LONDON — The report commissioned by Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, “The Frontier Within,” makes fascinating reading for Western eyes. Parts of it may be specific to the Japanese internal situation, but the key insights are highly relevant to every modern democracy, old and new, and especially to Britain.
The report’s 16 authors seem to have grasped, as many politicians and ministers round the world have not, that the entire relationship between government and governed is being transformed. This creates the need for a highly innovative approach to the whole business of government and a redefining of core tasks that people expect the governing administration to perform.
This new approach simply cannot be analyzed or developed in the language of 20th-century ideologies and philosophies. Freedom and democracy must remain the guiding and inspiring principles of an open society, but their interpretation has to start from a quite different angle. The essence of this new pattern of governance, as the report rightly emphasizes, is to recognize that government and officialdom are no longer “on top” and the rest of us underneath. In a network world of all-pervasive and totally accessible information, governance becomes much more of a two-way process, rooted in clear, visible and intelligible rules and principles.
Nothing as radical as this has been attempted in the British context, and it is high time that it was. Like Japan, Britain needs to re-examine its fundamental motivations and purposes. Like Japan, it is caught in a storm of internal and external change that people sense is inevitable but find it very difficult to put in any coherent context.
Breaking out of the framework of conventional political thinking enables the Obuchi Commission to come to some splendidly unconstrained conclusions about the way modern societies should be going — conclusions that to narrower minds might even seem “politically incorrect.”
Thus the authors state quite baldly that excellence should be given its head and that the obsession with equal outcomes merely leads to more inequality, not less. They face up boldly to the fact that the government’s role needs to be strictly limited and may no longer be the single central one in addressing great social issues — the private sector also now shares a central place.
Moreover, they perceive that if power and responsibility have been dispersed by the new technology away from the traditional hierarchies of officialdom and into the hands of a variety of private “agents” and institutions, then accountability and the need for openness and high standards must also spread their net. Doctors, lawyers, giant fund managers, media and information controllers, journalists and all those whose actions affect lives and property must also be called to account in the new governance world that they are shaping.
These powerful messages have direct relevance to the British situation. In Britain, there is a vague perception that accountability is not working and the democratic institutions must be modernized. But it is all in fits and starts. One piece of the jigsaw is the reform of the upper chamber of Parliament, the House of Lords.
But no one on the British scene, not even the learned members of a special commission set up to carry the Lords reform forward, seems to understand that if power has been redistributed away from old-style central government of the nation, then the mechanisms of accountability must also change their focus. That is what the citizens now expect from their democratic institutions. Mere attention to ministerial power and executive agencies is not enough.
In another part of the British scene, devolution, and the rehabilitation of local government proceed. But to what destination? To better local democracy or to national disintegration? In recent days Wales joined Scotland in demonstrating that localism and decentralization can rapidly come off the rails if the rules of the game are not clear.
“The Frontier Within” contains an equally relevant message for Britain when it turns to the outside world and the international environment. Here, too, the authors see that conventional structures of government no longer fit the scene, and that the texture of international engagement now involves all kinds of relationships lying outside traditional government-to-government channels that need to be fostered. The bureaucratic apparatus alone can no longer either reflect or promote the full range of a nation’s complex national interests. Nor can any nation, or group of nations, cling to regulations, conventions and procedures that fail to mesh with globally acceptable standards. This lesson applies not just to national governments but to the policymakers of the European Union as well.
Of course, some of the commission’s recommendations only apply to Japan itself — or do they? For example, getting better at expressing oneself in the English language may need to become a top Japanese priority, but a great many other people round the world, not least in Britain itself, who think they are speaking English could also do with lessons.
And Japan may have a delay-ridden and inefficient legal and judicial system, but law administration in Britain is also an inefficient mess and miserably inaccessible to the ordinary citizen.
All in all, “The Frontier Within”‘ is a ringing wakeup call not just to the government and people of Japan but to policymakers and thinkers in every open society. These are admittedly still early days in the reform process. But the very fact that this commission could work as it has and produce a report with such revolutionary and yet totally realistic insights shows that the Japanese capacity for self-renewal is as vigorous as ever, and that those worldly-wise experts who have been busy burying the Japanese miracle are, as usual, wrong again.
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