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To carry out the first major reform of the national civil service system in 50 years, the government plans to introduce legislation in the Diet next year to revise the national public service law. Under present plans, the new law would be implemented beginning in fiscal 2006. A task force of the Cabinet secretariat in charge of administrative reform is compiling the legislation based on an outline of civil-service reform adopted by the Cabinet late last year.

Unfortunately, the proposed reform could aggravate sectionalism and the tendency to give priority to ministry interests instead of eliminating such problems.

Back in 1964, a provisional commission on administrative service published a report proposing that the National Personnel Authority be given more power to make personnel administration democratic, neutral and fair. The report emphasized that the NPA’s main job should be to prevent political intervention and favoritism in personnel appointments.

The current reform proposal, though, appears likely to weaken the NPA. With the aim of “more flexible and efficient administrative service,” plans call for making Cabinet ministers responsible for their ministries’ personnel appointments. For example, the current system requires approval by the NPA in each case of a retired senior bureaucrat taking up a high post with a private company. The plan under consideration would in effect loosen restrictions by making Cabinet ministers responsible for giving such approval. The NPA would give consent after the fact, which would be meaningless.

The habit of retired government officials’ parachuting into cushy private jobs has long been criticized as the root cause of cozy ties between bureaucrats and business executives.

Recently the National Congress for Creating a New Japan, a group of intellectuals, proposed that the Cabinet secretariat decide whether to permit retired bureaucrats to join private companies, and arrange jobs for them. This proposal is better since it would shift bureaucrats’ allegiance away from the ministries and thus affirm the prime minister’s leadership in the matter.

Also, under the reform proposal, the Cabinet would prepare written examinations for applicants for national public service while the NPA merely conducted them. The job of determining the number of personnel for different job categories would shift from the NPA, a neutral third party, to individual ministries. The shift could raise doubts about the fairness of the system.

If NPA involvement is to be reduced, national public servants at least should be given the right to stage strikes and to conclude labor contracts. The organization at presents restricts national civil servants’ basic labor rights.

Hiromu Nonaka, head of the governing Liberal Democratic Party’s task force for promoting administrative reform, once reportedly favored granting basic labor rights to national civil servants. But his view was not supported by the majority of LDP lawmakers and was not incorporated in the current reform plan. In Western countries, police officers and firefighters are allowed to form labor unions — not in Japan.

Since 1964 a series of civil-service reform proposals have called for collective hiring of workers for government service as opposed to the present system in which each ministry and agency recruits its own people. Such plans are still not included in the current outline.

Also shelved were plans to change the career-track system for elite officials and to correct the practice of encouraging early retirement so that high officials are discouraged from parachuting into private jobs.

The reform legislation, if enacted without major changes, will worsen the national civil service system. The outline is noteworthy, however, for recommending a reduction in overtime. It calls for a thorough review of work related to Diet proceedings, compilation of legislation, budget negotiations and intraministry consultations.

A young Foreign Ministry official says he puts in about 100 hours of overtime a month — or about five hours daily — and up to 200 hours in a busy month, but gets only one-third of overtime pay due him. This is a grave violation of the Labor Standards Law. The overtime problem arises partly because civil servants’ labor rights are restricted.

Foreign Ministry officials say most overtime involves intraministry consultations, rather than national interests, and are unwilling to compromise. This contributes to tardiness in the Japanese government’s decision-making process at international conferences. The current reform proposal totally lacks a plan to end the practice of giving priority to ministry interests.

There is widespread criticism among the media of the secretive way the reform legislation is being worked out. An official in charge of the reform told me recently that fellow officials are demoralized by the public criticism of the outline.

The proposed reform is a major overhaul that compares to the reorganization of ministries and agencies implemented in 2001. I hope that officials will conduct thorough debate on the issue and will have the courage to change the reform outline, if necessary, with a Cabinet decision.

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