As talks begin toward the formation of a new government, potential coalition partners are once again engaged in how to divide the “cake” and there are already rumors that the government will have around 25 ministers. This is an opportunity to call on the prime minister to demonstrate responsible leadership and abide by the constitutional restriction of appointing no more than 18 ministers. Furthermore, the government should promote a roadmap for reducing the number of ministries, creating a fixed list of core ministries and canceling those that are superfluous.
In 2014, as part of a series of “governability laws” passed by the 19th Knesset, an amendment was introduced to the Basic Law: The Government, which limited Israel’s government to a total of 18 ministers (not including the prime minister) and four deputy ministers, at the most. During the state’s first decade, the government comprised between 12 and 16 ministers. Since then, there has been a gradual rise, to the extent that the second Netanyahu government, which was sworn in in March 2009, held no fewer than 30 ministers and nine deputy ministers, meaning that almost one-quarter of Knesset members held positions in the executive branch.
Unfortunately, this amendment did not survive subsequent coalitionary pressures, and one of the first decisions of the 20th Knesset following the 2015 elections was to suspend this restriction. The outgoing government thus contained between 21 and 23 ministers, as well as nine deputy ministers. Will the prime minister take a similar course this time around? We can only hope not.
There are several good reasons for limiting the size of the government. First, it saves public money. While it is possible to argue over the budgetary impact of this restriction (substantial or marginal), and to claim that any such outcry against wasting funds is tainted by populism, it is clear that having a smaller number of ministers, deputy ministers, and ministries will produce significant savings.
Second, having a large number of ministers is detrimental to governmental deliberation and functioning. Full government meetings become an arena for endless talk and debate instead of effective decision making. Even more significantly, large number of cabinet members has led to the creation of new ministries of dubious real worth (including the Ministry for Strategic Affairs; the Ministry for Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage; the Ministry for Regional Cooperation; and more), and to the reallocation of powers and responsibilities from other ministries. This harms stability, prevents administrative continuity in addressing important issues, and impairs the government’s ability to advance policy over time. Studies have found a negative correlation between the size of the government and indicators of efficiency in the public sector.
A third reason relates to the imbalances caused between the work of the Knesset and the government when too large a number of Knesset members serve as ministers or deputy ministers. Forming a large government significantly reduces the number of Knesset members available for the important work of monitoring and overseeing the functioning of the executive branch.
Beyond these reasons, there’s also a problem with the message sent by the legislature if it once again decides to suspend or cancel the restriction on the number of ministers. Doing so would undermine the constitutional “rules of the game” and would reflect a form of politics driven solely by narrow, short-term interests and by the desire to gain coalitionary quiet by handing out positions.
Taking a comparative view, it is evident that limiting the number of ministers to 18 or 19 is far from being an extreme or unreasonable imposition. In fact, when we look at the number of ministers serving in other democratic countries with a similar regime to Israel and a similar population, we find that most of them have even fewer ministers. For example, Portugal has 18 government ministers, the Netherlands 16, Ireland and Finland 15 each, and Belgium just 14.
It is to be hoped that the prime minister, who is very keen on talking up the importance of governability, will prevent the formation of a government so swollen in size that its functioning is impaired. In addition, the government should seriously discuss a roadmap for reducing the number of executive ministries, which over the last two decades has risen as high as 28. These two steps will create a compact executive branch, ensure quiet and stability in the structure of government, and improve efficiency in the public sector.