The Foreign Ministry, its public image badly tarnished by a string of corruption scandals and policy blunders, is set to work out an action plan to clean up its act. The plan will be based more or less on the recommendations submitted on Monday to Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi by her advisory panel.
The question is whether the ministry will be able to make the bold changes needed for its revival. The answer is uncertain, for now at least. To be sure, the panel’s final report contains important suggestions, such as establishing rules of transparency in relations between ministry bureaucrats and Diet members, but it does not go far enough in restoring public confidence in the foreign service. As yet there is no road map for diplomatic rebirth.
Nevertheless, the report is a good start. The test for the Foreign Ministry is to follow it up as best it can and as promptly as possible. Speedy reform is essential because of the increasing role of international diplomacy. With the public expecting the ministry to play a more active role in the conduct of foreign policy, now is probably the best time to push through hard-hitting reforms.
It is not that the Foreign Ministry has been sitting on its hands since early 2001 when the first in a series of scandals and irregularities hit the headlines. Ministry officials, from the minister on down, have repeatedly expressed regret and vowed to take corrective action. As a result, a number of preventive measures and broader reforms have been put in place.
But the results so far have been lackluster. The public perception of the Foreign Ministry as a scandal-tainted yet reform-shy organization has hardly changed. Not only that, it still seems to be failing in its primary area of activity: diplomacy. A shakeup of the foreign service, including a review of policy aims, is considered long overdue.
Foreign Minister Kawaguchi, who took up the post about half a year ago, has been working energetically to “change” the ministry. In February she unveiled a set of guidelines focused on “transparency, speed and effectiveness.” To get advice on ways to implement these rules, in March she set up a 13-member private panel composed of academics, business leaders, former diplomats and heads of nongovernmental organizations.
The panel’s report makes a broad range of proposals. For example, it calls for eliminating undue political pressures — a problem exemplified by the questionable relations between ministry bureaucrats and Lower House legislator Muneo Suzuki, who allegedly used his influence to secure foreign-aid contracts for companies in his constituency.
A variety of other proposals also sound all too familiar — they have been discussed in other quarters before. But this is not to say they are not urgently important. They include correcting “misguided elitism” among career-track bureaucrats, building a better personnel system, making more efficient use of budget money and creating a more open policymaking process.
No less important is the suggestion that two out of 10 ambassadors be selected from outsiders and another two from noncareer-track bureaucrats. If this is put into practice completely, four out of 10 ambassadors will be people other than career diplomats. Also worth considering is the idea of appointing a private-sector expert as a policy assistant to the foreign minister.
It is disappointing, however, that no agreement has been reached over the question of whether to create a central body in charge of official development assistance to developing countries. It is a vital question that has a close bearing on the nation’s foreign-aid program. The lack of accord shows that panel members have been divided over the original proposal to set up a “Japanese Aid Agency.”
The hope is that the panel’s suggestions will be carried out as far as possible. But the report itself, even if it is fully respected, will not provide a cure-all for an ailing ministry. After all, the initiative for reform, if it is to be truly effective, must come from within. In this sense, the formation of a voluntary group of ministry employees — dubbed “Let’s Change the Foreign Ministry” — is significant.
These and other internal moves toward reform, however, should not be used as excuses for shutting out outsiders, including officials from related ministries. A case in point is the appointment of an economy and industry ministry official as director for economic cooperation, a key post in charge of aid projects. That appointment, which reportedly has been made over fierce objections from Foreign Ministry bureaucrats, reveals, not surprisingly, a tendency to protect turf as well as a mind-set to resist change.
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