Civil Service Reform Is a Meat-and-potatoes Issue

Government services won’t get any better until employees have good reason to take jobs more seriously.

The following organization is worthwhile getting acquainted with: It has 67,000 Israelis working for it, full job security is attained after two years of work, 36% of its managers have held their positions for 12 years or more, it distributes NIS 500 million in bonuses to its employees every year, the hiring process takes an average of nine months and employees score an average 9.62 out of 10 in their performance reviews.

Sounds like a wonderful organization, right? Are you familiar with it? Wouldn’t you like to work there?

It’s called the civil service and it is mainly comprised of the government ministries and their auxiliary agencies, such as the Tax Authority, Educational Television, the Agricultural Research Organization and the Employment Service.

The recommendations by a committee headed by Civil Service Commissioner Moshe Dayan to examine civil service reforms were released last week. The recommendations were meant to bring a bit more order into the organization after demands surfaced during the Trajtenberg Committee hearings for urgent change to government services.

Contrary to the impression given by the high grades attained by its employees, it is a mediocre system that doesn’t provide the public with such great service, fails to encourage excellence and doesn’t operate according to progressive management parameters − not through incentives, not through career advancement, not through bringing in new blood, and not through rotation between exhausting management posts.

Cabinet moves

The committee headed by Dayan and Harel Locker, director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, made recommendations in several areas, which were approved on Sunday by the cabinet:

1. Changing the criteria for receiving job security. Rather than automatically granting permanent job security after two years of work as is done now, the trial period would be extended to five years and the process won’t be automatic. Employees will need to prove themselves to be given job security.

2. Pay will be based on the quality of performance and not according to years of work experience or other automatic mechanisms currently in place. Job performance will be evaluated using a differential and up-to-date methodology.

3. Improving the screening procedures used in the hiring process. It is recommended that the average length of time for recruiting a new employee, currently 147 days, be cut to 70 days. This should make it easier to attract better qualified candidates.

4. Terms in office for top managerial staff will be shortened to eight years at the most, and rotation between jobs will be instituted.

5. Fast tracks will be applied for the absorption of outstanding employees.

At first glance the recommendations appear quite disappointing, and at second glance too. The committee seemingly touched on all the key topics of progressive management from setting measurable goals, recruiting talented and fresh manpower, and providing incentives, to torpedoing automatic job security and promotion mechanisms unrelated to performance.

The committee also somewhat reduced the phenomenon of headless nails − people glued to their posts for years without any possibility of removing them. If anything, this will bring a measure of improvement to the work done by the civil service.

But something a bit more radical and inspired could have been expected from an organization charged with providing its services to the public. After all, it isn’t every day the opportunity is given to revolutionize government ministries whose work relates to every citizen. It also isn’t every day that the state as an employer can serve as an example to other employers and present a modern vision for the Israeli labor market.

Rare chance

The committee had the rare chance to sketch a modern, up-to-date vision for the Israeli job market based on excellence, high productivity, and a dramatic improvement in service while at the same time providing employees with security and professional training but also allowing organizations to recruit and let go of manpower according to their needs.

Who besides the state could bring about the job market breakthrough so sorely needed in the economy?

The state has capabilities and resources unmatched by any organization. As a vast employer with a huge and diverse supply of jobs in various roles and rankings, it has all the authority and ability to spearhead change in the labor market, and it bears the responsibility and obligation to do so and lead the way for other organizations.

But the package of recommendations chosen by the Dayan-Locker committee is too modest. The message it brings is “let’s see a bit of improvement” rather than “let’s change the order of things and build an efficient job market for the next two decades.”

This is, in fact, a missed opportunity of historic proportions. The Israeli economy is in dire need of a radical change. The civil service is a good place for initiating this change and, in doing so, signaling other public institutions like current and former government corporations such as the Israel Electric Corporation, the ports, the banks and the defense industries that it’s high time to build a job market based on three parameters: employee security rather than job security, career-long professional training, and management flexibility allowing each organization control over the size of the workforce it requires.

A more efficient job market is needed for several reasons: The high frequency of global and local crises instilling the need of efficiency and competitiveness on the part of organizations; the growing need for a social safety net for workers in competitive and volatile markets; the need to maintain competence and adaptability by workers in confronting a changing job market; and to reduce the gaps between the well established owners of job security and the younger generation that wants to fit into the job market.

The key to attaining these objections is building an efficient labor market. But the Dayan-Locker committee recommendations that won government approval Tuesday do nothing of the sort.