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The Via Dolorosa to an Israeli Government Job

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The road to a civil service job is full of obstacles.Credit: Dreamstime

Who wants to work for the government? If up until 2011 the answer to this question was no one, after the social-justice protests that summer, the answer apparently changed to quite a lot of people.

The combination of tenure – which is enticing to many in this era of job insecurity in the private sector – along with the desire to influence and change the government from the inside, have made working in the public sector no longer uninviting, even for young people.

Maas, an organization of young people that grew out of the protests, decided the way to fulfill the goals of the movement was from the inside – to be hired by the government and start changing the way it works. But just because these young people concluded that government was the place to change things did not necessarily mean the government had a place for them. Maas’ greatest disappointment came when it found that no one in the government wanted them.

New research conducted by the organization’s Ehud Segal lays out all the obstacles that bureaucracy places in the path of the highly motivated people who want to join the civil service. For instance, it’s hard to know about job openings because they are advertised randomly on the websites of the various ministries.

Even if someone does discover an appropriate opening, they have to navigate the hiring process, which can take between nine months and a year and involves endless bureaucracy.

Only at a very late stage do candidates learn what salaries they can expect and have a chance to meet their future boss. At that point, many, if not most, of the best candidates have given up.

In light of this torturous process, many managers in the public sector don’t take chances. They publish an external tender only after they have already found the candidate they want, and they make sure he or she is aware of the long hiring process and his or her expected salary.

Many tenders are therefore “fixed,” not due to nepotism or corruption but simply because there’s no other choice. Nevertheless, the well-known practice does deter other candidates from applying

Insider hiring

The more fundamental problem is that the number of tenders for outsiders is very small.

One reason is that the government prefers to fill open positions from inside. The collective bargaining agreements with the Histadrut labor federation specify giving preference to current ministry employees. As a result, 53% of all new job openings that are posted within the government are internal tenders that must be filled with a current ministry employee. Only 43% are open to all comers. (The remaining 4% are reserved for employees of other ministries.)

Looking out for the interests of those already working for the government does not ensure a competitive process in which the best are hired. Up to three candidates apply for internal job tenders, compared to 19 for external tenders.

According to Maas, which devoted almost 90 pages of its report to the issue of the civil service being closed to “new blood,” an even more critical problem is the low turnover of public sector employees.

Maas estimates that only 1.5% of government employees leave every year, compared with 10% to 20% in other industrialized nations – but these figures are wrong. Data from the Civil Service Commission show the turnover to be a higher 9.6%, not far from the 10% churn of Britain and Sweden.

But Maas is correct in analyzing the problematic segmentation of the turnover data. For example, of 71,000 employees of government ministries, only 1.4% – or just over 1,000 – reach retirement age each year. Another 5,400 or so leave voluntarily, while only around 550 are fired for incompetence or for workplace violations. In other words, only 0.76% are fired – just one-tenth of the dismissal rate of the U.S. federal government.

Of course, it can be assumed that the real dismissal rates are higher. Of the 5,400 who leave voluntarily each year, many more are shown the door. The number of civil servants who are fired because they were “not a good fit” has always been very low. Most remain within the system, pulling down a salary and preventing the hiring of someone who could do a better job.

Turnover in Israel’s civil service is low, compared to both other industrialized nations and Israel’s private sector. The result is a government that is closed off – the exits blocked by employees who are tired or bad fits; the entrances closed to young, energetic and motivated people.

A poll conducted by Maas of respondents with the appropriate qualifications, in terms of education and experience, for the civil service showed that many would be happy to work for the government even if the salaries are not the highest. The respondents rated self-fulfillment as a much more important factor in choosing a job than wage terms.

Lost potential

Israel has missed out on this potential pool of motivated candidates because of the outdated structure of the government and the collective bargaining agreements for the civil service. A tired and untalented government will never provide Israel with a better future.

Maas quotes a report on reforms in the Civil Service Commission from June 2013 – 250 pages of proposals intended to turn the government into a modern organization. The problem with these 250 pages is that they are mostly technical and complex, and would require all-out war against the unions.

They are 250 pages that no politician would ever want to promise to implement. What is the political profit in changing government job tenders, compared to the high cost of taking on the unions?

Politicians have a negative incentive in addressing complex but important infrastructure issues: The public neither understands nor cares about these issues. This explains the government’s criminal neglect of the issue for the past 50 years.

It is time for the government to renounce its neglect of the civil service, but that will only happen if the public demands it. If the public truly wants to see Israel become a better place to live, as it did in the summer of 2011, it must demand that its leaders act courageously and reform the government.

This demand must become a key issue in this election season. Otherwise, the election in March will be a waste, like its predecessors.

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