Are the Israeli Government's Decisions Being Carried Out?

Until the Prime Minister's Office took them to task, it seems that many ministries didn't quite understand that cabinet decisions are meant to be acted on.

Eli Groner, director general of the Prime Minister’s Office.
Marc Israel Sellem / Jerusalem Post / POOL

Per four-year stint, Israeli governments make an average of 4,000 resolutions. Of them, about 400 are operative ones – things that need to be done. There’s an urban myth however that it doesn’t much matter what the government decides, because almost no government resolutions are actually carried out.

In other words, according to the popular wisdom, the board of directors of the State of Israel – the cabinet – isn’t worth the budget for the potato pastries served during their meetings, since it doesn’t make sure its decisions are carried out. It is not running the country.

But it is true?

For the first time in Israel’s 68 years of existence, we can answer that question, because the incumbent government set up a mechanism to report on and keep track of its own resolutions. The mechanism was created by the management of the Prime Minister’s Office, headed by Director General Eli Groner.

What they did is set up a special unit whose job is simply to keep track of government resolutions. Its first job was to track decisions made in 2015.

So you say

In the first eight months since the government’s inauguration in May 2015, it made 82 resolutions. For the sake of monitoring, the 82 resolutions were broken down into 576 operative sections. Of these, 291 of the sections had deadlines within 2015, and 285 were slated for execution in 2016-2018.

On January 1, 2016, after the deadline for the first set of 291 sections had passed, all the ministries were asked for reports tracking the government resolutions under their jurisdiction. They were given three months to report. But after three months, only 14% had actually filed their reports.

The low figure isn’t coincidental, one may suspect; perhaps only the offices that managed to actually fulfill the missions on which the reportage was required, then reported.

Ergo, as of year-end 2015, it seems only 14% of the resolutions were carried out.

The Prime Minister’s Office did not roll over and whimper, but persisted in demanding reports on the execution of government resolutions. En route, it fielded some pretty amusing responses from the government offices, which were purely astonished that they were required to carry out government resolutions, and to report about them, no less.

Some complained that given resolutions fell into the fief of multiple ministries but nobody had stated which ministry would lead its handling. There, they have a point. Government resolutions tend to be messy and often it isn’t clear who should be doing what (a common formulation is “impose on the directors general of the relevant ministries to act to integrate the required actions to meet the goals set by the cabinet in the working plan of their ministry” – anybody who gets that, raise your hand.)

In any case, this complaint was amusing in that it was voiced after the deadline for the resolution’s execution had passed – but only when they were suddenly pressed to report on their progress in executing the decision did the ministries suddenly think to say they hadn’t a clue what they were supposed to do.

There were other amusing responses, like the ministries that hadn’t even remembered there was a resolution they were supposed to implement. Almost none had any specific office responsible for tracking resolutions relevant to the ministry, and 85% had zero big picture about the execution of government resolutions.

Some of the government offices asked the Prime Minister’s Office for clarifications about what exactly their role in the resolution was.

Humiliation, a great motivator

In short, chaos reigns at the ministries, and so apparently did embarrassment when they were suddenly forced to throw open their doors and admit the truth. That mortification, and the duty to report had an effect. By May 2016, fashionably late by five months, all the reports were in.

The picture arising from them is surprising: 65% of the 291 sections for execution in 2015 that had been checked were fully executed. Note the stress on “fully executed” – partial execution got listed by the Prime Minister’s Office as non-execution. Checked at the level of the full government resolutions (all the sections of the resolution), it turns out that 48% of the resolutions had been implemented in full, 23% mostly, 16% partially and 14% not at all.

That execution rate of 48% (full government resolutions) or 75% (at the level of individual sections in resolutions) should be considered an upside surprise. But it’s not a coincidental surprise. The Prime Minister’s Office itself surmises that there is a “correlation between the timing of the reporting to the completion of execution” and that its demand led to better monitoring of execution.

In short, the demand that the ministries keep track of the government’s resolutions and their execution led to change in the execution of resolutions. This is an important conclusion, attesting that where good management exists – where goals are set and their attainment is monitored, execution improves.

The working assumption is that from this point, government execution will just improve. For one thing, the ministries are over their shock at the demand that they monitor and track government resolutions in their fief. All have newly named people to concentrate the handling of such resolutions.

The Prime Minister’s Office itself is integrating the new culture: Every week, when a government resolution with an operational side is taken, the unit responsible at the PMO breaks the resolution up into sections and transfers the sections to the ministries. No longer will ministries be surprised by resolutions they completely forgot about.

Say it without flowers

Secondly, structural conclusions were reached about the way government resolutions would be written – that is, clearly and decisively. Also, a single ministry is, from now on, chosen to take pole position when multiple ministries are involved. The best ministries at execution of resolutions, the Prime Minister’s Office’s own check found, are the Finance Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office itself, but then, that’s no surprise, since they’re administrative offices, not operational ones; usually their function boils down to deciding on, and transferring, budgets to other ministries. The best operational ministry so far has been the Environmental Protection Ministry.

Since this was the first time ever that the government checked its own powers of executing its own decisions, and its check only applied to eight months, the PMO is leery about leaping to premature conclusions about why 35% of the sections in its resolutions never went anywhere. There seem to be delays in infrastructure processes (such as publishing tenders and hiring); sometimes the resolutions themselves set unfeasible schedules.

In general, the whole issue of government resolutions and schedules is a rickety thing – some resolutions don’t even muck about setting binding timetables. Ministries tend to abuse that omission to ignore the whole thing. From now on, the PMO frowned, the deadline for any section in any resolution bereft of date is year-end.

So from now on, tracking and monitoring government resolutions is a permanent thing. At year-end another monitoring report will be published, analyzing the reasons why certain resolutions got held up. The hope is that once the monitoring process is in place routinely, with analysis of problems, the government’s skill in executing its decisions will improve. Groner speaks of a revolution in management culture, adding to the revolution of the numerator put into place this year – which tracks government resolutions for the years to come and prohibits excessive accrual of liabilities.

“So far,” says Groner, the government did not carry out many resolutions, partly because nobody was keeping track and nobody was reporting, and partly because there were so many resolutions. Every week the government makes new resolutions, including many that never were feasible for budgetary reasons, which led to contempt for government resolutions. The numerator changes that culture because it constrains the number of decisions the government can make and enables only those that are budgetarily feasible.” Now with the new monitoring track for decisions themselves, the board of directors of the State of Israel can, says Groner, begin to run the country.