Japan from the inside out

Making the monkeys dance

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 20, 2009

THE PREVIOUS POST presented senior civil servants discussing their views of the current political situation, particularly in regard to how the upcoming election would affect them. Here’s a follow-up interview of Kinoshita Toshiyuki, who worked for the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, served as the mayor of Saga City, and now heads his own policy research group. He is also the author of Naze Kaikaku ha Kanarazu Shippai Suru no ka (Why Reform Will Never Succeed), a title meant as a challenge rather than a lament. The interview appeared in the Nishinippon Shimbun.

– Policy decision-making under bureaucratic control has resulted in citizen mistrust of the government. The political platforms of the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan call for a reform of the civil service system. How do you view those platforms?

Kinoshita Toshiyuki

Kinoshita Toshiyuki

The declining population and other changes in the social structure have led to calls for a reappraisal of the national approach to politics. Despite this, the LDP platform fails to offer a proposal for eliminating the reliance on the bureaucracy, so I do not hold it in high regard. When the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries hired me 25 years ago, I was told, “Cabinet ministers are performing monkeys. Your job is to skillfully beat the drum and make them dance.” That is the presumption of the civil service. There has been no change to the general rule that the politicians do not become involved in policy formation, a role taken over by the bureaucrats.

The DPJ is offering a clear proposal to take the leadership from the bureaucracy and put it in the hands of politicians by having about 100 Diet MPs involved in government operations. But politicians have renounced their leadership authority, so it won’t be easy for them to control Kasumigaseki unless the minister, deputy minister, and parliamentary secretaries form a close-knit team.

– The so-called Iron Triangle of government, bureaucracy, and business have brought about such problems as the collusion on bidding for public works projects and amakudari (the practice of giving senior bureaucrats important jobs in government-affiliated organizations and private companies when they retire).

I worked for 15 years in Kasumigaseki, and more than half of that time was spent in power struggles with government offices. Civil servants don’t create wealth on their own, so they don’t understand what is wasteful, and they have no awareness of cutting expenditures. They wind up building big roads in agricultural areas that hardly anyone uses because they’re next to national highways. Amakudari is the symbol of waste by protecting the vested interests of the bureaucracy. It results in the wastefulness of the government-affiliated organizations and the creation of expensive projects.

– The LDP has proposed a system for eliminating waste in which external third parties check the budgets. The DPJ has proposed a large-scale reevaluation of independent administrative organizations and public-interest corporations and the elimination of bureaucratic bid-rigging and single-tendering of contracts.

Civil servants appoint specialists whose thinking is in line with theirs to chair blue-ribbon panels without a second thought. It will be difficult to effect change with the LDP plan. Both parties are calling for a 20% reduction in the civil service, and I support that, but the DPJ is also calling for a 20% reduction in the number of civil service personnel transferred to local government in conjunction with devolution. If the personnel expenses for those employees are transferred to local government, the reduction of the national budget will be meaningless.

– The parties have different approaches to the consumption tax in their plans to rebuild the nation’s finances.

The LDP proposes the implementation of tax reform, including an increase in the consumption tax, after the economy improves. They are clearly calling for the maintenance of public services, including welfare services for the elderly, with an increase in the citizens’ liability. I think that’s a good idea. The DPJ is seeking the elimination of waste from funding sources, but that omits the choice of either increasing taxes or reducing services if the funds are insufficient.

– The explanations of both parties leave something to be desired.

The LDP is sorely lacking in its analysis and explanations for the reasons it did not achieve the goals in its previous election platform. The DPJ has to be closely watched for how much reform it will bring to Kasumigaseki because it receives so much support from public sector unions. Politics must serve to pass the rudder of control from the bureaucrats to the politicians. I think the voters, who will select those politicians, have a heavy responsibility.

Afterwords: The Ministry had a point when it referred to politicians–everywhere–as performing monkeys, but still, that’s no way to run a government.

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