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Israel’s civil service is under attack

Upping the government's official influence over senior civil service posts won't do them any favors
Illustrative: Outgoing civil service commissioner Moshe Dayan, seen participating in a state control committee at the Knesset, Jerusalem, June 18, 2013. (Flash90)
Illustrative: Outgoing civil service commissioner Moshe Dayan, seen participating in a state control committee at the Knesset, Jerusalem, June 18, 2013. (Flash90)

Since it was formed, the current government has sought to introduce significant changes in Israel’s civil service, presumably for its improvement. Unfortunately, these efforts are backfiring, and the civil service is actually being severely jeopardized.

Historically, the Israeli civil service was founded on the British, rather than the American model, and was conceived of as a professional and independent bureaucratic entity. As such, it was determined that appointments must be professional and apolitical, and based on a competitive tender system. Even if this process has been somewhat eroded over the years, it remains the guiding principle for Israel’s civil service.

And yet, at the same time, the current government has ramped up attempts towards politicization. To this end, over the last year, it has promoted a series of reforms designed to increase political influence over senior civil service appointments. For example, in October 2017, the government authorized a proposal allowing the creation of a new political appointment — a deputy director-general (in charge of Special Projects) — in every government ministry with more than 150 employees. Until now, only a few ministries had such a position, with appointments being made in an open tender process. Furthermore, in January 2018, the Knesset approved the first reading of a bill that would strengthen ministers’ influence on the appointment of their ministry’s legal advisers.

The supporters of these proposals claim that they will help improve governance, by enabling ministers to appoint senior civil servants who will work to advance their chosen policy.

Research on this issue refutes this claim. Yet, what seems to contradict this research is the US model, whereby senior appointments in the civil service are traditionally reserved for politicians. The solution to what seems to be a contradiction between research and practice is that the American model operates within the context of institutional arrangements and a system of government that are completely different from those we have in Israel. A salient example of this difference relates to government stability. The US system of government ensures stability, as the president is elected for four years. In Israel, on the other hand, governments often change mid-term; indeed, since 1990, the average length of a government term has been just 2.8 years. Were Israel to adopt the American civil service model, the result would be an extremely high turnover of senior civil servants, which is a guaranteed recipe for lack of good governance.

In this context, it is also worth mentioning the US mechanism of house committee hearings, designed to ensure oversight of the quality of senior civil service appointments, which does not exist in Israel. From a democratic perspective, one of the functions of the civil service in Israel is to limit the powers of the ruling government; in the United States, there are many other institutions with this purpose that do not exist in Israel — two legislative houses that are not necessarily under the control of the president, the Constitution, the various state governments and more. Undermining the independence of the civil service would therefore generate grievous harm to the system of checks and balances in Israel.

Thus, all the bodies that have recently reviewed the structure of Israel’s civil service have reached a similar conclusion: its independence and professional character must be protected. These bodies include: a committee appointed by the government, which in 2013 recommended a comprehensive reform of human capital management in the civil service; a parliamentary committee appointed to oversee the progress of this reform, which stated in a report published in 2016 that “any expansion of political appointments at senior levels of the civil service should be avoided”; and the Kochik Commission, appointed by the director-general of the Ministry of Finance to review the administrative structure of the ministry, and which recommended just a few weeks ago to prohibit the appointment of senior figures in the ministry who have any political connection to one of the government ministers.

It is not clear whether the prime minister and his ministers are seeking to strengthen the politicization of the civil service because they believe — mistakenly — that it will help improve governance. Unfortunately, there are indications that at least some of them are actually interested in weakening the civil service.

In any case, whatever the intention may be, it is clear that the direct outcome of the policy being pursued by the government is to jeopardize the civil service, to the detriment of the State of Israel and its citizens.

Dr. Assaf Shapira is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute’s Center for Governance and the Economy.

About the Author
Dr. Assaf Shapira is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute’s Center for Governance and the Economy.
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