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Bureaucratic reform, not just political reform, is urgently needed in Japan. In a nutshell, that is the message of the latest annual government report on the civil service. The report, for the first time, includes government employees’ thoughts about themselves, their colleagues and their bosses.

A poll, taken against a backdrop of corruption scandals and policy blunders by bureaucrats, seems to reflect the growing sense of crisis that grips civil servants. In recent months, for instance, Foreign Ministry officials came under public criticism for their collusive ties to Mr. Muneo Suzuki, the influential but disgraced Lower House member who has been indicted for bribery. Before that, the agriculture ministry provoked outrage over its clumsy efforts to prevent mad cow disease.

Bureaucratic reform has been a topic of discussion for some time, both inside and outside the government. But the progress so far has been woefully slow. The report can be used as a basis for in-depth discussions.

In December 2001, the government laid out guidelines for updating the civil service system following a government reorganization in January of the same year. However, the reform blueprint, including new rules for evaluation, has ruffled many feathers in the bureaucracy. It has also disappointed many outside the government who want to see more drastic reform.

The poll of 500 civil servants selected from across the country adds up to an indictment of central government bureaucracy. About 80 percent said, “Career bureaucrats have such a strong elitist mentality that they do not think from the standpoint of the general public.” Seventy-one percent said, “They put the interests of their offices before the national interest.”

The report itself says, “Recent criticisms of the civil service reflect the fact that civil servants are not living up to public expectations.” Indeed, the statement amounts to a candid admission that the nation’s civil service is in crisis.

One area of reform is the state examination system for career bureaucrats. As the report points out, it is not reasonable to fix a worker’s career track at the time of his or her employment. Reform is also required of the practice of nudging bureaucrats in their early 50s into retirement — a tradition meant to smooth the way for younger bureaucrats waiting for promotions. This custom should be abolished to ensure employment until mandatory retirement.

It is also necessary to promote personnel exchanges between government ministries in order to break down sectionalism in the government and make better use of bureaucratic talent. This may be easier said than done, but substantial results can be achieved if forceful action, such as setting exchange quotas for management-level personnel, is taken.

These and other proposals in the report need fleshing out. The government should pick up where the white paper has left off, and draw up a comprehensive reform program. Already a draft program is under preparation. The government is expected to send to the Diet next year a bill that would revise the National Civil Service Law. If everything goes well, a range of reforms will go into force beginning in 2006.

The guidelines as they stand, however, are flawed in many ways. For example, it remains unclear what kind of personnel evaluation system will be introduced. Nor is it certain whether the “golden parachute” scheme for retired bureaucrats — designed to secure cushy post-retirement posts for them in public corporations — will be effectively regulated. Making such appointments subject to prior approval by Cabinet ministers, not the Personnel Authority, is hardly the answer.

The guidelines, drafted mainly by government staff and a handful of ruling-party legislators, need to be discussed broadly with the participation of citizens as well as ministry bureaucrats. In this sense, proposals by the National Council for a New Japan, a private group pushing for government reform, merit consideration.

The forum calls for scrapping the current ministry-by-ministry hiring system and building a broad selection and training program for career bureaucrats. Other recommendations include having the prime minister appoint senior bureaucrats and the Cabinet secretariat screen golden-parachute appointments, abolishing the practice of early retirement and extending the mandatory retirement age.

It has been 19 months since the number of government ministries, in addition to the Cabinet Office, was cut in half to 12. Thus far, though, the shakeup has, by and large, failed to measure up to its billing as a morale booster for the civil service and a major catalyst for administrative efficiency. New wine has yet to be put in the new bottle.

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