A few rungs short of devolution

The Noda administration has drafted a plan to transfer regional bureaus and offices of central government ministries to regional administrative bodies, and is expected to submit a related bill to the Diet in May. If such transfers are carried out in a genuine manner, they would promote devolution since about 200,000 of some 300,000 national public servants are working at such bureaus and offices.

But the plan is studded with mechanisms to preserve central bureaucratic power and cannot be regarded as a serious attempt to promote decentralization of power.

In 2010, the government decided to gradually abolish or transfer regional bureaus and offices of central government ministries to local governments. The land, infrastructure and transport ministry’s regional development bureaus, the trade and industry ministry’s regional economic, trade and industry bureaus and the environment ministry’s regional environment offices have been picked as the first to be transferred.

Under the government plan, these bureaus and offices will be transferred to regional federations jointly set up by prefectural governments in each region with the approval of the central government. But the ministries concerned have, as noted, an embedded mechanism in the plan to help preserve their power.

Even if the bureaus and offices are transferred to regional federations, their work will be treated as entrusted by the central government to local governments for the time being. This will enable the central government ministries concerned to retain control over the transferred work by giving or refusing to give consent, approval or instructions. Even after projects related to roads and rivers are transferred to regional federations, the land, infrastructure and transport minister will also have parallel authority over the projects with local government heads.

Regional federations must get the prime minister’s consent for plans concerning the work transferred from central government ministries to their control. In giving consent, the prime minister must get agreement from the ministers of the ministries that used to have the bureaus and offices under their jurisdiction. This is another trick to preserve the power of central government ministries.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda should order ministers concerned to change the plan from the viewpoint of truly promoting devolution.