Enhancing government accountability

The recent series of scandals rocking the Abe administration has exposed the inadequacies of a guideline that governs the management of official documents by government ministries and agencies. A government committee tasked with overseeing the management of official documents should strictly review the guideline and related rules and make necessary changes, including plugging loopholes in the rules, to ensure that those documents are properly handled. It needs to tackle the job in earnest since the issue at hand concerns the people’s trust in government.

The law on management and storage of official documents, which went into effect in 2011, classifies official documents into such categories as administrative documents (of government ministries and agencies), corporate documents (of independent administrative corporations) and special historical public records, and sets down principles for the preparation, arrangement, storage and disposal of the documents.

In the case of administrative documents, each ministry or agency decides on management rules under the guideline, designates officials in charge and determines the retention period of individual documents. These government organizations are required to prepare and keep documents so that their decision-making processes can be examined. They are required to strictly limit the types of documents on small matters on which such rules will not apply. The bureaucrats are obliged to adequately keep the records of email communications with other government organizations.

Under the guideline, however, how to handle specific official documents is left to the judgment of each ministry and agency. In the scandal involving the Osaka-based school operator Moritomo Gakuen, efforts to dig into what was behind the sale of a government-owned tract of land in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, at a steep discount to the operator hit a snag due to the absence of documentary records of the negotiations for the deal. The Finance Ministry insisted that the sale of the plot for ¥134 million, or just 14 percent of its appraisal value, in 2016 was legitimate because the ¥800 million discount was made to cover the purchaser’s cost of disposing of industrial waste found at the site. But it also said the documents on the negotiations had already been destroyed — in accordance with its own rules on management of official documents, which dictated that it can destroy documents concerning a land deal as soon as the contract has been signed. The problem with the guideline is that bureaucrats will have the discretion to decide which documents should be retained for less than a year and set the retention period of the documents so designated.

In the case of Kake Gakuen, an Okayama-based school operator that sought to open a new veterinary medicine department at its university by taking advantage of the government’s deregulatory policy, education ministry documents surfaced suggesting that the Cabinet Office cited the “prime minister’s intent” in pushing the ministry to expedite the process for approving the opening of the new department — which gave rise to suspicions of favoritism because Kake Gakuen is headed by a longtime friend of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The Abe administration, however, insisted that the documents were just memos written by the ministry’s officials and do not constitute official documents as defined by the law — those written by government workers in the execution of their jobs, used organizationally and kept by the administrative organization in question.

These cases shed light on the inadequacy of the current system for managing official documents, which enables government organizations to arbitrarily handle documents that they may deem inconvenient for them. The definition of “official documents” is so narrow as to make it difficult for the public to access them to examine the decision-making processes of the organizations. The committee should set clearly defined and detailed rules for management of the documents that uniformly cover all the government organizations and allow no room for maneuvering by bureaucrats to cover up their activities by destroying relevant documents.

In the fiasco over daily activity logs of Ground Self-Defense Force personnel deployed to the United Nations-led peacekeeping operation in South Sudan, the GSDF first said the daily logs dated from July 7 to 12, 2016, whose disclosure was requested by a journalist, had already been destroyed — even though the logs had remained in its computer system. The same data were also found on the computers of the Joint Staff Office. Defense Minister Tomomi Inada eventually admitted that all of the daily activity logs dating back to the January 2012 start of the GSDF’s peacekeeping operations in South Sudan have been kept in the form of electronic data.

The GSDF case shed light on how some government officials defy the basic idea of the law that official documents of government organizations are the public’s common intellectual property, which underpins the foundation of a healthy democracy and the people’s right to know. The committee should consider introducing punishments for government officials who violate rules on the management of documents under the law. It also should consider revising the freedom of information law to deter attempts by bureaucrats to conceal official documents.