Can the DPJ legislate a new relationship with the bureaucracy?

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives began debate on the Hatoyama cabinet’s bill revising the National Civil Service Law, the first of three cabinet bills intended to introduce political leadership to be considered in the Diet (the others being bills establishing the national strategy bureau and increasing the number of sub-cabinet political appointees).
If passed, the revision will, among other things, introduce a Cabinet Personnel Bureau (CPB) attached to the Cabinet Secretariat. The cabinet will be able to control the promotion of senior civil servants — administrative vice ministers, division chiefs, and section chiefs — with the cabinet selecting senior bureaucrats from a list with an eye towards not just ability but also the willingness to perform, as suggested by Sengoku Yoshito, Hatoyama’s administrative reform czar in an interview in Asahi‘s Globe section. The expectation seems to be that the government would move senior officials laterally, away from their “home” ministries, in the hope of overcoming compartmentalized administration. When asked whether appeals to expertise could render the revision a dead letter, Sengoku questioned whether the Kasumigaseki’s level of expertise is as high as assumed, although when pressed he suggested that perhaps the Finance Ministry’s budget bureau will enjoy a certain degree of insulation. Another reform included in the bill would enable the CPB to demote officials.
Looking over this plan — which shares certain features with plans for a basic law produced under by the LDP, and which has in fact been criticized by the LDP and YP leader Watanabe Yoshimi for being weaker than the Aso government’s plan — it is unclear to me what exactly the government hopes to achieve. Sengoku stresses the importance of overcoming compartmentalization. This plan may be effective to this end, but I wonder whether it raises other problems in its place.
Under the Thatcher government, the British civil service faced a prime minister who intervened aggressively in civil service personnel administration, which had perverse consequences for the civil service. Traditionally, the job of British civil servants was to provide advice and options for ministers as they went about implementing the cabinet’s program as outlined in the party’s manifesto. Bureaucrats would push back against ministers, they would do their best to dissuade ministers from making poor choices, but ultimately they served political leaders as a matter of professional duty. Under Margaret Thatcher, bureaucrats became more circumspect about the advice they dispensed to political leaders as prospects for promotion became linked to sticking with the government’s program, and were more inclined to tell ministers what they wanted to hear instead of offering frank advice. In other words, security in office for civil servants was linked to the quality of service that they provided political leaders. Colin Campbell and Graham Wilson consider the changes that occurred under the Thatcher government to have been so consequential as to have marked the “end of Whitehall.”
Accordingly, it is unclear from this legislation how the government intends to ensure that the bureaucracy will provide quality guidance to the government when the bureaucrats will have incentives to please political leaders.
I understand why the Hatoyama government feels obligated to enshrine reform in law, as it gives the government’s reform agenda a symbolic permanence that it otherwise lacks. And it it is understandable why in the near term the Hatoyama government wants to be able to control senior-level personnel appointments. It needs to sever whatever links remain between the bureaucracy and the ancien regime. Under LDP rule, after all, the LDP and the bureaucracy developed a symbiotic relationship, in which the party preserved the prerogatives of the bureaucracy while the bureaucracy served as a policymaking staff for the party and cooperated with LDP backbenchers’ desires to direct national resources to particularistic ends. To build a new system that DPJ needs to be able to forestall sabotage, shirking, or foot dragging on the part of the bureaucracy.
But I would argue that the most effective reforms to the policymaking process have been those that have limited interaction between bureaucrats and backbenchers, and intra-party reforms that have sharply limited the ability of backbenchers to participate in policymaking. Without being able to play backbenchers off against the cabinet, bureaucrats have already had to accommodate DPJ rule to an extent that few expected.
As for the goal of building a politically neutral civil service that dutifully serves the government of the day, perhaps the only way to build such a civil service is regular changes in ruling party. The British civil service has been described as “politically promiscuous,” willing to serve any government even when successive governments have contradictory aims.  If there is not regular alternation in power, the bureaucracy will wind up simply shifting its loyalties to the new long-term ruling party, bending to the interests of the ruling party instead of dispensing guidance with an eye towards national and public interests.
In short, the process of building a new policymaking system will require at least as much change in the minds of actors in the system as change in formal institutions, if not more. As the DPJ comes to see the bureaucracy not as a hostile remnant of the ancien regime but as the source of expert advice, as the bureaucrats come to recognize the legitimacy of a government in power on the basis of a public mandate for its electoral program and come to recognize that there is a realistic chance of a different party with a different program taking power, the system will change to something approximating top-down political leadership. The new system will not come about through bullying the bureaucracy — except perhaps in very rare instances — but through the bureaucracy’s recognizing the role it has to play in the new system, and the DPJ’s (and whatever ruling party succeeds it) recognizing that no advanced industrial democracy functions without an effective civil service.

2 thoughts on “Can the DPJ legislate a new relationship with the bureaucracy?

  1. It’s clear Japan is not just new at sausage making, but that the concept is “foreign”. And as all borrowed English words are transformed and gain usage as totally unrecognizable words, so do borrowed concepts. Borrowed concepts are simply reshaped and retooled until the Japanese minds can finally make sense of them. The Japanese will agree with you their use of the borrowed concepts are absolutely wrong, but they will go ahead and do what they always do, because they need to make sense of the world to themselves.


  2. Len Schoppa

    Tobias, do you have any plans to write up your observations on the DPJ's reforms of the cabinet and bureaucracy in the form of a traditional, published article? Would be great to be able to share your views of what is happening in a coherent form with undergrads in a Japanese politics class.


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