The DPJ, the Bureaucrats, and the Policymaking Process


During its two years in power, the Democratic Party of Japan has sought to eradicate the LDP-era relationship between senior politicians and the bureaucracy. But excluding civil servants from the policymaking process has only led to confusion. Resolving this confusion should be a major priority for the new Noda administration, says Makihara Izuru, professor of public administration at the Graduate School of Law, Tōhoku University.

Yes, Prime Minister, a play based on the 1980s BBC television series of the same name, opened in London this summer. As in the original TV program, the story features the interaction between a prime minister called Jim Hacker and his cabinet secretary, Humphrey Appleby. The original 1980s program depicted a government operating with a fragile base of authority in the post-oil-crisis period; the stage version shows a prime minister and cabinet reeling under the impact of the fiscal crisis that struck the European Union in 2011.

In an article in the program for the play, Bernard Donoughue, a policy advisor to the Labour governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan who was one of the script writers’ main sources of information during the making of the television series, comments on the way the government was run during the premiership of Tony Blair, who became prime minister in 1997. Donoughue remarks that the Yes, Prime Minister TV series had a huge impact on the younger generation of parliamentary secretaries and cabinet ministers who worked under Blair, and made them determined not to be manipulated by civil servants the way Jim Hacker was on the program. Accordingly they started to make systematic use of outside advisors. Meanwhile, the civil service started to give more consideration to efficiency and service after the administrative reforms implemented under Margaret Thatcher. Nevertheless, Donoughue notes that the civil service, particularly its senior members, has continued to wield decisive influence at Downing Street (the prime minister’s office).

The Dramatic Change in the Politician-Bureaucrat Relationship

Two years have passed since the Democratic Party of Japan ousted the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party and took power on a platform that called for “politician-led government.” So far, following the governments led by Hatoyama Yukio and Kan Naoto, the relationship between the bureaucracy and senior politicians is following a course similar to that seen in Britain over the past three decades. In the first two years of their rule, the Democrats took steps to eradicate the politician-bureaucrat relationship of the LDP years. This was a form of shock treatment designed to force bureaucrats to give up the way of thinking they had grown used to during the LDP era, and many of the measures taken by the DPJ ended up acting as obstacles to the formation of a new policy.

First, the drastic change in the role of the deputy chief cabinet secretary limited the ability of the Kantei (the prime minister’s office and residence) to play a coordinating role among all the ministries. Instead this role was played by the administrative vice-minister of finance, who was responsible for drafting the budgets. Despite considerable difficulties, the DPJ administrations did manage to get the budgets for fiscal 2010 and 2011 (years starting in April) drafted by the end of the previous calendar year and enacted before the start of the new fiscal year. This was made possible by the cooperation of the Ministry of Finance.

Also, since individual ministries are unable to make use of policy advisors, the senior politicians in each ministry—the minister, senior vice-ministers, and parliamentary secretaries—attempted to make policy by themselves, excluding the bureaucrats from the process. But the people filling these three positions are not policy experts, and it has proved impossible for them to come up with policy proposals without involving the bureaucrats. The approach ended up creating needless confusion in the ministries.

As a result, the DPJ government has been accused of dancing to the tune of the Ministry of Finance, and there has been mounting criticism of the chaos and disorder of the policymaking process. Emblematic of these trends are the two most recent prime ministers: Kan Naoto and his successor Noda Yoshihiko, both of whom became prime minister after serving as minister of finance and who issued calls for fiscal rehabilitation, the issue that has long been at the top of the MOF’s agenda.

In fact, however, the confusion set in earlier, under the LDP governments led by Abe Shinzō and his successors, when alarming levels of disorder came to light in the public pension system, including lackadaisical recordkeeping that resulted in failure to credit many participants for the contributions they had paid. It would be no exaggeration to say that the DPJ merely inherited a set of problems that the LDP cabinets had been unable to resolve. What is important is to find a way out of this morass regardless of which party is in power.

The End of Bureaucrat Bashing

The biggest result of the DPJ’s “politician-led government” so far has been the virtual end of the practice of “bureaucrat bashing.” During the era of LDP rule, there was a tendency to pin the blame on the bureaucracy whenever things got sticky. It was this that served as the impetus for moves to reform the civil service system. Needless to say, the ultimate responsibility for confusion in government affairs rests with the politicians in power. Attempting to shift the blame to the bureaucracy represented an admission by the LDP that it was essentially practicing “bureaucrat-led government.” This tendency came to an end after the DPJ came to office, with its advocacy of government led by elected politicians. The only notable exception was the case of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry in the wake of the March 2011 earthquake and nuclear plant disaster. Time and again it has become clear that the true responsibility for the confusion in policy lay with the LDP as the former ruling party. The advent of a mature two-party system has finally made it clear where responsibility for government affairs lies.

That said, since the March earthquake the bureaucrats have once again begun to take the initiative in proposing recovery measures and reconstruction policies. And since coming to office in September, the Noda administration has inaugurated a system under which bills are considered by the DPJ’s Policy Research Committee or at a meeting of top government and party leaders before being submitted to the Diet. The administration is also aiming to build cooperative ties between the senior politicians and the bureaucrats in each ministry. In addition, it now looks likely that the former system of holding meetings of the administrative vice-ministers to deliberate government bills before they are submitted to the cabinet for approval will be revived. In other words, the DPJ is moving to introduce elements of the LDP-era policy decision-making system into its own system of “politician-led government.”

Finance Mandarins Forming Fiscal Policy Proposals

Meanwhile, the mandarins of the Ministry of Finance, spooked by the sovereign debt crisis affecting several major economies and the record-high level of the yen, seem to have been incorporating plans for reconstruction-related tax hikes and strategies for fiscal rehabilitation into the basic policies of the new Noda government; indeed, the first moves in this direction were seen even before the change of prime ministers. Bureaucrats probably started putting together their own ideas for fiscal policy in the days after the March earthquake, when the Kan administration was directing all its attention to the nuclear disaster.

These moves by the DPJ and the bureaucracy have the support of broad sections of the public, as evidenced by the high approval ratings for the Noda cabinet immediately after its inauguration. The possibility of a dissolution of the House of Representatives and an early general election has receded, and the government seems to be working according to a political schedule based on the two-year period remaining in the terms of the current lower house members. The question is: How can bureaucratic initiative be made part of a system in which elected political leaders take proper responsibility for their performance. Will the administration succeed in conducting transparent deliberations of policy proposals submitted by the bureaucracy and, if it judges them worthwhile, in carrying out the necessary negotiations with the opposition to get the proposed legislation through the split Diet? It is no exaggeration to say that the coming two years will be a turning point for Japanese politics.

(Originally written in Japanese.)

Kan Naoto Noda Yoshihiko Democratic Party of Japan Liberal Democratic Party Tony Blair Margaret Thatcher Hatoyama Yukio politician-led government politician-bureaucrat relationship politician bureaucrat Ministry of Finance Abe Shinzō split Diet