In 2014, the Knesset passed an amendment to Basic Law: The Government restricting the number of government ministers to nineteen (including the prime minister). The explanatory notes to the amendment, also named “the amendment for better governability”, made the case that an overlarge government has many drawbacks, including functionality and executive decision-making difficulties and an excessive reduction in the number of MKs available for legislative work and government oversight as well as wasting public funds and damaging public trust in the executive branch of government.
In 2015, a temporary order was passed prior to the forming of a new government, permitting a “single” exclusion from the basic law that had been passed only a year previously. In May 2020, with the formation of the Ganz-Netanyahu coalition government, not only was the number of Ministers not reduced as was appropriately in line with the basic law principle, but the law itself was amended, with the limitation on the number of ministers removed with no plausible explanation. The then formed government appointed thirty-four ministers – the highest number in Israeli history and much higher than the norm in developed countries. The current government sworn in on December 2022 now numbers thirty nine ministers, including five added when the government was expanded in October 2023 due to the war in Gaza.
There is no sensible justification for a government of more than nineteen ministers. A large government is costly, unwieldy, and less capable of rendering quality service to the people. It also weakens governability and prevents the ability to take advantage of economies of scale and of the natural interfaces between areas of responsibility. “Superfluous” ministers often generate needless activity and over regulation in order to appear to be doing their job. At the same time, there is less parliamentary oversight of government activity, leading to a higher volume of unnecessary and pointless personal legislation.
A large number of ministries and ministers entails corresponding large numbers of ministerial offices and directors’ offices, chiefs of staff, office managers, secretaries, spokespeople, media consultants, drivers and security personnel; in other words, a large amount of purely wasteful costs paid in full by the public. It is also an unintelligent and inefficient use of the time and talents of proficient people, who could have contributed enormously to the market and to the public had they been employed elsewhere.
The massive increase in the number of ministries – most especially the establishment of new ministries for every new government formed in the past decade by arbitrary division of ministries and areas of activity– has rightfully been seen by the public as a cynical move meant to benefit politicians and their inner circles at the public’s expense.
This feeling is justified even more when undergoing a security and economic crisis. The terror attack on October 7th and the war in Gaza have caused government spending to soar, while the budget deficit and public debt have sharply increased. It will be incumbent upon us in the coming years to cut back on government public services (education, healthcare, welfare, etc.), while taxes may rise. It is clear to all Israeli citizens that they will personally be affected by the severe economic repercussions of the security crisis. As such, the bloated number of ministers and ministries is perceived as particularly grating – a reflection of how out of touch public representatives are with public sentiment and public priorities, a blatant statement of – “politics above all”.
Politicians’ public announcements about the government “loosening the purse strings” and financially aiding those harmed by the military situation or by its repercussions are meaningless, at best born out of a misunderstanding of basic economics; at worst out of a desire to mislead the public. Government does not have a “purse”. That purse belongs to the public. Every shekel of government assistance granted to populations harmed by the terror attack and the war will be at the expense of public resources, and the public will need, in the near future, to repay each one with the added interest of the public debt (which stands today at 5%). Assisting those harmed is certainly justified and admirable but the attempt to portray it as government largesse (as opposed to the public’s sacrifice) is false and misleading. Only an overhaul or reduction of the representatives’ own offices or a cut to other wasteful expenditures in the public sector can be considered true government assistance to the general public.
In a comprehensive review published a few years ago, Professor Ofer Kenig details the correlations found between the size of government (as measured by number of ministers and ministries) and the reduction in efficiency, governability, implementation of long-term policies, accountability, and public trust in democratic institutions and representatives. Professor Kenig further cites various committees tasked with reviewing the optimal size of government and the desired structure of its ministries. These committees recommended the number of ministers and ministries to be less than nineteen. Many European countries indeed maintain less than nineteen ministries and ministers. According to Professor Kenig’s review, Israel had eighteen ministers or less in eleven of the fifteen governments formed between the years 1948 to 2000.
I hope that in these difficult days the government will make the choice to settle for nineteen ministers and fifteen ministries at the most. It should take this opportunity to shut down artificial and unnecessary ministries that were established by the current government as well as those by previous ones, the sole purpose of which was to create jobs for politicians and their hangers on.
Following is a proposal for the efficient composition of government ministries:
Other ministries should be eliminated or merged into others.
Thus, the government will be comprised of fifteen ministries (including the Prime Minister’s Office). Under this proposal, an additional four ministers could be appointed to special positions (such as the responsibility for lateral projects that span several ministries’ areas of responsibility or localized, temporary projects). It is, of course, permissible to manage with less than nineteen ministers.
Implementing this structure will significantly improve the government’s functionality and go some way towards repairing public trust, much harmed in the past months, in state institutions and representatives. I hope all the heads of political parties – including those in the current coalition – adopt this framework and implement it immediately.
(based on my The Marker blog post from 31.12.2020)