Good intentions are not enough

Yomiuri reports that the prime minister’s Advisory Group on Comprehensive Reform of the Public Service System, chaired by Okamura Tadashi of Toshiba, has issued its final report containing recommendations for reforming the Japanese bureaucracy.

The report, available for download here, contains a number of good suggestions, in pursuit of seven goals: (1) outlining the appropriate role for bureaucrats in a parliamentary system; (2) hiring and training bureaucrats with skill sets appropriate for the global age; (3) changing the ethos of the bureaucracy so that bureaucrats act as the servants of state and people; (4) retaining world-class personnel; (5) removing the barriers between people and bureaucracy; (6) creating better work-life balance for bureaucrats; and (7) the creation of a central agency to manage government personnel.

Yomiuri calls special attention to the advisory group’s call for the creation of a new class of career specialists — a “national strategy staff” — that would be responsible for advising cabinet ministers and the Cabinet Secretariat on legislation. Good idea, maybe, but I’m not clear on how these specialists would be insulated from the ministries that they would serve. What guarantee is there that the guidance they would provide to ministers would be more “national” than that provided by bureaucrats today?

Much of the report focuses on the challenge of making new bureaucrats, and seems particularly keen on hiring more bureaucrats mid-career. (And finding personnel who have skill sets for the twenty-first century.)

Undoubtedly with the political situation in mind, the report calls for legislation creating the personnel agency in next year’s regular Diet session and demands implementation of reform legislation within the next five years.

There is no question that the bureaucracy is in need of substantial reform. But simply hiring better people is not enough. To quote Federalist #51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” No matter how good the “new bureaucrats” can be, they will not be angels (or geniuses). They will still be vulnerable to corruption and incompetence. They will still stonewall politicians or pervert policy on behalf of their ministries.

Any administrative reform without reforms designed to foster a culture of accountability will ultimately be disappointing.

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