The civil service commissioner holds an important public position, and should not be relegated to serving as a rubber stamp for the government.
There are signs that a bitter political struggle is being waged, both openly and covertly, over the appointment of the next civil service commissioner. Forming the backdrop to this tug of war are the proposals for reforming the civil service appointment committees and adding a politically-appointed position of deputy director-general, both of which aim to increase the influence of ministers over appointments to senior positions in their ministries. In other words, these reforms would pave the road to political appointments. The advancement of these reforms, in the absence of a serving commissioner, and in the context of the outgoing commissioner’s opposition to them, is political opportunism at its worst.
On the face of it, the civil service commissioner is first and foremost a professional. His (or, hopefully at some stage, her) role is that of chief human resources director for the civil service, whose duty it is to ensure the highest possible quality of professional public administration that will work for the public good, adhere to the strict letter of the law and meet the expectations of the elected government.
However, the legal foundations for the status and powers of the commissioner are not as strong as they could be. Section 6 of the Civil Service Law (Appointments) 1959 includes the laconic instruction that the appointment of the commissioner “will not require a tender process under section 19, and notification of the appointment will be published in the Official Gazette.” There is no law on the books that gives a detailed description of the function, skills required of the incumbent, or his/her various responsibilities vis-a-vis the elected echelons, civil service employees, and the public. Instead, the commissioner’s powers are derived from a patchwork of ordinances contained in several different civil service laws.
In other democracies, the main obligations of the civil service commissioner include ensuring the quality of public management, being responsible for the care and development of employees and managers, maintaining ethical standards, managing a politically-independent appointments process, and improving the efficiency of public management—all geared toward the best interests of the public. In New Zealand, for example, the roles of the civil service commissioner are defined by civil service legislation; in Canada, the commissioner is defined as the “president” of the civil service, and reports directly to the parliament; and in Australia, the commissioner is appointed by the governor-general (not by the prime minister), and is defined as an “independent” position.
Human resource management is a profession in every respect, a skill that is studied in academic settings or acquired on the job at various organizational levels. While human resource management for the civil service is different from, say, a factory, due to the complexity of the environment in which the public service operates and the many different forces at play, the tools used are basically identical. The principal skills required by a civil service commissioner are a combination of experience in senior positions across the public sector, suitable leadership and management skills, and academic education and professional training in the fields of human resource management or public policy and administration.
While it goes without saying that the professional public administration operates within a political framework, “the civil service is the public’s faithful representative and servant,” as described in the Israel Democracy Institute’s Constitution by Consensus document, and in this sense, the civil service commissioner is the chief public servant.
The professional public administration is not a platform to be used for expanding political power in Israel, for increasing sectorial discrimination, or for ensuring “jobs for the boys” - personal and ideological cronies of government and party leaders.
It is essential that the next commissioner (and perhaps the time has come for a female incumbent) has the necessary knowledge, capabilities, and experience of managing large systems, with a particular emphasis on human capital. Also, the next commissioner should possess a broad-based education and in-depth professional knowledge in this area, including workers’ associations. With regards to the political system, the new commissioner should be able to communicate with its representatives, and mediate between the professional public service and elected echelons.
It would appear that the time has come to pass legislation that will define the roles and responsibilities of the commissioner, and perhaps to even consider changing the appointment process. Among other aspects, consideration should be given to the option that the candidate or candidates for the post be required to undergo a Knesset “hearing,” in a balanced forum of some sort.
The civil service commissioner holds an important public position, and should not be relegated to serving as a rubber stamp for the government and its whims. Despite the relative lack of glamor associated with the commissioner’s position, the importance of the role in protecting the public interest is second to none.
Motty Shapira is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, and is the former head of the Public Service Reform Branch at the Prime Minister’s Office.