The Horse, the Donkey and Civil Service

Choosing people who are not involved in politics to be civil servants would strengthen the service.

The Roman emperor Caligula used to invite his horse, Incitatus, to official dinners, where he would give it wine to drink from golden chalices. He also promised to make the horse a consul - a promise left unfulfilled by the emperor's murder.

Attorney General Menachem Mazuz recently expressed his criticism of the quality of certain civil service appointments by declaring, "even Caligula had red lines: He appointed his horse to the position, not his donkey."

The statement could have been amusing had it not been made at a meeting on the appointment of ministry directors general. Moreover, Civil Service Commissioner Shmuel Hollander said at this meeting that he would "pay with his head" if he did not recommend the appointment of whichever directors general the ministers desired. And in the background hovered a petition by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel - which the High Court of Justice will hear this week - against the appointment of Sar-Shalom Jerby as director general of the Science and Technology Ministry, despite a negative recommendation by the public committee that vets civil service appointments. This panel is headed by Hollander, and its other members are two former senior civil servants, Reuven Merhav and Yitzhak Shelef.

The committee opined that Jerby, who has served as secretary general of the National Religious Party, lacked genuine managerial qualifications that would outweigh his clear political affiliation with the minister who appointed him, Daniel Hershkowitz. According to previous High Court rulings, when a director general has a clear political affiliation with the minister, the former must have "special qualifications" for the job.

The vetting committee was set up pursuant to a 1960 cabinet decision, and successive Israeli governments have almost always honored its recommendations. But directors general were exempt from all threshold requirements until Ehud Olmert's government decided that they, too, should be required to have a university degree and experience in a senior managerial position. Directors general were also required to have professional expertise and experience in the relevant field, since, in the High Court's words, they play more of a "leading" role than other ministry employees.

For years, a kind of mutual deterrence has existed between the committee and the cabinet: The cabinet refrained from violating the committee's recommendations, and the committee refrained from intervening in appointments merely because they did not seem to be especially good ones. Appointments were nixed only when they appeared to be fundamentally unreasonable.

The civil service commissioner always heads the panel; its other two members vary, but are usually former senior civil servants. Nevertheless, the commissioner is naturally first in the line of fire, and is subjected to immoderate pressure over the appointment of directors general. Hollander's recent request to be removed from the panel's chairmanship, which means giving up a position of power, attests that his endurance has been exhausted.

Nevertheless, if his replacement is a person who occupies no executive branch post, this could actually strengthen the public's faith in civil service appointments.

Now the cabinet must decide on the new composition of the vetting committee. The obvious solution would be to transfer the job of approving ministry directors general to another existing committee, headed by a former Supreme Court justice, that looks at other key appointments such as the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, the head of the Shin Bet security service and the head of the Mossad.

This panel does not necessarily have to be headed by a retired justice; it would be enough for its chairman to be a senior public figure with no political affiliation and expertise in either public administration, public policy, government or public law.

The other members of this panel are currently appointed by the prime minister. However, they too ought to be severed from all political involvement.

Ministry directors general, like ministry legal advisors and accountants general, are the guardians of proper governmental behavior. Choosing people who are not involved in politics to fill such positions would be a recipe for strengthening the civil service - which belongs to every member of the public, regardless of his or her political affiliation.