Monday, March 24, 2008

Regional decentralization is out of reach, for now

Bad news for Aso Taro: progress towards substantial decentralization may be impossible to realize.

So says the government's Prefectural Integration Vision consultation group, which released an interim report on Monday. The whole report is available for download here, in PDF format.

According to Mainichi, the group — which was formed in January 2007 under Mr. Abe — envisions the implementation of drastic reorganization of the relationship between central and regional governments by 2018, but it also announced that it won't have a final report ready for another two years. One sticking point is how the prefectures are to be reorganized. Not surprisingly, drastically redrawing the geographic boundaries of Japan's regional governments draws opposition from existing prefectural governments and bureaucrats in the central governments. Even the LDP and the government have differing ideas about a reorganization, with the LDP's Headquarters for the Promotion of Prefectural Integration calling for consolidating prefectural and local governments into 10 states and 700-1000 municipalities.

And the government's ministries and agencies are, of course, adamantly opposed to a transfer of authority to regional governments.

It's probably safe to say that without the bureaucracy's approval, regional decentralization will not happen.

As I've noted previously, decentralization could have considerable benefits for Japanese governance by bringing government closer to the people and making it more transparent. But there's a reason why this kind of change happens rarely, if at all. (The last major reorganization of regional governments, of course, was in the early years of the Meiji Restoration.) It is easy for politicians and business leaders to appeal to the example of the Meiji Restoration — not surprisingly, this interim report does — but it is considerably more difficult for political leaders to overcome institutional obstacles and implement Meiji-style reforms in the present political environment.

Who can overcome the opposition that proposals like regional decentralization necessarily attract? (And is there actually a majority in favor of sweeping reform? People may be unhappy with the current political situation, but that does not necessarily translate into support for broad change.)

2 comments:

Willie said...

Why is the issue of rearranging prefectures mixed with decentralizing the national government? Was this an intentional deal-killer, or did they really think it was possible to achieve a new restoration?

Janne Morén said...

Having the bureaucracy able to dictate what the government can and can not do is the tail wagging the dog. As long as that power imbalance is not fixed, other reform is not possible nor meaningful.