Reformist bureaucrat gets shuffled off to sidelines

Says DPJ lacks means to fight entrenched interests


Staff Writer

When the Democratic Party of Japan won the 2009 election and ousted the Liberal Democratic Party-led government, Shigeaki Koga, a veteran reformist at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, had high hopes that the bureaucracy would finally change for the better.

During the campaign, the DPJ’s key pledge had been to run a politician-controlled administration, harshly criticizing the LDP for being manipulated by the bureaucracy and rubber-stamping wasteful spending.

Two years on Koga is “very pessimistic about the situation,” because the DPJ appears to have given up on administrative reform and has succumbed to the bureaucrats’ control.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s administration is meanwhile pressuring him to quit METI because Koga published a book in May openly criticizing the government and calling for bureaucratic reform.

The book, “Nihon Chusu no Hokai” (“Collapse of Japan’s Central Administration”), became a best-seller.

It is Koga’s contention that the economic downturn, snowballing public debt and disaster recovery could all be handled better if the bureaucracy were subjected to sweeping reform.

Under the current system, according to Koga, the main focus of bureaucrats, with their job and salary secured by law until retirement, is to protect and further expand the benefit of their ministry and themselves.

“Bureaucrats don’t make policies for the people’s benefit, but for their own ministries and themselves,” Koga, 55, who has been working at METI for more than three decades, told The Japan Times last week.

This may be true for workers at corporate entities as well, but “companies have to compete with their rivals, so the discipline of the market is working (to improve the organization and products). But for bureaucrats, there is no competition and discipline,” he said.

A notable example is “amakudari,” in which retiring bureaucrats parachute into government-affiliated organizations or private companies connected to the ministry where they worked. Some former bureaucrats repeat this practice and receive lucrative retirement pay several times over.

This is why bureaucrats come up with various ways to secure amakudari spots. For instance, they try to manipulate politicians to approve budgets for industries related to their ministries or create regulations that protect those industries. In exchange, industries prepare amakudari positions.

In other cases, bureaucrats establish government-affiliated organizations and parachute into them.

One systemic problem that contributes to amakudari is that bureaucrats, often hired in large groups on a yearly basis, find fewer high-level government positions as they climb the career ladder, and those who don’t land the top spots face the prospect of early retirement. Hence they resort to amakudari positions, which in many cases are paid for by taxpayers.

“Bureaucrats are ultimately just human; they don’t want to make changes that will impact their means of making a living,” Koga said.

To break this vicious circle, the key is to abolish the current system that guarantees their government job and salary, he contends.

“They are protected by law. Even a section chief who performs poorly will basically not face demotion or a pay cut,” he said.

Thus politicians with firm determination are needed to push a reform agenda forward, because bureaucrats will strongly resist any attempt to undermine their vested interests.

“But the political situation is in turmoil, which is the biggest problem,” Koga lamented, referring to the DPJ-led administration’s inability to achieve its legislative goals in a divided Diet.

The DPJ-led government put together bureaucratic reform bills in April and submitted them to the Diet.

If passed, they would give bureaucrats collective bargaining rights and establish a new Cabinet personnel bureau that, to avoid sectionalism, would oversee appointments of top ministry posts — a task currently decided only within each ministry. Whether the bills clear the Diet though is unclear because the opposition camp controls the Upper House.

But in Koga’s eyes, these bills don’t go far enough because they would not abolish the current system of guaranteeing the jobs and salaries of top bureaucrats and thus would fail to ensure flexible appointments for executive posts.

Koga said the DPJ can’t push true bureaucratic reform because it depends heavily on support from the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), in which the bureaucrats’ labor union is a major player.

In addition, an administration pushing for reform would get into an all-out battle with bureaucrats, who can sabotage their work and severely slow the policymaking process.

Koga has experienced strong resistance from bureaucrats firsthand.

When the DPJ was establishing its first Cabinet in 2009, under Yukio Hatoyama, Koga was offered a position as an aide to Yoshito Sengoku, who later was appointed state minister in charge of administrative reform.

Koga at the time was working on a government team in charge of bureaucratic reform.

But the offer was rescinded at the last minute, apparently because bureaucrats, who didn’t want drastic changes, advised Sengoku against appointing Koga.

Sengoku accepted the advice because the DPJ, inexperienced in holding the reins of power, needed bureaucratic support as it prepared to draft its first budget.

In December 2009, Koga was also forced off the bureaucracy reform team and moved back to METI, where he was attached to the Minister’s Secretariat in do-nothing limbo.

Koga has yet to be offered a new post.

In fact, he was asked by the vice minister at METI to leave the ministry by mid-July. He has refused to comply.

He had a talk with METI Minister Banri Kaieda last month and asked to be given a worthy task, but Kaieda, who is expected to resign soon, only told him they should keep communicating with each other.

The tide could change if the next prime minister appoints ministers bent on reforms, as speculation is rife that Kan will bow out soon. But the prospects are bleak, Koga said, because the DPJ no longer appears eager to seriously push for change.

“There would be no point in staying in the ministry if I am not given any task to work on.” But he says he has no interest in running for office because he wants to continue working as a bureaucrat.