Constantly on Edge

It took 96 months - eight years - for the Knesset to pass a law breaking up the Ports Authority, which was an important reform. During those eight years, Israel has had seven transportation ministers (averaging 14 months in office), and four transportation directors general (averaging 25 months in office). One may assume that the churn at the top of the ministry greatly held back legislation. At least the Ports Law has taken hold now.

However, dozens of other bills are collecting dust on shelves, simply because ministers don't hold office long enough to push them ahead.

The root of the problem - the government's inability to function and rule effectively - lies in the system. The government suffers from chronic instability, which leaves it incapable of long-term planning.

In its past, the state managed to launch massive national projects like the National Water Carrier, despite its limited resources. But David Ben-Gurion was prime minister for 13 years (almost consecutively), and Levi Eshkol was finance minister for 11 years (consecutively). This goes a long way in explaining the differences in the government's power to act then versus now.

Government instability is a problem in all ways. First off, there is no consistency.

"The ministries' policies change with the ministers, and ministers are replaced every year and a half, on average," says Ra'anan Dinur, former director general of the Prime Minister's Office.

The lack of consistency has repercussions for long-term planning. In practice, most of the government ministries have no planning bodies, and as a result no long-term planning.

Secondly, quality of professionalism at the ministries is deteriorating. In place of serious long-term planning, they come up with short-term plans in keeping with the whims of the transient incumbent.

"Politics are such that every new minister wants to leave a mark, so each one resets the ministry's policy from scratch. The technocrats are subordinate, and they yield," admits a ministry director general.

Thirdly, even ministers who mean well confine their actions to populist ones, for the sake of the headlines - because of government instability, which engenders the frequent need to stand for reelection. Thus most ministers don't push through unpopular decisions that would have been important in the long term.

For that same reason, it is easy to pressure ministers to serve the interests of those helping them to be reelected, through political appointments and even worse things when it's a matter of businessmen.

"The political system, with all its patronage and its odious practices, projects a lack of interest and a lack of respect for how it handles the public's money,"says Motti Shapira, who headed a governmental panel under the Ehud Barak administration and recommended several reforms. He claims that major parts of the government have long been corrupt.

"In the public sector, excellence is unappreciated, as is evident in the preference for political appointments over hiring qualified people," says Shapira, and drives home his point using the local authorities as an example. "The local authorities are the most important executive agency the government has. With the exception of 15 large municipalities, all are rife with corruption... The government doesn't trust the local authorities, nor does it give them power and budgets."

Israel is not the only country in the world that suffers from an unstable government. Japan and Italy, for example, have a similar problem. Italy's solution may pique Israel's interest: a technocratic state, wherein the government's technical experts run affairs, rather than the politicians.

For a technocratic state to exist, officials need more status and independence. The Finance Ministry is an example. Since 1985, the treasury's technocrats have set budgetary policy instead of the finance ministers, and they have done it well. Even those who loathe the policies of the treasury can't deny that this is the most dynamic, successful government ministry. This arrangement is currently being considered for other government ministries.

One proposal is to set a minimum term for ministry directors general, independent of the ministers. That's how the British government operates. Directors general there are appointed to five-year terms, for a maximum of two terms. They are hired by the minister who happens to be in office, in conjunction with the British civil service commission. The next minister inherits the director general. This insures that the director general is an expert in his ministry's field, and that he has enough time to make plans and see them through. But for this model to succeed, directors general and their subordinate technocrats must act responsibly. As such, our government is missing another critical element: transparency and accountability.