Abe’s transparency move falls short

The Abe administration’s decision to keep minutes of Cabinet meetings and release summaries, beginning in April, sounds like a positive step, but it is not likely to substantially increase transparency in the government’s decision-making process. What is needed is a legal framework that mandates full documentation of how government policies are formulated and opens records to future public scrutiny.

Cabinet meetings — regularly held twice a week — are the administration’s final decision-making venues. But ever since the first such meeting was held in 1885, no official minutes have been kept of what was discussed and decided by the prime minister and his Cabinet members . There are no written rules requiring that minutes of these meetings be kept. Only a summary of Cabinet meeting proceedings have customarily been given to the press by the chief Cabinet secretary and other ministers.

Beginning April 1, the administration will reportedly start keeping minutes of Cabinet meetings and subsequent discussions by ministers, then release summaries on the website of the prime minister’s office within about three weeks of each meeting. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hailed the move as a “historic step” that will increase transparency of Cabinet meeting business and provide accountability for the people. Officials say, however, the summaries will only list the issues discussed and the names of speakers, giving a gist of their statements plus the date and place where the meetings were held. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga says “not all” information will be disclosed, including that which could compromise national security. It is not clear whether information that could prove inconvenient for the administration — such as divided opinions among Cabinet members — will be included in the summaries.

It can hardly be expected that the summaries will provide much insight into what was discussed if the government has unfettered discretion over what it includes in them. But even if these limits did not exist it would be questionable whether keeping minutes of Cabinet meetings will contribute much to improving the transparency of the government’s decision-making process. Most of the government’s policy decisions are known to be made through prior discussions and coordination within the administration before they are submitted for formal approval by Cabinet ministers, who normally rubber-stamp the decisions.

The previous Democratic Party of Japan-led administration came under criticism when it was revealed that no minutes had been kept of some key meetings on the government’s responses to the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and to the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Official records of such meetings are crucial for verifying later how the government decisions were arrived at and whether they were correct. The DPJ administration was preparing a revision to the law on document management to require Cabinet meeting minutes and releasing them for public view within 30 years, but the plan was scrapped when the DPJ fell from power in December 2012.

In October 2013, Prime Minister Abe told the Diet that he would revise the law to mandate the keeping of minutes of Cabinet meetings — a move seen as a gesture to show his administration’s readiness to disclose information at the same time that he was submitting to the Diet the controversial state secrets bill, which provides for stricter punishment of officials who leak classified government information. Abe eventually skipped amending the law and announced that minutes-keeping will start on the basis of his Cabinet’s decision. He said the practice can be started more quickly that way, but there is speculation that his administration wanted to avoid Diet deliberations on the government’s information disclosure systems.

Either way, since the legislative process was bypassed, the rules for and scope of Cabinet meeting minutes and their disclosure were left to the discretion of Abe’s administration. It is unlikely that the supposedly historic step will result in anything more than nominal disclosure.