Wave No. 3 is Here – We Must Learn our Lesson

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Politicians and healthcare practitioners alike must learn from their experience and formulate strategy before it is too late.

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Imagine this: Today we receive reliable intelligence material informing us that fighting will break out on our northern border in precisely three weeks’ time. And imagine that this is the third round of conflict, after two previous rounds that had left the State of Israel battered and bruised, with entire IDF battalions exhausted, the education system suspended and all schools and universities closed, around a million unemployed, and the business sector in a state of lockdown.

Naturally, we would have expected the prime minister and the defense minister to instruct all state institutions – including the IDF, the Home Front Command, local government, and the educational system – to conduct investigations, gear up for an immediate attack, and apply the lessons learned from the previous rounds of combat, from the national level right down to the operational-tactical level of the battalions and brigades in the field.

And now, back to reality: Winter is here and with it a third wave of coronavirus infections. Yet despite this, there has been no structured and orderly process at a national level of learning from experience with regard to policies and actions taken so far by the government, its ministries, and the executive agencies under its aegis (with the exception of several important local investigative initiatives carried out in some ministries).

So far, the state’s handling of the pandemic reflects a lack of capacity to manage crises not related to war. Among other things, the lack of an infrastructure for evaluating policy while dealing with an extended crisis has been glaring: There are no laws, regulations, guidelines or government handbooks on managing ongoing crises to provide us with methodologies for reviewing and evaluating public policy in a systematic way. Despite the pandemic’s cyclical nature, preparations at the national level for managing the next wave are not considering the lessons learned from previous waves; instead, they continue to be made on the basis of reactive decision-making.

The result? To judge from the objective data collected until now, we are paying a very high price: 15% of businesses are expected to close down by the end of the year, mostly among small and medium-size businesses; around one million are unemployed; socioeconomic gaps are widening, as the residents of the nine cities with the highest unemployment rates (excepting Eilat) are mainly Arab or haredi (ultra-Orthodox); there is a terrifying rise in domestic violence, with a reported increase of some 500% in hotline calls; and heaps of additional data indicate negative developments which, while it may not have been possible to prevent them entirely, could certainly have been mitigated.

The vaccine is being rolled out, nevertheless, in the coming weeks. The government of Israel must develop a clear strategy for coping with the pandemic, one that is not limited to the health arena, and adopt a comprehensive model for investigating and evaluating public policy in the course of crises and in normal times. This moral and professional obligation lies not only with the political echelon, but first and foremost with the government’s professional echelon.

We believe that even if no overall, system-wide decisions are reached, no director-general of a government ministry, no deputy director for strategy, no individual responsible for execution of policy, no regulatory body, can forgo putting a process of this kind in place with regard to the area under its responsibility. From a public perspective, adopting a courageous approach of learning lessons from experience and policy evaluation could bolster public trust, and thus curb the growing tendencies toward taking things into one’s own hands or finding partisan and biased solutions among specific sectors and individuals who are dissatisfied with the government’s performance.

RECENTLY, AS part of a study we are conducting at the Israel Democracy Institute, we proposed to Israel’s decision-makers a model for reviewing and evaluating public policy during a prolonged crisis. We are not proposing a model dictating what should or should not be done in managing the crisis, but rather one that describes how things should be done. It is not a model for external investigation and auditing, but instead focuses on introspection on performance and on instituting changes accordingly.

Much of the model provides responses to several fundamental questions. For example: What were the major assumptions of decision-makers in their decision-making process? What information gaps exist? What were the goals of the previous policy, and what have we achieved in practice? And finally: What are the main insights we have gained, and what are the recommendations for amending the policy going forward? These questions are far from trivial.

However, so far, they are questions that have not been answered in a structured and systematic way.

We are thoroughly familiar with the professional leadership of Israel’s civil service; one of us – as a scholar of public administration in Israel and around the world – and the other, as a professional who in the past led a major reform in the civil service and was involved (among other things) in establishing leadership and management programs.

Professional responsibility, commitment to providing optimal services that meet the needs of the public, and working to ensure the future of the state are just some of the values that are deeply embedded among senior professionals in Israel’s public sector. In the civil service, in local government and in executive agencies, there are outstanding workers whose commitment knows no bounds. This is their time to act; not as followers, but as leaders; not waiting for leadership to be taken on by others, but exercising leadership themselves.

In our study, which we presented at the Israel Democracy Institute’s annual Eli Hurvitz Conference on Economy and Society, we examined policy review and evaluation processes in other countries that are operating more systematically than we are in managing this unfolding crisis. We are seeing the direct connection between policy evaluation on the one hand, and on the other, the economic, social and public prices already being paid by the Israeli public, and those that will be paid in the future.

The countries we studied do not have better managers than are to be found in the public sector in Israel. We are all familiar with the clichéd (but true) saying that every crisis is also an opportunity. We also know that it is not too late to fix things. The coronavirus pandemic, with all its destructive effects, is likely to be with us for months to come, and thus presents us with an opportunity to adopt and implement a culture of inquiry and evaluation of public policy in Israel.

Our results and recommendations have been presented to Israeli senior officials and decision-makers. We say to them once again: Winter is already here, we are deep in the third wave. We must act. Now.

The article was published in the Jerusalem Post. 

Ron Tzur is CEO of the Sparks Consulting Group and chair of the advisory board of the Israeli Leadership Forum. Prof. Nissim (Nessi) Cohen is the head of the Center for Public Management and Policy at the University of Haifa.