Government jiggered town meetings to push policies

by Hiroko Nakata

The government padded expenses and had “plants,” some of them paid, offer comments and opinions in the state’s favor at so-called town meetings over the past five years, an investigating committee said in a final report released Wednesday.

At some meetings, the government tried to manipulate public opinion on controversial policies such as education reforms by recruiting participants to ask prearranged questions favorable to the government position, the report says.

To take blame for the scandal, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he will give his salary back to the government for three months. He voluntarily cut his prime minister’s salary by 30 percent when he launched his Cabinet in September, as part of ongoing administrative reforms.

The town meetings, aimed at explaining government policies to the public and getting feedback, were introduced in 2001 by then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to stress his commitment to open government. But Wednesday’s report offers a damning assessment of that effort.

“In case of contentious topics where people’s opinions are divided, we cannot wipe out suspicion that the purpose was to manipulate the public in order to push the government’s policies,” it says.

The Cabinet Office and other ministries planted participants at 15 out of the 174 meetings, held over the past five years, on educational, legislative and other reforms, the report claims. They made statements that were scripted by government officials.

The Cabinet Office also paid 5,000 yen each to 65 participants at 25 town meetings. They were asked to speak out and stimulate discussions.

In other cases, local bureaucrats were pressured by their superiors to take part in the meetings.

“This is one proof that the office places importance on appearances, because it operates town meetings on the assumption that they (should be) big events with ministers participating,” the report says.

“In any case, it is not important to fill up a large place with participants. Instead, the content of the dialogue is more important. The focus should be on what kinds of requests the public and residents have regarding the Cabinet’s policies,” the report says.

The town meetings cost an average of 10 million yen each. Firms that ran them allegedly padded bills for auditorium staff and drivers for panelists.

One committee member said in the report the budget for town meetings could have been reduced if the costs were disclosed and exposed to public scrutiny. Kanagawa Prefecture discloses the cost of all its town meetings. The average cost of a meeting in Kanagawa is about 380,000 yen.

“It is very regrettable. The initial idea of town meetings — direct dialogue with the public — turned out to be far from the reality,” Meiji Gakuin University professor Kazuhisa Kawakami, a panel member, told reporters after the report was released.

“The town meetings themselves met social needs. But the problem was the government left everything about the operations in the hands of bureaucrats,” said Nobuo Gohara, another committee member and a professor at Toin University of Yokohama.