Michael Eitan - Emil Salman - June 29 2011
Minister for the Improvement of Government Services Michael Eitan. Photo by Emil Salman
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Representatives of the Israeli government and the OECD held a held a first-ever conference yesterday on reducing bureaucracy in Israel and improving services to the public. During the conference, government representatives presented policies designed to minimize bureaucracy, including eliminating red tape at the Israel Lands Authority, simplifying procedures for acquiring business licenses and increasing accessibility to government offices through online services. One of the speakers at the session was Michael Eitan, Israel's first minister to be in charge of improving government services to the public.

Minister Micahel Eitan, is it possible to eliminate or even reduce bureaucracy in Israel?

Whether we can eliminate bureaucracy altogether, that I'm not sure, but there's no doubt in my mind that bureaucracy in Israel can be reduced significantly. Part of my job is to make sure that this happens soon. And it will definitely happen. That's because two important processes are at work simultaneously. The first is technological advancement. For more than a decade now, I've been able to enter my bank account in Israel, get information about activities in it and transfer money without having to leave the house. I no longer see the inside of the branch of my bank. When I undergo tests at my HMO, the following day I can get the results by logging into my computer at home. The second, complementary, process is that the public is no longer willing to put with meeting its representatives in the Knesset and the government once in four years. Because they know what technology permits, they now demandaccess to information. They want to find out where their tax money is going and what their elected representatives are doing. People will no longer agree to go to government offices, to look for parking, to undergo a security check and to stand in line in smelly offices when they can get services at home from the bank and from the stores where they shop.

If that's the case, do government offices need to be at the forefront of technology in order to give the public the best and most advanced services and reduce friction to the minimum?

I'm not proposing that government offices be at the technological forefront and take excessive risks, whether they be financial risks or other risks. But we're talking about technology that's already been around for years and there is absolutely no reason not to make use of it. There is no reason the public sector should be lagging behind the private sector significantly. I'm in favor of the public sector lagging behind two, three or four years, but not longer than that.

Do you have examples of some of the benefits of introducing technologies into government ministries?

Just yesterday, I was approached by some private entrepreneurs who wanted to get information from the Transportation Ministry about bus timetables and the frequency of services at different stations. They want to use this information for the public's benefit because their idea is to create an application that will allow commuters to obtain information on their cell phones when the bus they're waiting for is supposed to arrive and whether it has already left the station. I talked to the Transportation Ministry about this, and I hope they will indeed open this database. It's possible to provide wonderful services to the public which in the past governments didn't think they needed to provide.

Another example is the Internet site "Hataktsiv Hapatuach" [the open budget]. A group of programmers asked us for access to the state budget so that they would be able to demonstrate how spending is being carried out in relation to plans. There are people out there who want to contribute and to serve the public, and in the new world, there are many project of this kind. We are currently working on a new project to give the public greater access to statistics compiled by the various government offices. This would enable real estate developers in the future, for example, to provide information on crime in different neighborhoods or on measures that have been taken to combat crime. And why not? The tax authorities have information on property deals made in Israel. The moment this information is published, people will be able to make assessments about property values in their neighborhoods. This is how you let the market do its job.

Do you think that Israelis would take to the streets just because the services they get are not advanced or not sufficiently technological?

As I see it, this is very similar to the protest that broke out over cottage cheese prices. Without belittling the price of cottage cheese, I think that reducing bureaucracy is no less important for the quality of life in this country. People will start asking themselves, how is it that we are up in arms about the price of cottage cheese but don't mind getting bad service from the government? Democracies around the world have to understand that large bureaucracies must become more efficient and improve their services to the public. Representatives of the OECD told us explicitly that we are heading in the right direction. They did not say, however, that we are going at the right pace, though they did make clear that the recommendations we are following are their recommendations. I was very happy about that.

It seems one of the main challenges is how to guarantee that the weaker segments of society, the people who don't have access to computers or cell phones, are also able to benefit from new services provided through them. How can that be done? The rate of technological penetration in Israel is among the highest in the world. At the end of the 1990s, I was behind a plan to provide greater Internet access to residents of Sderot. We are living in an era in which traditional services cannot be eliminated but large sections of the population can receive services without going to government offices. This leads to significantly shorter lines, which means that those who can only obtain services the traditional way will also get better services.

Can you, as the minister in charge of improving government services to the citizens, succeed in carrying out such significant changes?

I am certainly not the one who can make the changes. I don't have the political clout or the budget. Nor do I have the manpower. I am able to sit in my small headquarters and create the framework to facilitate this sort of change. If we genuinely want to shorten processes so that things happen more rapidly, the workers are the key factor in this process and they must be made part of it and take an interest in promoting it. Right at the start, I reached understandings with the civil service union that these changes will not entail firing workers or harming workers. Rather the workers will be partners to the fruit of the reform. The supposed savings from the salaries of workers who are fired is just a drop in the bucket compared with what can be saved by eliminating bureaucracy. When an architect has to leave work for an hour to go and present his plans and then go back - if I can save him a few hours every year so that he can concentrate on his professional knowledge, I'll be saving for the entire economy. His productivity will increase, and I will save way more than I would from the one clerk who is already there, but whose work will be done by a computer in the future.