State capacity is usually measured by the ability to carry out tasks on the macro level: the handling of national accounts, the performance of specific ministries, the delivery of key services such as education and health — in short, by the effective design and implementation of policy. But the test of governability frequently rests on much more prosaic matters: on garbage disposal, public transportation and mail delivery.
Every Israeli child was brought up on the familiar jingle: “The mail’s coming today, in a red van, and is bringing me a letter, a letter with a stamp.” The red vehicles of the Postal Authority, however, are scarcely to be seen on the roads of Israel in recent months; even their more agile replacements, the red scooters, are visible only occasionally. The virtual collapse of the mail system in Israel in recent months serves as a constant, highly irritating, bothersome, reminder of the growing failure of government in the country.
For years, the Israeli post has been responsible for a variety of essential services, ranging from the handling of letters and packages to the provision of banking services and currency exchange. But lately it has failed to fulfill even its most rudimentary functions.
Since this past summer, in a major streamlining operation, mail delivery has been reduced to a couple of times a week at best. In many parts of the country (Jerusalem and Modi’in hold the record), mail is distributed perhaps once a week — if at all. In most Arab towns, there is simply no regular mail delivery (the post office boxes that stand in for the friendly mail person have proven to be a very poor substitute indeed). The number of Israelis who have received wedding invitations weeks after the event is legion. Some Rosh Hashanah greetings arrived in time to welcome 2016. Letters dispatched within Israel can sometimes take three to four weeks to reach their destination. Mail sent abroad may arrive too late to be of any value. Some items just disappear. Many are still waiting in vain for important communications, paychecks, bills, tax assessments, driver’s licenses, passports and even love letters.
The situation with packages is even worse. The closure of dozens of post office branches throughout the country has completely clogged up the delivery of large items. The pressure on remaining package distribution centers has consequently risen, making a visit to the post office a multi-hour undertaking. Even the decision to increase the number of package outlets — now housed in grocery stores, newsstands and pizza parlors — has not begun to meet the demand. As a result, AliExpress, the largest Chinese electronic purchasing site, has suspended delivery to Israeli clients. Orders on Ebay have shrunk significantly.
The banking branch of the Postal Authority, primarily servicing lower income groups, is faltering rapidly. This low-fee alternative to the banking system mostly affects people who depend on functioning post offices for welfare chits, check-cashing facilities and bill payments. In fact, the demise of the Postal Authority has wide-reaching socioeconomic implications: large commercial firms have hired private companies to handle their mail services; individual citizens and small businesses — often unable to afford FedEx or DHL — are left with no such options. They have lost access to a vital service.
This situation is the result not only of the growing volume of postal business; it is also the direct outcome of systematic mismanagement. Until 1988, the mail system was under the direct control of a government ministry (one of the least popular postings for aspiring politicians). In that year, the management of mail services was transferred to the Postal Authority, a fully-government owned body under the aegis of the Ministry of Communications. For years, the system worked — but also lost money. As a result, in 2006, a decision was made to go public. The Postal Authority was transformed into an autonomous company which, while still owned by the government, was expected to operate on a balanced budget. However, a report published by the State Comptroller in 2013 lambasted this experiment, highlighting a series of administrative faults which led to inflated expenses, rising deficits and problematic performance.
Six months ago, the government decided to review the activities of the Postal Authority and, once again, reorganize its operations. A large number of employees were declared redundant, the area of mail distribution of each deliverer was doubled, branches were closed and hours reduced. The existing framework unraveled. The declaration of the government in December, 2015, that it would authorize a partial privatization of the Postal Authority has not improved matters significantly. The plan to sell off 40% of the shares to the public (20% immediately to a single investor) has engendered greater uncertainty.
Even some mitigating measures — the ability to reserve a place in the queue at the post office with a click of the smartphone or to schedule a time for package and registered mail pickups in the same manner — have yet to bring about any notable improvement. Now there is a legislative initiative to relieve citizens of fines for non-payment of undelivered bills and to offer compensation to the many victims of the current postal administration.
The mail system in Israel is a mess. Its convoluted history in recent years is symptomatic of the dysfunctionality apparent in other parts of the public sphere — from overregulation of food imports to the spotty provision of reasonable housing. The ramifications are considerable. The most mundane aspects of daily life have become more time-consuming and annoying than in the past. Even the most mild-mannered citizens feel exasperated, further upsetting an already jumpy and potentially volatile public.
On a broader scale, administrative bungling and bureaucratic inefficiency are indicative of a decline in state capacities. Mail services may seem marginal in light of expanding security concerns, but how these are (mis)handled speaks volumes about the robustness of the public arena in the country. This is especially true when elementary functions are placed in the hands of political cronies and/or farmed out to private concerns.
What starts as a blight on the management of public affairs in a specific area can fast devolve into a much broader crisis of governability. If the state can’t get its mail system to work, how can it expect to manage the country?