Earlier this month, a shocking survey result was announced. The survey, conducted by work-style consultancy Work Life Balance Co. on 480 public servants between March and May, revealed that a distressing number of bureaucrats in government ministries have been logging overtime at a level that could cause death from overwork.

Due particularly to the spread of COVID-19, some 40 percent of the officials surveyed who work in the bureaucratic ground zero of Tokyo’s Kasumigaseki district have been putting in a whopping 100 hours of overtime or more per month.

Many workers at Japanese firms were once considered “corporate warriors” who spent more time in the office than at home. But now, the concept of work-life balance has gradually penetrated the private sector, and the recent pandemic has also forced businesses across a wide spectrum to accept telework and other flexible work styles. It is now time to review the work style of government employees to improve efficiency.

Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, who announced the survey’s results with Work Life Balance’s president, Yoshie Komuro, relayed one of the responses written by a health ministry official in his 30s: “My son told me that it was the first time for me to sit down with him and have dinner (on a weekday). I cried because I felt very sorry for my son that I hadn’t done things that an ordinary parent would do. I realized the work style of Kasumigaseki is based on such sacrifice of those bureaucrats.’’

Because of the pandemic, the workload at government ministries and agencies has piled up, but because of the stay-home period it is also true that some bureaucrats have been able to spend more time with their families.

A major reason why government officials can’t change their work style is that politicians refuse to adapt themselves to the digital age and continue to ask bureaucrats to give various briefings in person, even late at night or early in the morning. Fax messages and telephone calls continue to be their regular communication methods. Bureaucrats always have to promptly respond to requests from those lawmakers in such archaic ways.

According to the survey, 80 percent of the respondents said briefings for politicians are conducted in person and not online, while 90 percent noted that they feel politicians don’t have consideration for bureaucrats and their work environment.

Even though they should be urgently adopting a paperless system, 86 percent of the bureaucrats said they have to use faxes to send messages to politicians.

While many politicians favor face-to-face communication, traditional methods of doing business are also deeply rooted in every sector of the government. For example, using documents and hanko seals are a main means for policy approval, while the use of online conference tools is limited, with some bureaucrats commenting that they can’t use videoconferencing apps except Skype.

To change the government, digitalization of the Diet is also key.

In mid-March, Hayato Suzuki, a Lower House member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, launched a project team with other young lawmakers. They are proposing that the Diet adopt online conference tools and enable lawmakers to vote remotely if they are unable to go to the Diet due to official duties, pregnancy or illness.

After state minister of health Gaku Hashimoto and parliamentary vice minister Hanako Jimi went onboard the coronavirus-stricken cruise ship Diamond Princess in the port of Yokohama in February to inspect the ship, they were unable to go to the Diet for the quarantine period of two weeks. During this time there were deliberations on the national budget, but they were unable to participate.

Japan needs to create new rules and a system that fit the new age. In the future, an increase in female politicians would mean more will be giving birth when the Diet is in session, while more people with disabilities may also become Diet members. Ministers meanwhile may have to go overseas to conduct important official duties. Article 56 of the Constitution requires both houses of the Diet to have one-third or more members in attendance to hold a plenary session and vote, but if online voting without physically being present in the Diet can be done, this requirement can be met in the virtual realm.

Replacing old rules and practices with new ones will not only help improve the working environment of bureaucrats, it will surely save time and expenses for many people, which will ultimately mean saving taxpayer money.

The world is facing tremendous challenges due to the pandemic and Japan needs to prepare for a possible twin outbreak of COVID-19 and influenza this fall and winter. Unless the current inefficiency in the government is addressed, it will be extremely difficult for Japan’s policy-making center to deal swiftly and effectively with future crises.

The Japan Times Editorial Board

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