LONDON — Japan's new government has improved the way it communicates with the public and is standing up to the once almighty bureaucracy, according to a former media chief for British Prime Minister Tony Blair who advised the Democratic Party of Japan on strategy before the Aug. 30 election.
Alastair Campbell says he "senses" the new DPJ-led government is delivering clearer messages to voters and can see the government is employing some of the techniques and structures that were used by Blair when his center-left Labour Party came into office in 1997.
Before taking the reins of power in mid-September, the DPJ was keen to look at how other parties made the transition into government, particularly after a long spell as the opposition.
DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa met Campbell and other Labour officials to see how they made their mark in government.
Campbell, who acted as Blair's chief spokesman and media strategist from 1994 to 2003, said Ozawa and his team were particularly interested in how to deal with bureaucrats.
Critics have argued that public officials in Japan have wielded too much influence over policy formulation, with ministers effectively rubber-stamping what has been decided by the bureaucrats, individual lawmakers and various vested interests.
"I said that in my experience the civil service machine responded well to clear leadership," Campbell explained. "I emphasized that any new government has a period when interest in, and support for it, is at its height, and it is vital to use that time well.
"I emphasized the need to win external and internal support for change. My impression is that the Japanese civil service is more driven by its own agenda than ours, so it is doubly important the public understands the nature of the changes proposed and the reasons."
Campbell said Ozawa was "very well informed" about the structural changes Blair had made to government, "in particular the strengthening of the center."
Campbell can see aspects of this being replicated in Japan, despite the very different political cultures.
Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has sought to end the influence of individual lawmakers and bureaucrats in policymaking and instead promoted the Cabinet as the main policy-formulating body.
The new government has developed a series of Cabinet committees to help policy formulation — a mechanism imported from Britain. The new National Policy Unit, headed by Naoto Kan, deputy prime minister, is also designed to bolster the center by creating "national visions."
Campbell said: "They wanted a detailed analysis of how we made those – changes (to strengthen the center) and what effect we felt they had. I briefed them on our meetings structures, forward planning functions, liaison within the government and also some of the structures we set up during major international crises.”
The DPJ has also taken a close look at how Labour presented its case to the electorate in the election manifesto. In 1997, Labour produced an eye-catching card for voters that listed five specific pledges designed to counter the impression that politicians are all hot air.
And this summer, the DPJ paid great importance to its manifesto with a series of pledges.
Campbell said, “The impression I gained was of people with a clear agenda for change but who knew that sometimes promising change is easier than making it happen.
“But I also sensed a real determination. I suppose if there was a single message I sought to impart it was the importance of clarity of objective, toughness of strategy and the necessity of clear leadership and teamwork.”
Now that the DPJ is in power, Campbell “senses” an attempt by the government to be more “strategic in communications” and to give “sharper and clearer messages.”
Christopher Hood, an expert in Japanese studies at Cardiff University, agrees the DPJ has taken a leaf out of Labour’s book in terms of communicating clear pledges to voters.
“The DPJ seems to be getting sharper at this,” he said. “This has been a general weakness in Japanese politics in the past so I would say it’s a refreshing change.
“Having said that, I think the DPJ will find and, in relation to dams for example, may already be finding, that sometimes reality steps in and they have to rethink pledges.”
The DPJ’s policy of suspending and reviewing the construction of new dams across the country has been deeply unpopular in some municipalities.
Hood is unsure to what extent British practices can be introduced in Japan, given the different political cultures and the long tradition of an all-powerful bureaucracy.
“I think the shift to reduce the influence of the bureaucrats will be an interesting one. If only Japan had a version of ‘Yes Minister’ and ‘Yes Prime Minister’ to watch!”
These BBC comedy programs showed how powerful civil servants were in comparison to their hapless political masters.