When Ichiro Asahina, a 32-year-old bureaucrat at the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, was studying at Harvard University between 2001 and 2003, he had time to think about what Kasumigaseki, Tokyo’s governmental hub, meant to him and to Japan.
Hoping to help build a better country, he joined the ranks of the elite who serve in the government in 1997, but after several years on the job, he began to feel something was wrong.
In postwar Japan, the best and the brightest had always aimed for careers in Kasumigaseki, but these days that is no longer true as the nation’s bureaucrats often become the target of criticism for not being able to resolve the country’s problems and scandals involving civil servants make newspaper headlines.
“Studying in the U.S. gave me a good chance to look at Japan objectively,” Asahina said. “Although I wanted to reform the Japanese administrative system from inside, it was not easy to change Kasumigaseki’s long-established system.
“Many of my colleagues, who had the same hopes, were disappointed and left the ministries. In extreme cases, some took their own lives. But I thought turning away from the ministry wouldn’t solve anything,” he said.
So he joined with other like-minded young bureaucrats and established a study group to draw up proposals to reform the central government.
The group, made up of 21 bureaucrats in their early 30s from all ministries except the Justice Ministry, has held more than 50 discussion sessions over the past two years.
The group’s efforts led to the publication of the book “Kasumigaseki Kozo Kaikaku — Project K,” (“Structural Reform of Kasumigaseki — Project K.”), which hit store shelves last week.
“Project K” refers to Kasumigaseki, “kaikaku” (reform) and “komuin” (public servant), according to group members
It offers an insiders’ view of the problems facing the bureaucracy and ways to solve them. In compiling proposals, the group also interviewed academics, members of the media and former bureaucrats.
The book points out that bureaucrats tend to create policies for their ministries and for politicians who represent the vested interests of industry, instead of working for the people as a whole. As a result, civil servants find it difficult to abolish subsidies that are clearly unnecessary, for example.
The authors admit that policymaking at the ministries often lacks in-depth analysis and discussion, and that most policies are created to please key politicians and the Finance Ministry, which screens budget requests from each ministry.
For example, when assessing the need for highways and bridges, government officials tend to use data to make approval of the projects more likely.
“In the U.S., policies are proposed not only by the government but also by the private sector based on careful research and analysis. (The proposals) are scientific and deep,” said Shingo Kimura, an official of the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, who also participated in the group.
“By comparison, the quality of policies Kasumigaseki produces is very low. The level of policymaking must be raised to the international standard,” he said.
The book also points out that when differences emerge among the ministries, there is no one to determine what is best for the country, citing the example of a government pledge of support for Indonesia when the country was hit by a currency crisis in the late 1990s.
While the Foreign Ministry and then the Ministry of International Trade and Industry sought an explicit statement of Japan’s support, the Finance Ministry, which wanted to keep a tight rein on spending, could not agree on the statement’s wording.
After hours of discussion, the government released a vague statement that indicated almost nothing about its stance or what it intended to do.
These incidents raise the obvious question of what needs to be done.
The bureaucrats propose to set up a national strategy headquarters that would serve as a clearinghouse for policies and determine priorities based on national interests when disputes arise among ministries.
The plan says members of the headquarters should not be limited to bureaucrats but be drawn from a wide range of industry and academic and legal circles. It should also have the authority to make recommendations in budget-making.
The book also proposes a new evaluation system for government personnel and calls for creation of a vision and mission statement and a list of things not to do that might seem like common sense in the private sector, but which for bureaucrats might sound revolutionary. “Don’t try to spend all the budget allocated to your section,” is one.
Unlike many publications authored by government personnel, the book lists the names of the group members who drew up the proposals. Despite possibly stepping on bureaucratic toes, the authors say they haven’t faced a major backlash from their colleagues or senior ministry officials so far.
“We have received positive responses from people in both the public and private sectors,” said Koki Yoshino, a group member and an official of the Environment Ministry, adding they hope to set up a nonprofit organization to create a network of young people across the country to discuss government policies and initiate reforms.
Asked about how they will accomplish this task, Masashi Komurasaki, deputy head of the group and an official of the Environment Ministry, said they hope to present their proposals to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
“We hope to let the public know about our proposals first, and if the voices supporting us reach the top, that would move a reform-minded prime minister and other bureaucrats to change,” he said.