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Public Service Reform:
For Calm Discussion without Bashing Bureaucrats

Hiroaki Inatsugu
Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

A capable and efficient "public official group" is a shared asset of the nation

As set out in Article 15 of the Constitution, "(all) public officials are servants of the whole community," and a quality public service system is a shared asset of the nation. According to the purpose of the Constitution, discussion on public service reform should primarily focus on how to build a capable public official group which contributes to service for the nation and local residents.

However, recent arguments by the mass media and the ruling and opposition parties seem to forget this starting point. The media simply keep on bashing bureaucrats to earn a good audience rating. Both the ruling and opposition parties have become populists to be absorbed in "bureaucrat-bashing competition." They do not seem to realize that they are forgetting the purpose of the reform, and thus the result would be reform for its own sake. Those who call for a bit more careful discussion are labeled as "resistors." However, it is the people who will pay for this unprincipled competition in the end.

The public official group, once respected throughout the world for its select few members (many fewer than in other nations), as well as its commitment and capability, is now at the brink of cataclysmic collapse. The spirit and principle of bureaucracy is declining and the public official group is withering.

Politicians decide, bureaucrats follow

Under the Abe administration in 2007, the then minister Watanabe hammered out the public service reform as an eye-catcher for an Upper House election. He advertised his enthusiasm for the reform by establishing two conferences related to the public service reform immediately before the election. However, the "lost pension" issue profoundly influenced the voting behavior of the people, and the LDP suffered a landslide defeat.

In 2008, the Basic Act on Reform of the National Public Service System (hereafter cited as "the Basic Act") was enacted. Its bill was submitted to the Diet without sufficient coordination within the ruling parties. While no analysts expected its enactment, its amendment was surprisingly agreed on with the DPJ, resulting in the enactment of a very equivocal law where the ruling and opposition parties were in the same boat with different ideas in mind.

A behavioral pattern of bureaucracy is to solemnly implement enacted laws. Excellent people from the private sector and governmental ministries were invited to the Secretariat of the Headquarters for the Promotion of Reform of the National Public Service System established in July 2008 to continue every effort for drafting bills wherever and whenever they could. Their struggle is not only highly respectable but also seems pitiful, for the indecisiveness of politicians doubles their hardships. Due to a deadline, they must have planned the structure of the Cabinet Personnel Bureau with a matter of primary importance undecided, namely who would occupy its chief position -- a politician, professional public official or private citizen -- and they also must have drafted the transfer of functions from the National Personnel Authority halfway through discussion on basic labor rights. Moreover, the Secretariat staff must perform their duties under a situation that the nature of the Basic Act they rely on is ambiguous and there is disagreement within both the ruling and opposition parties. Below are some examples.

1) Direction of "leadership of politicians"

First, while "leadership of politicians" is frequently mentioned, politicians seem disoriented.

In the late 1990s, senior vice ministers and vice ministers were introduced and the government delegate system in which bureaucrats respond to Diet questions was abolished to allegedly achieve the leadership of politicians. This reform was modeled after a British-style system. In Britain, a number of parliament members report to the head minister in each governmental ministry as vice and other ministers in charge of various things who decide policies. Professional public officials including high-ranking ones who serve them maintain political neutrality and always serve politicians in principle whether the Conservative Party or the Labour Party takes power. Therefore, politicians are generally not involved in personnel affairs of and below Permanent Under-Secretaries in public offices.

However, in the discussion on the Basic Act and the reform schedule, "political appointment" appeared front and center on the stage, leading to the establishment of "the National Strategy Staff." This aims at, if anything, an American style. However, the United States does not have the parliament cabinet system and its Constitution prohibits Congress members from being administrative chiefs (ministers). Consequently, the Congress members do not participate in administrative offices. In sum, the U.S. system is different from the Japanese and British ones.

The argument since the enactment of the Basic Act has been seeking another expansion of political appointment without reviewing the introduction of senior vice and vice ministers in the late 1990s. As seen later, political appointment is very common in the U.S. and its various harmful effects have been pointed out.

2) Overcoming sectionalism and restricting contact between politicians and bureaucrats

Second, some argue that executive personnel affairs need to be unified to overcome sectionalism.

In general, the parliament cabinet system flows like a water-fall, moving from: the people –› (election) –› parliament members –› (selection) –› the prime minister –› (appointment) –› ministers –› (appointment) –› public officials --- and each part of it has a principal-agent relationship. Governmental ministry officials propose policies, politicians such as ministers and vice ministers decide on them, the prime minister and the Cabinet Secretariat staff coordinate them, and thus most of the harm caused by sectionalism can be resolved. Typical examples include the British style.

In Japan, in contrast, departments of individual governmental ministries draft policies by cooperating with industries and other relevant actors in the society as well as continuing negotiation with special-interest Diet members. "The iron triangle" among politicians, bureaucrats and industries has been established for each of the individual policies. When bureaucrats contact special-interest Diet members prior to the ministers to whom they report, these bureaucrats damage the principal-agent relationship mentioned above. Under this practice, it has been hard for both ministers and the prime minister to exercise their coordination functions.

In order to break this negative chain and restore the original principal-agent stream under the parliament cabinet system, from the people as the sovereign through the prime minister and ministers to bureaucrats, it is essential to restrict contact between bureaucrats and individual politicians, especially special-interest Diet members. However, this restriction faded away during the process of drafting and amending the Basic Act bill. As in Britain, the restriction on contact between politicians and bureaucrats should have been nonnegotiable. Without such restriction, any institutional design of a central personnel agency would not be able to prevent bureaucrats of individual governmental ministries from seeking individual interests, because they would build firm connection with relevant politicians of both the ruling and the opposition parties.

Establishment of a strong central personnel agency: differences between Japan and other developed countries

Other developed countries also have promoted public service reform since the 1980s. Britain has carried out reforms one after another since Thatcher's reform: Three fourths of national public officials were employed by Next Steps agencies and most of the authority to decide personnel and salary affairs was transferred to ministries and the agencies. In New Zealand, substantial authority was transferred to Chief Executives, equivalent to administrative vice ministers of ministries, and they can create a personnel salary system and an organizational structure for their own ministries. In the U.S., federal-government-wide exceptions to personnel management rules are allowed for apolitically appointed professional public officials, and more and more ministries including the DHS and the Pentagon have adopted their own personnel salary systems covering half of the federal government officials in total.

A common element in the public service reform in other countries outlined above is the decentralization of personnel authority among ministries. In Japan, on the contrary, the purpose of the Government-Private Sector Personnel Exchange Center, the Cabinet Personnel Bureau and other measures is to centralize personnel authority in the cabinet. This is against the trend of decentralization in other countries.

Once this has become effective, the next concern will be excessive political intervention in public service personnel affairs. The modern public service system has been seeking to ensure political neutrality of public officials for a long time. Learning a lesson from the tragic outcomes of appointments by personal considerations and the spoils system, we must remember the history of the development of the modern public service system whose basic principle is performance-based evaluation and political neutrality. In Japan, during the era of party politics in the 1920s, frequent power shifts between the two major parties -- the Seiyukai and the Minseito -- resulted in excessively party-driven personnel affairs in most ministries to force many bureaucrats to leave or retire. This ruined administrative continuity and the people paid for it in the end.

A recent notable study on political appointments in the U.S. empirically revealed that highly politicized ministries and agencies show lower performance (Lewis, 2008). The highly politicized FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) dealt with Hurricane Katrina so poorly that many were killed. There is a great deal of evidence that also reveals lower administrative performance caused by the frequent use of political appointments.

Even when focusing on political responsiveness, political neutrality of public officials as well as how to avoid lower organizational performance should be sufficiently taken into consideration in institutional design and operation.

For sloughing off centralized personnel management

In Japanese organizations, the personnel section has strong authority to implement organization-wide regular personnel reshufflings and promotion management without adequately considering the desire of individual employees themselves. This practice is totally opposite to situations in other countries. The public sectors of Britain and the U.S. generally invite applications for vacant positions, except those in military organizations, and potential employees themselves apply for them. Personnel changes take place after the applications. Managers determine whether the positions should be open to only a single department, a single ministry, public officials in general or public recruiting including private citizens.

The organization-wide regular personnel reshufflings are unique to Japan. If this practice remained and the Cabinet Personnel Bureau were allowed to carry out arbitrary personnel changes, it would become an organization wielding enormous power to which no parallel can be found in other countries except in military governments. In fact, the OPM (Office of Personnel Management) in the U.S. is not an agency which unifies high-ranking personnel affairs.

If such reform is to be promoted, it will be necessary to fundamentally revise the traditional practice of arbitrary personnel reshufflings by the personnel section and to consider the invitation of applications as a principle in a new system. In so doing, it is critical to examine to what extent this will work under Japanese employment practices, i.e., centralized personnel management in both the public and the private sectors.


Personnel administration is the core of public administration. It is necessary to recruit, train and make quality public officials work for the national interest. We citizens, as employers, should have the authority and responsibility to monitor them. I ardently hope to have calm discussion on how to build a good public service system as a common asset from the viewpoint of the people.


Michio Muramatsu, ed. Public Service Reform: Based on Development in the U.S., the U.K., Germany and France [Komuin Seido Kaikaku: Bei, Ei, Doku, Futsu no Doko wo Fumaete], (Gakuyo Shobo, 2008)

David Lewis, The Politics of Presidential Appointments: Political Control and Bureaucratic Performance, (Princeton University Press,2008) translated into Japanese by Hiroaki Inatsugu, et al. as [Daitoryo Ninmei no Seijigaku: Seiji Ninyo no Jittai to Gyosei e no Eikyo], (Minerva Shobo, 2009)

Hiroaki Inatsugu
Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

Professor Inatsugu was born in 1958 and graduated from the Department of Law, Kyoto University. He was awarded Doctor of Laws (LL.D.) degree from Kyoto University. After working for the local government, he has held positions including: Assistant Professor of Law at Himeji Dokkyo University, and Professor and Dean of the Graduate Course of Law and Faculty of Law at Osaka City University. He took the current position in 2007.

He is the author of Personnel Strategy for Developing Professional Public Officials [Puro Komuin wo Sodateru Jinji Senryaku] (Gyosei, 2008), Personnel System Reform at Local Governments [Jichitai no Jinji Shisutemu Kaikaku] (Gyosei, 2006), Introduction to Salary of Public Officials [Koumuin Kyuyo Josetsu] (Yuhikaku, 2005), Personnel Affairs, Salary and Local Administration [Jinji, Kyuyo to Chihojichi] (Toyo Keizai, 2000) and Japanese Bureaucratic Personnel System [Nippon no Kanryo Jinji Shisutemu] (Toyo Keizai, 1996), and a co-editor of Comprehensive Reform of Local Governance [Hokatsu-teki Chiho Jichi Gabanansu Kaikaku] (Toyo Keizai, 2003). He is also a co-author of many other books.