Thursday, January 10, 2008

The year of the consumer

Perhaps in response to the DPJ's "consumer ombudsman" proposal — and the realization that urban support will be essential in a general election — the Fukuda government has indicated that the prime minister will announce the creation of a ministerial portfolio for consumer affairs in his policy speech opening the regular session of the Diet on 18 January.

The government's plan will centralize offices for consumer complaints that are currently housed in the ministries of health and welfare, agriculture, forestry, and fisheries, and economy, trade, and industry. Superficially, this proposal preempts the DPJ, with the difference that unlike the DPJ, the government's plan, well, keeps responsibility for consumer affairs within the government.

Nevertheless, it's better that the parties are competing over plans for improving the government's receptivity to consumer complaints than over plans to fling money at farmers and other interest groups.

Meanwhile, the government's expert advisory group on civil service reform, first convened under Prime Minister Abe, will by the end of the month issue recommendations for restrictions on contacts between politicians and bureaucrats. This is one area where ambitious and rigorous restrictions could have far-reaching effects on Japanese governance. These restrictions would strengthen the cabinet at the expense of the LDP rank-and-file and make it more difficult for LDP backbenchers to pervert policy to their own ends.

It's no wonder that the backbenchers are outraged over the proposal, prompting Mr. Fukuda to tread gingerly on this issue. While Mr. Fukuda can ill afford a rebellion, forcing the LDP to accept new rules on politician-bureaucrat relations would allow him to begin recasting the party as an urban, reform party in advance of an election (a difficult, if not impossible task).

3 comments:

Janne Morén said...

Just a note that the idea of an ombudsman (one of very few current Swedish words to become internationalized) is precisely to have an office not tied to the regular government and bureaucracy. An ombudsman is the assigned advocate against those entities misusing their powers, so having such an office a part of those same organizations kind of defeats the whole point.

Janne Morén said...

[sigh - learn not to press big shiny buttons before I'm done. Continuing from my previous comment]

The choice of arguing for an ombudsman's office or for a ministerial portfolio illuminates rather well the difference in understanding of the problem.

A portfolio signals that the "consumer problems" is one of fraudulent manufacturers, dishonest merchants and so on - out of control actors in need of supervision and regulation.

An ombudsman signals that the core issue is that the state is falling down on its job, and effectively taking the interest of manufacturers and merchants over that of the consumers. It says the tools of supervision and regulation are already there but the state is remiss in using it as intended.

It's a subtle difference, but revealing.

Martin J Frid said...

Japan already has pretty strong consumer protection laws. In that sense, Janne is correct that introducing a consumer ombudsman would be a prudent approach.

But if they are trying to make "consumer-friendly" proposals, then a ministerial portfolio could be an important signal to the private sector.

My bet is that they will create a Consumer Agency first, then move on to make a ministerial portfolio later.

However, if they are really serious about this, they will announce on January 18 that they will do both at once (although that will create chaos in the current bureaucracy).