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Friday, April 8, 2011

Politics of crisis leadership


The mega-crisis engendered in Japan by the great earthquake and tsunami has brought to the surface the political problem of Japanese crisis management.

One aspect of the difficulties for political management in the aftermath of the mega-crisis was the relationship between the government authority and private enterprise.

The private enterprise, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) in this case, was naturally obliged to keep in mind the viability and profitability of the enterprise, even though they must have been well aware of the "public" nature of the operation of electric power supply and social responsibility of the enterprise.

Besides, each private enterprise has its own "privacy" in the sense of the protection of industrial secrets or the particular manner of management.

It is therefore understandable that the "public responsibility" of the electric power supply company and their commitment to it may not have, at least as the immediate reaction to the disaster, been clear and manifest in the eyes of the general public as the overall priority for consideration.

In other words, the maintenance of the safety of the operation of the power stations is, however important it may be, only a part of the various factors to be considered in their operations and rehabilitation efforts.

On the other hand, from the standpoint of the public authority, the safety of the operation is the primary point of concern and responsibility. This means that political risk management is more important for the government authority than the consideration of economic calculation. How to close this gap between the private enterprise and the public authority is indeed a difficult problem to deal with.

One way to cope with this problem is to keep a constant good relationship and communication route between the regulatory authority and the private enterprise and thereby to establish a relationship based on trust and confidence.

In the past few years, however, there has been a politico-social tendency in Japan to discourage a close relationship between the government and private industries. The breakfast or luncheon meetings between government officials and representatives of industries are practically banned due to the criticism that there was traditionally too much close personal relations between industry and government. Fanned by journalists, this was the major factor for nontransparent dealings between the two.

There was some logic in this argument, particularly in the case of those related to the tendering of public works or similar operations. Even in the case of electricity supply, there has been an argument that the government (regulatory authority) had a tendency to collude with the industry for the sake of efficient energy supply.

However, several groups of journalism and political circles pushed this argument too far with the result that communication, both formal and informal between the government and industries, has become narrow and superficial. The climate of mistrust and detachment, however muffled it may be, has spread in the corridors of the establishment of economic power in Japan.

With this backdrop, it was quite natural that "invisible" barriers of communication should have existed between Tepco and the Japanese government in general. What appeared to be a lack of transparency and miscommunication of the flow information between the electric company and the government, was indeed a price to be paid for the breakdown of the informal yet effective "togetherness" between industry and government.

More serious and more apparent in the process of crisis management following the great disaster in Japan is the drawback implied in the slogan "politics should override bureaucracy." Naturally, the slogan itself is a fundamental principle of governance in any democratic society. However, when this catchphrase was put into practice in Japan, it meant the rise of dogmatic attitudes among some politicians who neglected consultations with the bureaucracy.

The three pivotal political figures appointed to the top echelon of each ministry were sometimes reported to have insufficient discussions on policy matters with bureaucrats. Indeed, some political figures openly displayed their mistrust of the expertise of ministry officials. Some even proudly boasted of their independence of bureaucracy and detachment from their own ministry's officials.

High-ranking career officials in each ministry, for their part, accepted the initiatives of politicians with a docile but ironic grin, presumably for fear that the social trend was on the side of the politicians and that frank or bold intervention and advice should damage their position.

In this process, however, the atmosphere of mistrust, detachment and even a mild degree of helplessness spread around the bureaucracy. Under such circumstances, it should be very difficult for the experts of the bureaucracy to share the same spirit of mission with responsible political figures and gather forces around them for coping with the crisis.

The bureaucracy-bashing and populist trend of many politicians, and of a host of journalists, has undermined the effective functioning of the bureaucracy, which one could count as one of the hidden causes of the confusion in crisis management.

Kazuo Ogoura, a political science professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, is president of the Japan Foundation.


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