Commentary / Japan

Break the bureaucrats' grip on policy power

by Heizo Takenaka

These reforms were pursued in roughly two directions. The first was reform of the government organization to beef up the functions of the prime minister.

Administrative reforms launched under Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto in the late 1990s resulted in establishing the Cabinet Office and a policy conference headed by the prime minister, the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy, was founded in 2001.

Second, the creation of the Personnel Bureau within the Cabinet Office enabled the prime minister’s office to take control over the appointments of high-ranking bureaucrats.

One reason why a powerful bureaucracy works as an obstacle to reform is that the organization and personnel decisions at government ministries and agencies are vertically divided.

Most of the elite bureaucrats serve a single ministry or agency throughout their careers, and when they leave the bureaucracy their organizations even prepare lucrative post-retirement jobs for them.

As a consequence, the former bureaucrats maintain an allegiance to the ministry or agency to which they belong, and are strongly incentivized to protect the interests of their organization. Amid a chorus of opposition, the Personnel Bureau was finally set up at the Cabinet Office in 2014.

Thus some progress was made in the transition to a system where politicians and the prime minister’s office take the lead in policy decisions.

In reality, however, bureaucrats continue to drive many of the policymaking decisions and the politicians can hardly be deemed to be leading the process. In more recent years, criticism has even emerged that the Prime Minister’s Office is wielding too much power — as if to try to turn the clock back on the reforms.

Essentially, government bureaucrats should concentrate on drawing up and executing policies as technocrats neutral from all political forces. But in fact, many senior bureaucrats behave as if they were lawmakers, laying the groundwork behind the scenes for pushing the policies of their choice, and function as the driving engine of the iron triangle.

Further reforms are needed to correct the problem. First, a thorough separation of politics and the bureaucracy must be enforced. In concrete terms, any contact between politicians and bureaucrats should be banned except in the Diet and other venues of policy deliberations.

There will, of course, be strong objections from bureaucrats who would be unable to exert their influence, and resistance from lawmakers who neglect to study policy matters and thus lack relevant information.

However, in Britain, which has the same parliamentary system as Japan, such a system has already been introduced and is working. Japan needs to adopt this system.

Second, local assemblies should start holding sessions on weekends and in the evening hours as a measure to attract talented people who are interested in politics.

For politicians to lead policy decisions there needs to be a system that nurtures competent politicians. Regrettably, only the kind of people willing to devote their lives to politics can survive in the world of Japanese politics today. But there are a lot of people out there who could perform well if they become engaged in politics.

Weekend and evening sessions of local assemblies will enable people with full-time jobs or self-employed workers to take part in assembly deliberations — just like they participate in parent-teacher association activities at their children’s schools. Nurturing local assembly members would be an effective way to recruit future political leaders. Such efforts should begin at local assemblies.

Third, the voting environment in elections needs to be improved so that good political leaders who can take on necessary reforms will be elected. An internet voting system will hold the key to the endeavor.

Estonia, a country with some 1.32 million people, is known for promoting electronic government service. It introduced internet voting in local assembly elections in 2005, a system that was later adopted in national elections. In a general election held in March this year, 44 percent of the total votes cast and 60 percent of the votes obtained by the party that won the most votes were cast via the internet.

Japan should strive to get the views of more of its people reflected in elections through internet voting.

Heizo Takenaka, a professor emeritus of Keio University, served as economic and fiscal policy minister in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi from 2001 to 2005. He is a member of the government’s Industrial Competitiveness Council.

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5