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Bloom is off decentralization

A number of local political parties have cropped up of late clamoring for further “decentralization,” which would shift much administrative and budgetary authority from the central government to local governments.

The most vocal among these new groups is Osaka Ishin-no Kai (Osaka Restoration Association), headed by Toru Hashimoto, former governor of Osaka Prefecture and current mayor of Osaka City.

The crux of Hashimoto’s platform is to transform Osaka Prefecture into Osaka-to, an entity similar to Tokyo-to (the area under the jurisdiction of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government). That would dissolve Osaka City and other cities within Osaka Prefecture and reorganize them into special wards, each of which would have a status similar to Tokyo’s wards while leaving some municipal tasks and revenues to the metropolitan government.

The push for decentralization has attracted much attention from news media while some prominent members of the established political parties are trying to win favor with Hashimoto and his followers.

It has been pointed out, however, that there are many flaws in the overall attempt at decentralization in general and the Osaka-to plan in particular..

A journalist reporting for a local newspaper says he is stunned by the differing degrees of competence between those working at central government ministries and agencies on one hand, and public servants working at local government on the other.

He says the well-organized work by bureaucrats at Tokyo’s Kasumigaseki, the power center of Japan, is far superior in quality to the work done by prefectural government workers.

There are concrete cases that questions the quality of local government workers. For example, from the time Hashimoto became Osaka mayor in mid-December 2011 to the end of May 2012, eight Osaka city government workers were arrested and 71 others reprimanded — about the same rate as in 2011. A ranking Osaka city official estimated that there are several times more cases of inappropriate behavior by Osaka city workers that have not been reported.

One Liberal Democratic member of the Osaka prefectural assembly said a number of problems have been found among Osaka prefectural government workers, though they are not quite as bad as their Osaka city counterparts.

Generally speaking, the quality of public servants declines as the size of entities they work for decreases — central government workers are the best, prefectural government workers are in the middle and municipal workers are at the lowest level. The big question is whether it is right to transfer greater power to local government workers who lack basic abilities.

A ranking official of the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry says he has witnessed a number of local public servants who close their eyes to politicians who try to protect vested interests. He also says some local public servants use their own influence to secure high-paying jobs for themselves in auxiliary organizations of local governments or in the private sector. This official, who once had embraced the idea of promoting decentralization, has become so disgusted with the behavior of local public servants that he now views decentralization as a pie in the sky.

A national newspaper reporter stationed in a medium-size city in Kyushu says he, too, has been appalled by the low moral standards of prefectural and municipal government workers. Some collude with city assembly members “who are more like hoodlums than politicians” to hire people recommended by them for temporary jobs with the local governments, paying them salaries with taxpayers’ money, he says.

A Lower House member of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan who was involved in writing a party manifesto item calling for decentralization now says it may be better to concentrate administrative power with bureaucrats of Kasumigaseki than to disperse it to local public servants, because the former can be scrutinized more easily by the mass media and others.

The aforementioned Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry official points out that opinions are split in foreign countries as to whether decentralization is good for a nation.

The deputy chief of the local policy ministry of Spain, which is suffering from a financial crisis, admits that the national government made the mistake of delegating strong autonomous power to 17 autonomous communities, the first level of administrative division in Spain. The official says it has led to the creation of small countries within the country. As a result, the Spanish government now plans to push recentralization.

While Hashimoto is regarded as the champion of decentralization, contradictions have surfaced in his plan. On June 15, he and Osaka Prefectural Gov. Ichiro Matsui declared that after transforming the existing Osaka Prefecture into Osaka-to, they would then work toward combining Osaka and its neighboring prefectures into what would be called Kansai State.

A prefectural assemblyman of Hashimoto’s Osaka Ishin-no Kai says that the existence of Osaka-to and Kansai State would be incompatible with each other. Hashimoto’s idea is to have Osaka-to remain even after Kansai State is established, but this would lead to a four-layer administrative hierarchy comprising the central government, Kansai State, Osaka-to and municipalities, making the administrative system more complex than now. A major newspaper editor says the proposed system risks allowing the central government to retain its influence in Kansai State, which would become a regional branch of the central government.

Doubts have started surfacing among officials of the Osaka prefectural and city governments as to whether Hashimoto and his supporters are serious about the idea of creating Osaka-to.

One official says the tricky point in Hashimoto’s scheme is that the creation of Osaka-to would in no way resolve the overlaps of administrative power between the Osaka prefectural government and the Osaka city government — a major issue Hashimoto took up in his election bid.

Problems such as both governments’ pushing their own housing and city water projects without coordination can be resolved if the two government talks with each other and consolidate their projects.

As Osaka Ishin-no Kai promotes far-fetched ideas like combining Osaka Prefecture with its neighboring prefectures to form Kansai State, it is also opening a political academy of its own to train Hashimoto’s followers with the aim of getting seats in the Diet.

Debates on decentralization must return to the basics and start over. Merely delegating power and authority to local governments could bring the nation to ruin.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the July issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.