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Prime Minister Taro Aso has instructed Cabinet ministers to push for the abolition and integration of their ministries’ regional offices. His instruction is in line with the call by the government’s devolution panel for drastic reform of such regional offices. Since the reform is a main pillar of overall decentralization, Mr. Aso should demonstrate leadership by getting Cabinet ministers to cooperate with him.

Some 210,000 of the nation’s 330,000 national servants work for regional offices of central government ministries to execute projects under direct jurisdiction of the ministries and issue permits and licenses. These offices face criticism because their work overlaps with that of local governments.

Recently, regional offices of the infrastructure and transport ministry came under fire for misuse of road-related tax revenues, while farm ministry offices were criticized for slipshod oversight in the distribution of chemically tainted imported rice. The government panel proposes that the overlapping work of regional offices be transferred to local governments. In a second set of recommendations due in December, it is expected to call for substantial cutbacks in the work and power of 15 regional organizations of eight ministries and transferring them to local governments.

The eight regional bureaus of the infrastructure and transport ministry and the seven farm ministry bureaus are the main targets of the streamlining. The former has about 22,000 workers and the latter about 15,000 workers. Their total annual budgets amounted to more than ¥9.2 trillion in fiscal 2005.

Both ministries have made clear their opposition to the abolition of their regional offices. Prefectural governors, for their part, appear to be reluctant to take over the work of such offices. They have been traumatized by a ¥5.1 trillion reduction in grants-in-aid tax money to local governments from fiscal 2004 through fiscal 2006.

The devolution panel should work out a plan that will provide enough funds for local governments to take over the work and personnel from regional offices of the central government.

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