The government has launched a new organization to manage personnel appointments of senior officials at ministries and agencies in a more integrated manner, under which the prime minister’s office will take the lead in the promotion and transfer of high-ranking bureaucrats. The new system is supposed to eliminate sectionalism in personnel management and enable government leaders to tap capable officials needed to implement the administration’s policies irrespective of ministerial interests. However, its implementation needs to be closely monitored so that the system will not merely result in favoritism by political leaders.

Subject to the new system are the positions of a total of about 600 officials in the vice minister, bureau chief and deputy bureau chief ranks at ministries and agencies. Currently candidates for the vice minister and bureau chief positions are screened at a conference at the prime minister’s office, but the candidates have been effectively selected by each ministry through internal decisions and often on the basis of seniority.

Under the new system, the chief Cabinet secretary will compile a list of candidates for the senior positions based on personnel evaluation by Cabinet ministers of the bureaucrats in their organizations — by choosing officials who are evaluated to be best-matched to implement the administration’s policies. Each minister will then draft personnel appointment plans based on the list, and the plans will be finally endorsed in meetings attended by the prime minister and the chief Cabinet secretary. The new Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs, manned with about 160 officials formerly with the National Personnel Authority and the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, also took over some of the tasks of these organizations, including preparation of recruitment tests for new government bureaucrats and training programs.

Steps to create the new Cabinet bureau was initiated by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2008 during his first stint in office, but it was only this April that a set of laws to introduce the organization was approved by the Diet.

Since returning to the helm of government in 2012, the prime minister has defied conventional practices at some government organizations to tap officials for key positions that relate to his policy agenda, including the appointment of diplomat Ichiro Komatsu last year as chief of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau to support his bid to change interpretation of the Constitution to lift the ban on collective self-defense.

Japan’s powerful central government bureaucracy has often come under criticism that officials at each ministry put priority on their sectoral interests over those of the administration in power. The new system will give political leaders more control over bureaucrats by being actively involved in the promotion and transfer of the senior officials.

It can serve as a tool for the administration to realize its agenda such as increasing the number of women in key positions in government. Katsunobu Kato, deputy chief Cabinet secretary who doubles as head of the new Cabinet personnel bureau, has indicated that personnel exchanges between different ministries as well as with the private sector would be promoted in the regular shakeup of senior bureaucrats in July.

It will indeed be a positive development if the new system eradicates sectional divisions in the personnel management in government bureaucracy. One concern, however, is that it could be abused by political leaders as a tool of favoritism in the promotion of bureaucrats — or encourage bureaucrats to try to curry favor with politicians — because the system enables leaders to exclude from the list of candidates for key positions officials who do not go along with the administration policies. Such risks need to be eliminated by making sure that the personnel evaluation by the Cabinet members and the candidate selection by the prime minister’s office will be done in a fair manner based on objective criteria.

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