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Monday, Jan. 17, 2011

Experts worth listening to


Each of the government's ministries and agencies has its own deliberative council. Before the fiscal 2001 ministerial reorganization — on April 27, 2000 — the government adopted the basic plan for abolishing and integrating these councils and the like. (The expression "and the like" was added because a handful of deliberative bodies did not include the word "council" in their name.)

With the adoption of this basic plan, a large majority of the councils were abolished or combined with others. A total of 121 councils were abolished and replaced by 29 councils to deliberate on basic policy matters and by 49 others whose primary missions are to enforce laws.

Under the successive administrations of the Liberal Democratic Party, the councils for many decades served as a cover for bureaucratic control over administrative affairs. That's why the basic plan says at the outset that the councils would be streamlined to resolve problems that arise "out of criticism that they were being used as cover [for a bureaucratic control]."

What this means is that, superficially, each council would listen to opinions expressed by its members, who represent various interest groups and prepare advisory and other reports as though they were free of the interests of the ministry or agency involved.

Those reports were then accepted by the Cabinet members even though they were written by bureaucrats under the cover of deliberative councils. In the ensuing scenario, the government would prepare a legislative bill based on the report submitted by the council concerned and lay it before the National Diet — a task that only Diet members are entitled to perform. Even during parliamentary deliberations, high- ranking bureaucrats would often answer questions on behalf of ministers.

In September 2009 the Democratic Party of Japan came to power under Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama with a major goal of shifting political power from bureaucrats to elected politicians. This marked the epoch-making start of a new administration, the likes of which had not been seen in the postwar history of the nation. The Hatoyama administration declared that the "principal players in politics are elected politicians, not bureaucrats."

Under the new scheme, each ministry was to be run by a trio of lawmakers — the minister, the senior vice minister and the parliamentary secretary — who drew up all policy matters rather than have bureaucrats do the job. Under the Hatoyama administration, a large number of bureaucrats appeared to lose their responsibilities and missions.

As all policy matters were to be initiated by the trio, deliberative councils also seemed to have been made idle. In recent months, however, both bureaucrats and such councils are steadily regaining their power and authority, perhaps because some politicians now think it was a waste of talent not to fully utilize the competence of bureaucrats, or because they have accepted that there is a limit to their playing a lead role in politics, or because the administration of Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who replaced Hatoyama in June 2010, has been unpopular for so long.

I believe that in order for politics under the leadership of elected lawmakers to function effectively, it is essential that due attention be paid to opinions of bureaucrats who have accumulated knowledge through experience in their respective ministries and of experts serving on the councils. But I do not approve of the way bureaucrats and councils perform their duties today. What changes are needed?

• First, bureaucrats must not act as representatives of the interests of industrial sectors under the supervision of their respective ministry. They must work as "public servants" with their top priority on the interests of people. During the days when it was common for retiring bureaucrats to "parachute" into jobs at private corporations under the supervision of their ministry, it was understandable that bureaucrats pursued the interests of those sectors. Now that the situation has changed, they are called upon to serve the nation as public servants.

I don't believe this "parachute" option should be banned altogether, because there is always demand for talented former bureaucrats. But I do not approve of an ex-government official being hired by a major enterprise for the sake of serving as a liaison between the company and the ministry from which he has retired.

• Second, there are too many members in various committees and subcommittees of deliberative councils. Only those who are well-versed in subject matters should be chosen to sit on such committees. The selection of well-qualified persons will be hindered if a target of increasing the percentage of women among committee members to 30 percent is enforced.

• Third, persons with vested interests must not be selected to serve as committee members, because opinions of those who represent the interests of business organizations or labor unions are by and large not worth listening to at council deliberations. Those who wish to speak on behalf of business organizations or labor unions may do so as witnesses but should not be allowed to represent their causes as full-fledged committee members. Generally speaking, the interests of economic organizations often correspond to those of the ministry supervising them. I believe, therefore, that anyone having connections with such interests should not be allowed to sit on a council.

In 1946, U.S. President Harry S. Truman created the Council of Economic Advisers, consisting of a chairman and two members. With a few exceptions, council members are concurrently economists and college professors. Patterned after this, the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy was founded in the Japanese government by Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori in 2001 and it came to assume greater importance under his successor, Junichiro Koizumi.

Chaired by the prime minister himself, the 10-member council consisted of five Cabinet ministers responsible for economic affairs, the governor of the Bank of Japan, two representatives of business circles and two from academia. Customarily, one of the two business representatives was either the chairman or the vice chairman of the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren).

It seems utterly absurd to permit the head of the most powerful business lobby to speak up at the panel charged with the task of determining the nation's economic policies. This is unthinkable at least by American or European standards. The Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy ceased to function after the change of government in 2009.

• Fourth, a major change should be made to the system in which council members are assigned equal time to speak according to seating order. This system blurs the focus of discussions so that a two-hour meeting often ends without a substantive exchange of views. It is desirable that a committee or a subcommittee have no more than 10 members. The conduct of proceedings should be changed so that differences in opinions stand out in bold relief.

• Fifth, some changes are needed to the discussion environment of various councils. Today opinions expressed by scholars are are dismissed as opinions of those with no knowledge of what goes on in the real world. Yet, opinions in favor of protecting the interests of the ministry are respected and those opposed to such interests are ignored.

Undoubtedly some scholars serve vested interests — just as some "tribal politicians" do — by currying favor with a ministry or business circles, either consciously or unconsciously. Scholars should speak up frankly and fairly from their own expertise; otherwise, they will show themselves as unworthy shams.

Takamitsu Sawa is president of Shiga University, Japan.


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