Downsizing the public sector has been high on the agenda of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s government, and both his Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of Japan are promising this campaign season to reduce the number of people on the government payroll.

However, neither party has offered details as to which sectors of the civil service they deem unnecessary and intend to streamline, or what the results of such moves would be, according to Atsushi Seike, a professor of labor economics at Keio University in Tokyo.

“The upcoming general election is the biggest chance ever to let the people choose how they want public service reform to be implemented,” Seike said in a recent interview. “But they have not been given sufficient information to make that choice.”

Seike is among the many experts who argue that a reduction in the number of public servants is inevitable, as a nation with a shrinking population cannot sustain a large government.

In addition to this argument, Seike pointed to two other reasons why the civil service needs restructuring.

First, as the combined outstanding fiscal deficit of the central and local governments tops 1 quadrillion, yen pressure to reduce labor expenses — which account for more than 6 percent of government expenditure — is mounting.

Second, he noted, the government is facing pressure to reduce the disparity in pay levels between civil servants and private-sector employees.

Although government officials are effectively employed by taxpayers, many people see a contradiction when civil servants are better paid than their “employers,” who have seen paltry, if any, wage increases amid slow economic growth.

The gap has grown particularly wide in rural areas, with Finance Ministry calculations showing that the average pay levels of private-sector employees in Aomori Prefecture in 2004 was about 24 percent lower than those of civil servants there.

Abuses of allowances paid to local civil servants have meanwhile exacerbated the impression that their pay system is opaque. One prominent example is the revelation that Osaka municipal officials had been receiving special allowances that allowed them to buy suits and claiming overtime they did not work.

In its platform for Sunday’s election, the LDP pledges to reduce the number of public servants “drastically” while reviewing the salary system for bureaucrats to bring it more in line with private-sector pay levels. However, it provides no elaboration.

Meanwhile, the DPJ, the largest opposition forces, states it will cut personnel costs for central government bureaucrats by 20 percent, or 1 trillion, yen in three years through such measures as suspending new hires and reassessing salaries and allowances.

While the DPJ’s promises are more detailed, Seike said there is little difference between the two platforms, as they focus solely on reducing personnel costs.

“These parties say, ‘we will cut back on civil servants and reduce their salaries,’ but those promises can only be fulfilled after they decide which part of the public service to abolish,” Seike said, noting they have only offered platitudes that will be well-received by the public.

“You cannot just cut pay and reduce the (public service) workforce without taking into consideration what the public’s ideal image of the civil service is,” he said.

The public meanwhile vaguely assumes that the current level of public services will be maintained even though government employee expenses will be cut, Seike said.

But that is a big mistake, he warned, noting that the public must also accept the outcome of government downsizing — in other words a curtailment of some public services.

Seike believes regular people, as the “employers” of government workers, need to view civil service reform as their own problem, because it is they who must decide how to bring about a balance between the public services they need and the financial burden they must shoulder to receive them.

To that end, each party should present how downsizing of government will affect the people’s daily lives to let them make their choice, he said, adding that such a review at times might even lead to an increase in certain public service areas. If a party emphasizes the importance of maintaining public security or supporting child-rearing, for example, it could lead to a reinforcement of workers in such sectors, Seike said.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.