Editorials

New rules for managing official documents

A draft of new guidelines for managing official documents, released by the Cabinet Office recently, mark a step forward. They would set common criteria for preserving administrative documents needed for reviewing how government decisions are made — an issue highlighted in the series of scandals that have shaken the Abe administration over the past several months. Given that administrative documents are an important common property of the nation and the people, further efforts need to be made to ensure transparency in their management. Loopholes that might allow officials to cover up inconvenient records must be closed.

In the case of the sale of a government-owned tract of land in Osaka Prefecture at a steep discount to school operator Moritomo Gakuen, the Finance Ministry insisted that the ¥130 million price tag — a discount of about ¥800 million from the ¥950 million appraisal value — was a legitimate deal because the cost of disposing of industrial waste buried at the site had to be deducted. Ministry officials, however, have refused to provide further explanations, saying documents detailing the negotiations with the school operator have already been destroyed in accordance with the ministry’s internal rules.

On the government’s decision to approve the opening of a new veterinary medicine department at a university operated by a close friend of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, documents produced by education ministry officials quoted the Cabinet Office as urging the reluctant ministry to expedite the approval process by citing “the prime minister’s intent,” leading to allegations of favoritism. But the veracity of the documents were challenged as the quoted officials denied making such statements. Management of official records also came into question when the Defense Ministry initially said the daily activity logs of Self-Defense Force personnel deployed in South Sudan for a peacekeeping mission had been destroyed — only to admit that they had been kept in the form of electronic data.

Once the guidelines are finalized, likely by the year’s end, each administrative organization will determine rules in compliance with the guidelines for management of their official documents, setting the period for keeping documents between one and 30 years according to degree of importance. The organizations will need to obtain Cabinet Office approval of their regulations.

The guidelines say that documents needed for verifying the administrative decision-making process must in principle be kept for at least one year, and spell out concrete examples of documents that can be destroyed in less than a year — such as records of regular and daily work communications between officials, schedule memos and documents that are merely compilations of edited published materials. Records of meetings within each ministry and agency or with outside parties that concern policy formulation or implementation of government projects must be produced as administrative documents, and statements at the meetings should be confirmed with the participants to ensure accuracy.

Each organization will need to get Cabinet Office approval when they either discard the documents or transfer them to the National Archives after the designated period expires. The ministries and agencies will need to keep a log of how the documents in their possession are managed, and publicly disclose the situation.

The draft guidelines, if implemented, will serve as a minimum deterrent against officials destroying government documents at their own discretion by setting criteria for preservation of the documents. In its position to supervise whether organizations follow the guideline, the Cabinet Office has a key role to play to make sure the proposed mechanism serves its intended purpose.

One big problem with the guidelines, however, is that they leave it up to each of government organization to judge the importance of each piece of information they handle and the period for which its record must be kept. Which specific documents will be recognized as administrative “should be comprehensively judged in light of how the documents are used,” the guidelines say.

There is room for concern that officials may try to destroy records of inconvenient information. It would be possible for the officials to classify records of discussion over important decisions as regular/routine communication. It must be made certain that even exchanges of memos between officials should be recorded and kept if they constitute a part of the decision-making process, which needs to be subsequently reviewed and verified.

An effective solution to these concerns might be to implement oversight by a third party. The government should continue to explore ways to improve such mechanisms.