Pick on Directors General and Save the State

Nothing is more popular than Friday night gripe sessions about the low level of our senior civil servants and Knesset members. But the truth is, this is a critical issue.

Nothing is more popular than Friday night gripe sessions about the low level of our senior civil servants and Knesset members. Some prefer to abuse the ministry directors general, and others like to scorn the MKs - but the truth is, this is a critical issue. Ministry directors general control billions of shekels, and every decision they make affects the public's quality of life. MKs determine not only the quality of life, but life itself, when their votes decide issues of war and peace.

In recent years, some worthy and talented MKs have left the Knesset voluntarily, like Moshe Shahal, Uzi Baram, Elie Goldschmidt, Uri Savir and Nahum Langenthal. They left because of the system that forces MKs to dance to the tune of their party's central committee, to ingratiate themselves with party activists, to run to every wedding, to supply jobs and titles to central committee members, and to be as populist as possible just to get reelected. Quality people with values find it hard to adjust themselves to these demands, and therefore, the level of our MKs is constantly declining.

A similar phenomenon is afflicting the civil service. Once, years ago, a ministry director general enjoyed tenure, a good salary, a budgetary pension upon retirement, and free telephone and health care for the rest of his life. Over the last 15 years, these benefits have been constantly eroded, while at the same time, the private sector has become more tempting.

First, budgetary pensions were eliminated. Once, four years as a ministry director general was enough to get you a 28 percent pension for the rest of your life, as pension rights accrued at the rate of 7 percent a year. Moreover, the pension was paid from age 40. Today, there are no budgetary pensions and no possibility of taking early retirement. Directors general save 2 percent a year in contributory pension plans. Free telephone and health care also have been abolished.

Later, the government decided to require a one-year "cooling-off period" of directors general to prevent them from exploiting the contacts they made during their work. It also decided that these officials should continue to be paid their salaries during this year, since, otherwise, what would they live on? But Civil Service Commissioner Shmuel Hollander is not abiding by the second half of this decision. Therefore, a director general who resigns must struggle to live on his savings.

The end result is that talented, high-quality people are not interested in the job. The most recent example occurred in the Communications Ministry, which deals with the most advanced technologies. Dalia Itzik, the new communications minister, was searching for a director general. She approached several experts from both the private and the public sectors, but all said no. This week, she finally appointed Avi Balashnikov. Balashnikov is not an expert in communications, nor is he an expert in economics or management. He is a political activist. He was Avraham Shochat's aide in the 1990s, worked for Avigdor Kahalani, ran for Knesset on Penina Rosenblum's slate, and finally landed in Itzik's office. Now he is responsible for the most sophisticated industry in the country, and indeed, in the world as a whole. A complete absurdity.

But when populism dominates the Knesset, all rational arguments are shunted aside. Last week, the Knesset approved a bill in preliminary reading sponsored by Yaakov Margi (Shas) that would decrease the maximum salary of a ministry director general to NIS 28,000 a month, gross. Thirty-one MKs voted in favor, and six voted against. Meir Sheetrit, the cabinet's liaison to the Knesset, announced that the government supports the bill.

Today, a ministry director general earns a gross salary of some NIS 31,000 a month. That comes to between NIS 12,000 and NIS 13,000 net. If the bill becomes law, the director general's job will become even less attractive. The public will receive a lower quality, less professional civil servant that no senior executive in the private sector would want to accept. The damages incurred by the state will come to billions of shekels, but they will be concealed from the public eye. The populists, in contrast, will celebrate.