Public documents that record the government’s decision-making process are, as defined by the law on managing such documents, “people’s common intellectual property that underpins the foundation of democracy.” The law implemented in 2011 mandates that such documents be created and preserved so citizens can trace and review the process of how government decisions were made. But recent scandals involving the sale of a government-owned tract of land in Osaka Prefecture to a school operator and the cover-up of the daily activity logs of Self-Defense Forces troops sent to Iraq in the mid-2000s have cast doubts over the mechanism controlling such documents.

Proposals have been made to reform the mechanism, and the government says it’s open to amending the law. An idea reportedly considered by the government would create a new Cabinet Office position to oversee the handling of public documents across government organizations. The bottom line is that all government officials must recognize the purpose of making and keeping public documents — to keep government policies and decisions accountable to the public — and make sure that the purpose is effectively served.

The controversy over the land sale to Moritomo Gakuen at a questionable discount, in which the Finance Ministry said it had discarded its records of negotiations with the school operator over the 2016 deal, exposed the bureaucracy’s sloppy management of such documents. The government responded to the criticism by revising in December its guideline for keeping administrative documents, mandating that all documents needed for reviewing the government’s decision-making process be preserved at least for more than a year in principle.

The subsequent revelation that Finance Ministry officials had doctored documents concerning the Moritomo deal when they were submitted to the Diet, however, threw the whole mechanism into question. The fact that the SDF hid the activity logs of the troops deployed to Iraq from 2004 to 2006 for a humanitarian aid mission following the U.S.-led invasion of the country — which were initially reported as having been lost — for more than a year without informing the defense minister called into question not only the adequate management of such documents but civilian control of the SDF.

Given the gravity of the issue at stake, a working team of the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito ruling coalition last month compiled proposals to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that public documents be converted into searchable electronic files. Approval of such documents should be made in electronic forms in principle, and a system be created so that when the documents are changed after being officially approved — as in the case of the Finance Ministry’s Moritomo documents — the history of the changes will be shared among all parties concerned, the coalition team said in the proposals.

That may indeed serve as a deterrent against officials making unauthorized changes to the documents. At the same time, converting public documents into electronic data will involve a massive amount of work, including converting the large volumes of application forms submitted by private-sector businesses and other parties.

There are ideas, both in the ruling and opposition parties, to amend the law on managing public documents to provide for penalties for altering documents. The Penal Code has a provision against forging official documents, but the law on public documents does not provide for punishment for tampering with documents. Nobuhisa Sagawa, who has resigned as the National Tax Agency chief over the altering of the Moritomo-related documents while he was director of the Finance Ministry’s Financial Bureau , is being probed by prosecutors based on a criminal complaint filed against him on suspected violation of the Penal Code provision, but the prospect of him actually being charged is reportedly slim because the degree to which the documents had been altered may not match the criteria of the offense.

There is caution, however, that creating a punitive provision under the law may in turn prompt government bureaucrats to avoid making public documents as much as possible because they could become a source of risk for the bureaucrats. The government, for its part, remains reluctant to expand the scope of administrative documents that must be kept and open for public disclosure, for example, to include memos kept by individual bureaucrats. A failure to retain records of government’s decision-making process that should be kept as public documents would run counter to the purpose of the law.

There may not be an easy solution to the problems concerning the handling of public documents. What seems clear is that any of the proposed reforms must be accompanied by a common awareness on the part of the government officials that the documents they make and preserve are public property that are needed to keep the government accountable for its actions and policies.

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