Taking Stock / Putting Out Fires Is No Way to Live

Throwing good money after bad never worked; we need new values.

There was a fire. Now we want blood. Whose fault is it? Is it you? That guy over there? The prime minister? The minister? The firemen? The fire chief? Who is to blame, the right wing? The left wing? The Haredim? The Arabs? The secular? Shall we set up an inquiry or settle for a review by the state comptroller? Should we demand that heads roll or settle for rolling our eyes?

It doesn't matter. In a few months we'll forget the whole thing anyway. Only the people who actually lived in the areas that burned down, or who commute by the ruins, will remember what the whole fuss was about. Similar yowls were heard after the Second Lebanon War. An inquiry was actually launched, too. There was also a fuss about some flotilla or other, which came back to mind only after Turkey offered to help put out the fire.

fire - Alon Ron - December 14 2010
Alon Ron

For the moment, everywhere you look there are analyses of the state of Israel's fire services, and interviews, all after the fact.

That's what we do best - put out fires. Not real ones, heaven forfend. We don't know what to do about those, at least not while they're happening. I mean proverbial fires, and people who spend their time dousing proverbial fires can't handle it when a real fire breaks out.

The lesson from the Mount Carmel conflagration isn't just about the effectiveness of Israel's fire services. It would be a vast missed opportunity if the Israeli public debate went no further than the firemen.

The real message is that the state of Israel's public service is mortally bad.

Is he about to start prating about privatization, you wonder, the wonders of the business sector and the flaws of the public sector?

No, he is not. On the contrary: Privatization is another symptom of the government's boundless inability to run the economy properly.

Instead of creating the infrastructure for an advanced, competitive economy, instead of tackling the fundamental problems of the public sector, the government is frittering its energies away on financial contortions - transferring assets, monopolies and concessions from A to B, naively hoping it will make a difference.

Every public body and service has its unique characteristics. That is true of firefighting, too. But the Carmel fire is a story about ineffective government and public service.

When a war ends with hundreds of dead and our tail between our legs, when flames billow skywards and there's nothing we can do to stop it, the truth screams to the skies: The public sector is not effective.

The public sector's problems aren't confined to firefighting and war, it's just that elsewhere, the ills aren't as observable. The state of our education system, as shown in international tests, is embarrassing. There are no clear criteria for welfare services, culture and transportation, which is why we don't hear howls for inquiries. But there's no reason to assume the situation there is any better.

Say what?

That's the first problem of Israel's public sector: There is no measurement, no goals, no criteria, no benchmarks, no accountability - Hebrew doesn't even have a word for "accountability." There is no culture of commitment, no culture of service, no excellence and not enough outstanding people. There are no values. No strategy. No goals.

Changing all that requires long-term planning, measurement, patience and commitment. But what incentives are there for ministers and paper-pushers at the ministries, or the public for that matter, to take the long-term view? Certainly there's no motivation in the clamorous, shallow, tub-thumping "Get it done! Now!" If anything, that's a recipe for whitewash, for band-aids instead of surgery.

One thing we have in abundance, at least when flames aren't consuming the Carmel or war isn't decimating the towns, is self-satisfaction. We are the the People of the Book, the high-tech people, our economy looks terrific. Never mind that the facts tell another story - we closed the book and the state of our education system threatens our future in high-tech. Our competitive edge is becoming duller by the day.

As always, when crisis hits and we sink to a low point, people start screaming for explanations from the prime minister or some passing minister.

It is well and good to demand that somebody take responsibility, but the solutions aren't going to come from cornering a "leader." The ills of Israeli society aren't going to be cured in a year or two or even in one full term of one government, not that our governments tend to reach their full four-year terms.

The Israeli economy is crying out for deep change, in culture, values, management and organization. It must start now, though the results will only be felt years down the line.

Not Netanyahu's job

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's job isn't just to patch up the fire services. It's to admit that the public sector and the economy need sweeping change, from education to defense to welfare and transportation. Building a new civil society and culture will take a very long time. Demanding instant solutions will merely perpetuate the falseness.

Netanyahu is often accused of being mainly preoccupied with his own survival. Is the next prime minister going to be preoccupied with anything else?

Netanyahu the survivor may stress out easily and get extorted everywhere he turns, but he's one of the few prime ministers Israel has had who understands what bad business management means, what it means to lack strategy and long-term planning.

He can't lead as far as change is concerned. That apparently has to come from thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people with ability who demand the change of themselves and others. But Netanyahu can trigger the process.

It's time to stop engaging in gossip and fripperies, and realize that there are deep organizational, cultural and structural problems that are gnawing at the public sector and the economy. The differences between the public and private sectors can't be sustained - one is corrupt and riddled with nepotism - without the one infecting the other.

For too long we have been sold the theory that we need to leave the public sector alone, ignore it, and focus on the "growth driver" - the private sector.

That theory doesn't hold water because the public sector, the government, the authorities, the regulators are responsible for creating the terms underlying prosperity for the private sector.

The stars of the business sector, whether tycoons who bought local monopolies or built monopolies, or stars of high-tech and industry, did not achieve their great wealth by magic. Without the right social and educational infrastructure created by the state, they couldn't have done it. Their alienation from and scorn for the public sector have to be replaced by concern and commitment to change it.

If the public sector continues to degenerate and grovel before the tycoons, Israel will lose its competitive edge. It will weaken. Social gaps will widen. We will turn into a banana republic creating wealth for a select few.

Beware calls for bigger budgets. Pouring more money into sick, inefficient systems won't help. The money will disappear. If all it took to generate growth was higher deficits, the United States and Europe wouldn't be in the state they are.

Israel needs long-term plans, a new public debate and maybe new leaders it can admire. The tycoons need replacing by leaders committed to changing the public sector, to instilling values of excellence, integrity and effectiveness, to carrying out reforms. People who understand the meaning of sacrificing the short for the long term.

We can't afford to deteriorate further, or even stay where we are, which is what will happen if cynics continue to control the public debate. Let's look at Mount Carmel's charred slopes as the reminder that our current path is the wrong one.