Bureaucrat breaking mold to give public more of a voice

by Sumiko Oshima

Until six years ago, Nobutaka Murao says, he was just another central government bureaucrat. Then he was posted to the Mie Prefectural Government in July 1995, on loan from the Finance Ministry, and everything changed.

When he found out about his posting as chief of the prefecture’s general affairs department, the first thing that came to mind was the prefecture’s famed Matsuzaka beef and Ise lobster. He soon discovered, however, that fate had more in store for him.

Masayasu Kitagawa, who became governor three months before Murao’s arrival, passionately told him to act on behalf of taxpayers, but Murao could not help wondering whether it was realistic to do so.

The revelation several months later of a scandal involving 1.16 billion yen worth of bogus official trips changed Murao’s mind-set. The importance of looking after taxpayers’ money reached Murao’s heart soon after he was made head of an in-house fact-finding committee and the subsequent reform committee that eliminated 275 of 3,000 local government projects.

“Until then, I knew it was important to work for taxpayers — but the thought stopped in my head. By being forced to disclose everything, the real meaning of (working for taxpayers) became embodied in my body and soul,” Murao said.

He returned to the Finance Ministry in 1998 and was surprised to find that he had developed the urge to bring about change throughout the country.

Last year, while working as head of the government debt division, he gave shape to his desires by launching Why Not, a nonprofit organization whose agenda is to encourage local citizens to make a difference in their communities through three key concepts — accountability, choice and transparency.

The group takes its name from part of a notable address by late U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy; “Some men see things as they are and say, ‘why?’ I dream of things that never were and say, ‘why not?’ “

“Many people complain about the civil service and say bureaucrats will never change. But I want to respond with ‘why not?’ and ask them to act with us,” Murao said. With more than 200 members — including company employees, housewives, musicians, local and central government officials and local assembly members — the group provides a place for citizens to network and fosters the mood to bring about change in the country’s 3,200 municipalities.

Rather than merely demand that local governments work harder or disclose more information, Why Not proposes that citizens compile a list of desires, such as “letting students and parents choose public elementary and junior high schools.”

Before elections for village, town and city mayor, candidates could read the list and tick off items they agree to carry out. Voters could then cast votes based on which items candidates support.

“Public services have long been something to be given by providers. But as recipients, we should be guaranteed the right to choose which public services to buy, just like the books and computers we purchase at stores,” Murao said.

The idea is not just beneficial for voters. Through the process, residents who do not have suffrage, including minorities and foreigners, would have a channel through which to realize their wishes, such as “making discrimination against minorities illegal” or “providing an English-speaking clerk at the counter.”

“Foreign residents pay taxes but hardly have an opportunity to say anything about how their money is used,” Murao said. “That’s unreasonable. I think this will provide everyone with a way to participate in the management of local communities.”

On his days off, Murao travels the country to share his ideas with local people. “I want to tell people ‘Hey, get out of the spectator seats and start kicking the ball yourselves,’ ” he said.

“If one local government responds to a taxpayer’s ball, new players will follow and the wave will spread. That, eventually, will change the whole country.”