The Privatization Bugaboo

There is neither 'capitalism' nor 'privatization' here; there is only an attempt to introduce a few logical principles of management.

"Privatization" and "capitalism" have long since become local terms of abuse and incitement. MKs spit them out with contempt, the social-welfare organizations protest against them, and columnists view them as the embodiment of the world's evil.

Just this week, Prof. Yaron Ezrahi, writing about the senior faculty strike (Haaretz, January 22), described the attempt by the university presidents to manage the institutions they head as "unbridled privatization and capitalistic ideology." The truth is that there is neither "capitalism" nor "privatization" here. There is only an attempt to introduce a few logical principles of management in some of the universities that suffer from an outmoded dualistic structure, originating in 19th-century Germany, but which is no longer appropriate for our time.

The structure consists of two parallel avenues of management. The administrative one is headed by the president and the academic one by the rector, who is not subordinate to the president and makes decisions that are binding on the university's academic bodies. Both avenues have different interests, which prevent a connection between responsibility and power. This structure is a kind of complex interweave of a business and a cooperative. The president is responsible for the budget, but does not have a say in key financial decisions that are made by the rector, such as the opening of new departments and courses.

The Maltz Committee found that there is no place for such an illogical structure, and that one, hierarchical management track is needed, to be headed by the president, as is the case with the majority of the world's great universities. This has nothing to do with "privatization."

In contrast, it is worth talking about "privatization" when it comes to the prison that a private franchisee is now building near Be'er Sheva. In a court petition already served against the project, the petitioners argue that there will be no one in the prison to protect the inmates from the wealthy owners, who are only after profit. This, they maintain, conflicts with the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom.

The fact is that the present situation in our prisons is an affront to human dignity and freedom. Overcrowding is terrible and conditions are shameful. Don't the petitioners care that six prisoners have to share a cell of 10 square meters, in one corner of which there is a stinking toilet-hole, and that some prisoners have to sleep on the cold floor?

The opponents of privatization believe that the government is a better, more efficient and more just manager than any private body. But the facts show that government ministries are the worst managers out there.

The private prison will have far better conditions than those usually found in the Prisons Service. The state laid down (for the private project, though not for itself, heaven forbid) the most minute details by which the prison will be managed: cell size; the amount of food; the number of hours of study and sports, and thousands more small details extending over hundreds of pages. The state set forth conditions that are considerably better than those that exist in public prisons.

The living space per prisoner in Prisons Service facilities is 3.3 square meters, whereas in the private prison it will be 5.28 square meters. There will be more showers and more time devoted to professional training. The franchisee will allow family visits five days a week - far more than in the public prisons with their merciful and compassionate management, of which the petitioners are so fond.

As part of the public tender, the state created a mechanism of supervision and control, which includes 13 Prisons Service inspectors. They will have the authority to impose immediate sanctions on the franchisee if even one of the 71 parameters stipulated in the tender is not adhered to. Violation of any clause will bring in its wake heavy fines and even the immediate annulment of the agreement and the transfer of the prison to the state. There is also an advisory committee headed by a retired judge, which will submit an annual report to the Knesset on the condition of the inmates.

This is actually an ideal model: a private sector that builds quickly and manages efficiently, and above it the state, which sets standards and supervises them tightly. If we are only able to wean ourselves of the primeval fright at the word "privatization," the prisoners in the Be'er Sheva facility will become the envy of the inmates in the state-run prisons, who will continue to suffer.