Critical role for bureaucrats


HONG KONG — Some political commentators are suggesting that Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama is preparing to make Britain his model for reforming Japan’s government system so that ministers — and not bureaucrats — make the important policy decisions.

Before going any further, Hatoyama or one of his trusted lieutenants should visit the United Kingdom to understand the merits as well as the deep flaws and fault lines that have developed in the British government system.

On the way it would be worth their while to stop over in Bangkok to meet Korn Chatikavanij, Thailand’s finance minister, who is a key figure trying to fix a battered parliamentary system of government where things had gone too far the other way from Japan.

Thailand has almost the same population as the U.K. and, like Japan and the U.K., is a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch. It suffered excesses of ultra-political rule when bureaucrats were cut down to size as a strong leader devised policies based on his own business experience. Former policeman and telecom billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra ran Thailand as if it were his fiefdom. His Cabinet was a rubber stamp. He rarely bothered with Parliament and tried to intimidate the press.

Korn has a good vantage point. He describes himself as “a ministry brat” because his father was a leading Finance Ministry mandarin and his uncle was the founder of Thailand’s electricity- generating company. Before he became a politician five years ago, Korn was an investment banker dealing with the Finance Ministry in privatizations of Thailand’s big state-run companies.

Now, as minister, he says he must bring about cultural change inside the civil service. But he does not want to do away with bureaucrats or emasculate them. He notes that one of the values of a good bureaucracy is precisely that it stays in business while political leaders may only have a short term in office.

“The role of the civil servant can be of greater importance in the long term than my role as a visiting politician. I will come and I will go,” says Korn. “The bureaucrats have been totally politicized and I am here to change that culture back to how it used to be pre-Thaksin — which means I am re-programming their modus operandi so as to return their ability to make decisions and judgments without political interference.”

Korn believes that politicians have a vital role to play as agents of change. “To impact change, and a lot of change is required, there needs to be political will and policy needs to be driven by politicians. Without that, frankly, very little will get done. The civil service is just not designed psychologically or organizationally as an agent of change.”

The proper relationship between politicians and bureaucracy is partnership, adds Korn. “We need to work together, and effective and efficient implementation of these policies is critically dependent on the civil servants.”

This was the theory of the golden British age of parliamentary government. Constitutional manuals and volumes of memoirs going back to the Labour victory after World War II tell of the partnership and the many tussles, in which intellectually superior and incorruptible bureaucrats advised that a particular policy was stupid and would not work, yet bowed to their political masters to implement it in the most efficient way. The books and TV series “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister” portrayed the smooth civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby obsequiously obedient but really trying to frustrate the will of his poor minister, Jim Hacker.

Much has changed in the past 20 years even in the U.K. When Gus O’Donnell entered the British civil service in the 1970s, there were tea ladies wheeling trollies, and he got notes that addressed him as “Dear O’Donnell.”

Now O’Donnell is the U.K.’s Cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, who sits next to the prime minister at Cabinet meetings and is known universally as “God” — from his initials, not because he is the nearest thing to God that the 550,000 civil servants who work under him will ever know on Earth. He has served both Conservative and Labour governments equally faithfully, and has talked to opposition leader David Cameron, who has promised that he will keep O’Donnell on if his Conservative Party wins power in the election expected in May.

He is grittier and much less smarmy than Sir Humphrey. He has a reputation for keeping fit, playing a mean hand at poker, and is impossible to pin down as right or left, Labour or Conservative or Liberal Democrat. In a recent interview two statements of his principles stand out. One is his claim that “Economics is about trying to make the world a better place.” The other is about the role of the bureaucracy: “We’ve moved to an understanding that you can have the best policy in the world, but if you don’t deliver it well, what is the point?”

Unfortunately for Britain — and for Japan if it tries to copy British practices — O’Donnell is an aberration, trying to do his best in a system where power is becoming exercised dangerously autocratically through the prime minister’s office, bypassing Parliament and concerned about honesty and accuracy only so that its spin works to maintain the government — well, really the prime minister’s — popularity.

The situation is so bad that a distinguished group of former distinguished civil servants, calling themselves the Better Government Initiative, recently released a damning report on Britain’s standards of governance. It begins uncompromisingly, “The need for reform of our governance is urgent.” It lambastes loss of key values of integrity, transparency, objectivity, accountability and responsibility, citing “notorious examples of bad government” in the form of badly thought out laws rushed through Parliament without proper scrutiny.

Starting with Margaret Thatcher and spun on by Tony Blair, the British government has come to be centered on the prime minister and his unelected advisers to such an extent that the leader can bypass Cabinet and Parliament even to declare a dubious war. Ministers are often in their jobs for such a short time that they do not master their ministry.

Is this the system that Japan wants to copy? Better to talk to Korn, who realizes the importance of listening to the bureaucrats, letting them pick holes in plans as a way to improve them before they have to implement them: Use the bureaucrats wisely rather than abusing them. It is also important, and has been increasingly ignored in the U.K., for policies to be fully aired and discussed in press and parliament.

Although Japan has been badly served for decades, the blame belongs not only with bureaucrats in alliance with self-serving politicians but also with a press that has not done its job and an electorate that has let itself be hoodwinked rather than face the realities of an ailing economy and a corrupt polity.

Kevin Rafferty is author of “Inside Japan’s Powerhouses,” a study of “Japan Inc.” and internationalization.