Public administration in a nutshell – how public administration works in Israel

An interview with HE Eli Belotserkovsky, Ambassador of the State of Israel

Prepared by: Mateusz Bialas, Analyst of the School of Public Management


Mateusz Bialas: How public administration works in your country?

HE Eli Belotserkovsky: First of all, thank you for coming here. From my point of view, it is really important to share Israeli experience with Ukrainian partners and I am pleased to have this opportunity to talk to you about the public service and in general the public sector.

Well, basically, I would like to give you a background. Israel has developed from a British mandate territory and very much the public system was inherited from the British system.  This means that we have professional public service, which aim is implementation of policies of the elected government. Each ministry consists of professionals, and their head, the minister, is a political figure and is a part of the elected government.

Over the years we have seen the trend of movement of responsibilities of the government to the private sector and also significant development of what is called the third sector, which is basically NGOs. This sector is growing, and at the beginning Israel was more influenced by socialist ideas and social way of governance, where the state controls most of the spheres of living, economy, etc. Gradually the trend has been that the state releases more spheres and more spheres move towards, and the vacuum is filled either by the private sector or by the NGOs. In Israel it is called “privatisation”. Not necessarily all things are privatised but sometimes it is filled up by the private sector or the NGO, which is not exactly a private sector. So, we see, for example trends, and some sectors are still very much in the hands of government and these are defence, security issues, education, medical sphere. However, within the medical there is more and more participation of the private sector and in some cases also NGO. Again, there is more and more of the private sector. On the other hand, in economy for example, there are very few government owned companies. Most of the companies are private and government gradually withdraws its involvement in these companies. Most companies that are controlled by the government now are in the defence sector.

How many civil servants work in your civil service?

It is about one-third of the workforce. We have around half a million government employees plus about the same size of people who work for municipal authorities and government-owned companies. So it is about a million or so in general.

What characteristics should civil servants have?

I would say that the people who joined the civil service could be divided to two groups. The first group are people more idealistic, who want to make a change and believe they can make it. And the second group are people who are seeking more secure future, more stable conditions and the public service usually provides such conditions.

Of course, this is a very basic distinction and there are many people in between. Additionally, what we see important is a competitive entry. To enter the public service you have to pass some exams and some tests and these are mandatory. Once you enter you start working and gradually you are being promoted, or not, based on your achievements. In some cases, there is a competitive entry, which is sometimes even very competitive. For example, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is the most competitive of all government services and almost every year there is something that is called a cadet course.  Only a handful of people out of a very large number of applicants are being accepted and usually these people are very good. All procedures last almost a year. They have to pass a lot of tests to be accepted. Also in the Ministry of Economy we have a special unit that deals with trade attaché serving abroad, and again they also have very competitive entry, another example of establishing a system which will encourage the best people to apply. The same for the Ministry of Tourism. Also an open competition for people who are managing the tourism offices is organised and there are few other examples.

So I think the idea is to get the best people to go to the government, but because we have a very developed private sector as well, particularly in a field of high-technologies, the private sector serves as a competitor. Maybe not exactly as a competitor as they attract people with different profiles, more technologically oriented, but still they are able to set more competitive conditions. Payment in the public sector is usually much higher than in the public sector.  There is some kind of rivalry between the two. However, people who are more idealistic go and try to work for the government and one of the reasons of our achievements is these people.

So this is the group to follow. What kind of challenges do see in the public sector, if any?

We have a number of challenges. The first, I would say is security concerns. We live in a permanent state of conflict. If you go to Israel, you do not feel it. If you go to Tel-Aviv you will see all the restaurants open until late at night and shops, and there is a very active life. You can feel yourself as in any other European city. If you go to Jerusalem, you see thousands of tourists on the streets. But we are in the permanent state of conflict. We learned how to live with this, but all the time we have to invest in order to be prepared. So, security is very important and it is almost entirely under the government control and the public sector is involved almost in every aspect and this is the challenge number one.

In addition, we also have, I would say, two segments of the Israeli population which we try to work with to increase their participation and economic activity in the economic life of the Israel. The first group is the Arab minority. We have significant Arab minority and we are trying to increase their participation in the workforce particularly of the women. Additionally, because we have different cultural characteristics, sometimes these cultural characteristics present different sort of a challenge when you want to get and utilise potential from the people. So, this is one of the sectors, and the other group is the ultra-orthodox community.  They live in a very closed, to certain extent, I would say, even isolated life, and one of the challenges of the government is to increase their participation in the workforce and to try to get them to contribute more to the economic activity of the country.

And another challenge is a relation between the periphery and the centre. Israel is a small country but still it remains important. What all governments are trying to do is to strengthen the periphery vis-à-vis the centre and divert more budgets to the periphery to attract more people to go to live there and to create more jobs. This is, I would say, the third major challenge that we have.

What kind of similarities do you see between Israeli public administration and Ukrainian one?

It is difficult to say, because I am not an expert on Ukrainian public administration system. From what I think, we are both going through a transformation, but in Israel it was more moderate transformation in a sense that we started and we gradually and gradually moved to where we are now and we continue that path. And Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union so it started from a different point. I think, because there is an aspiration to become a part of Europe the required change is more radical and has to be done in much shorter time.

How experience of your country can be used in Ukraine?

Well, I am often asked this question and frankly, I think that this is a question which has to be addressed to our Ukrainian partners. We are not in a position to say what from our experience is relevant for Ukraine, and what we are trying to do in all the spheres is to present our model of how we deal with things, how we work with things, and it is up to Ukrainian experts and public officials to see what is relevant from our model.

What we usually try to explain is that in Israel we were in a way blessed by lack of natural resources. Blessed, because in Israel everybody knows that the major and almost only resource are our people. So, if one has a resource that generates wealth you invest in this resource, nurture it, make it bigger.  We invest in people trying to establish situation to make conditions in which each and every individual can realise himself or herself in maximum. That means creating a proper education system, creating suitable health-care system, living conditions and economic system, etc.  Basically, what we are trying to do is to focus on the individual. And again whatever component of this system can be applicable to Ukraine we are very open to share our experience.

What would you recommend to young Ukrainians who want to work in the public sector?

I think to work in the public sector, as I said at the beginning, you have to be idealistic, you really want to make changes. People who go to the public sector to have a secure job and stability would be really bored and they will not be able to fulfil themselves. And another important aspect that we always try to stress in our public sector is continuous self-improvement by training, by some sort of programs. For example at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs we have all sort of scholarships for people to go abroad, to get another experiences and then come back and be able to utilise their experience, their thinking. Other ministries in Israel also have all sorts of programs, and this is also very important characteristic of continued improvement-trying to be better. Times change very fast and you have to be ready for changes.

Understanding that foreign service is also a part of the public administration what was your motivation to join the public sector and become an official?

Well, I was very interested in international relations since very young age and I find it the most challenging and interesting job I could ever think of. When you represent your country abroad, first, it is a great honour that you have been given, and also this is a very important task. And second aspect that motivated me is the professional challenge. When you come to a new place, you have to meet new people, your communication skills have to be very good and I find it very interesting. Third, from my point of view, every place has a different culture and this way, I exposed myself for different countries, and passing every country you learn a lot from the people and I enjoy it. I never had any regrets.

Thank you, Ambassador, for hosting us in the Embassy of Israel. I just wanted to mention that you are the first to be interviewed and I would like to thank your professional staff who replied very quickly to my request.