as governance.”
But a look at the government’s record on decisions – those that were implemented and those that were not – shows that political and professional appointees actually complement one another.
Interestingly, it is thanks to a political appointment made during the government of Ehud Olmert that we even have a record of which government decisions were implemented and which were not. Udi Prawer, the head of the Prime Minister’s Office Planning Directorate who has probably done more single-handedly to improve governance and transparency, has adopted the practice of publishing a yearly report monitoring government decisions. In 2016, 68% were implemented, slightly higher than last year.
More revealing than the total amount, however, is a detailed appraisal of which decisions were implemented and which were not.
Decisions that are implemented are often pushed by a minister and his handpicked director-general. For instance, of the 14 clauses that make up government decision number 317 related to increasing housing construction, 11 have already been implemented. That’s because Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon realizes his chances for reelection depend on fulfilling his campaign promise to lower housing prices, much as he did with lowering the price of cellular phone calls.
Still, there are decisions that politicians resist implementing.
No politician wants to come up against large interest groups that can wield influence, say, in the Likud central committee, or that can punish a political party at the voting booth. This is probably why the decision to transfer state funds from strong municipalities to weaker ones was never implemented.
This is where civil servants come into play. It is in large part thanks to civil servants, for instance, that 35 out of 41 clauses in decision 922 that earmarked NIS 10 billion for Arab Israelis has been implemented. Arab Israelis have no significant political representation in the present government.
Civil servants are needed to make sure the government lives up to its promises.
However, civil servants are particularly bad at implementing deregulation or structural changes in the way public service is done. This is where politicians can be a positive force for change.
Political appointees and career civil servants complement one another. Both serve vital functions. Both are needed in order to improve governance. And when governance improves, so does the entire democratic process.